A Sermon For The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Preached at Prince of Peace, Wasaga Beach, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, October 22nd 2023
Readings – Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (M 22:21)
I’m not sure that anyone in Jesus’ day believed that the Roman Emperors were actually gods, but it was useful for the Romans to pretend that they were. Even Roman money said as much. The coin that is produced at Jesus’ request was most likely a denarius (about a day’s wages for a poor working man) bearing the image or picture of the emperor, Tiberius, and it called him “the Son of the Divine Augustus”, meaning that he was the son of God.
As I said, I doubt that anyone sensible in the Roman empire believed this nonsense (if emperors were in fact gods, why were so many assassinated?) but it was useful propaganda. If the emperor was a god, then everything in the world belonged to Rome. Slaves, conquered lands and their peoples, the money in you purse, all belonged to Rome. If money came from Rome, then Rome could take it back whenever it wanted, which is why in Mathew the denarius is called “tribute money” – even the money praises Rome.
Jesus’ opponents knew all this well, which is why they try to trap Jesus. They knew that Jesus had taught that their God the God of Israell, the creator of all, was above all other so called Gods (as any faithful Jew would have said), so if he had said there should be no taxes, especially taxes paid with blasphemous and idolatrous coins, then they could report Jesus to Rome as a rebel and troublemaker.
However, if Jesus said no, it’s ok to pay taxes to Rome, then he was contradicting his teaching and they could bring him down a few pegs in popular opinion. Either way, Jesus’ opponents would win.
Jesus does not fall into their trap. His answer might seem evasive, but in fact, as the biblical scholar Yung Suk Kim notes, it’s a very wise and humane response. Jesus grew up in poor Galilee, he knew that hard working families had to get by and survive, even if it meant forfeiting some of their wages as taxes to the Roman empire.
Earlier Jesus had told his followers to trust God to give them what they needed. Jesus said that we should “strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all [necessary] things will be given to you” (Mt 6.33).
So, anyone who knew anything about Jesus’ teaching would have realized that he was admitting the reality of Caesar, but he was pointing to the far greater reality of God, the maker and provided of all. God, Jesus was saying, is far above any Caesar, and unlike Caesar, who only took, God loves and provides all God’s children.
As for how to live between these realities, Jesus leaves that up to his followers. It’s up to use to recognize the would-be gods and emperors of our own age, and to live amongst them in a way that is faithful to our God, the creator, and to his son who shares our human image. It’s up to us to recognize that power and prestige do not flow from money, and that the billionaires are not the Caesars of our day.
Jesus would have known that the image on the denarius was a lie. It was not the image of a God, only a proud and cruel man. If we want to see the true image of God, we can see it in those around us, image bearers of the divine, whose humanity Christ understood and shared. We can see one another with eyes of compassion, and see what we have with a gracious recognition that whatever we have that matters, it comes from God, and can be shared.
You, dear people of Prince of Peace, understand this well. You know the value of the things you hang on you sharing line, of the food that you donate to the food bank, and you know the value of the time and money that you give to keep this small but mighty church going. And so it is that very day as Christians, God leaves it up to us to to decide, what do I need, and what must I share? For, as I said to the children, “all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee”.