RCL Year A, Proper 24
Things have started to get nasty between Jesus and his adversaries. Today is the first of their attempts to confront Jesus and try to trip him up, but there will be more. He’s in Jerusalem now, teaching in the temple. He is in the last week of his life. And the other sects within Judaism, others who have had power and influence over the people, are getting annoyed with him. He’s been telling parables and giving teachings that make it clear his opinion, that those who have been entrusted with the care of God’s people have misused their responsibility, and that God is bringing the ragtag misfits and outcasts into the kingdom ahead of them. Not a message that’s likely to win him friends in high places.
So today the attempt is around money. And it’s a good attempt. The Pharisees come together with the Herodians – a strange combination of groups, first of all, as the Herodians are supporters of the puppet Jewish government put in place by the Roman occupiers, and the Pharisees are purists who despise the Romans. But together they have a good question for Jesus: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? On the Pharisees’ side, you could say this is a real question – some Pharisees felt it was impure even to touch a Roman coin, emblazoned with the image of Caesar on it. Others certainly had qualms about paying tribute to a foreign pagan power. The Herodians, however, are in power because of those pagans. So if Jesus answers, no, it’s not lawful, he delights the Pharisees and other zealots in the crowd who want to throw off the Roman occupation – but the Herodians will go report him for treason. If he says yes, it is lawful, he’s supporting the pagan oppressors, and the crowds will hate him. You can feel the elders salivating, waiting for the answer.
Jesus doesn’t seem to flinch. Hypocrites, he says. Bring me a coin. And they do. What are they doing carrying this coin? They usually claim not to want to touch it. Jesus, it seems, doesn’t carry those coins with him. But they bring one out anyway. Whose head is this, and whose title? Jesus asks. Well, obviously. It’s Caesar, the Roman emperor, the son of God, and the title says something like ‘Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus, great high priest.’ So give what is due to Caesar, and give to God what is due to God, Jesus says. There they are, in the temple, confronting the son of God with a coin that bears the image of the so-called son of God, and they don’t seem to realize what they’re doing.
This is a scripture passage about money. It’s one of many, many times Jesus engages the topic of money. As has often been noted, Jesus talks about and refers to money more often than any other topic, except for the Kingdom of God. 11 out of the 39 total parables Jesus tells in all of the gospels are about money. Strange then that we so recoil from talking about money in church. (And that many churches spend so much time talking about sexuality instead, something that Jesus said, hmm, nothing about.)
But this is also about more than money. It is not, however, about the separation of church and state. Jesus was not upholding the American constitution in first century Palestine. We often want to read backward into the Bible, forgetting just how long ago and different that culture and time were. The idea of private morality vs. public citizenship is not one that culture would have espoused. But the larger point Jesus is making very much hits home with us, and with all people in all times and places. It is about who and what we worship, and where we place our allegiance. Do we worship God? Or do we worship other gods instead?
That gospel is paired today with the story from Exodus, the conversation Moses has with God. God has told Moses that he will not continue on personally with the Israelites through the desert. Remember the story from last week, the incident with the golden calf? The people grew impatient with how long God and Moses were off talking on the mountain together, and asked Aaron to create a new god for them that they could worship more easily. When Moses returned and saw their creation, he burned the calf, put the ashes into water, and made the people drink it. And God was so angry God destroyed some of the people. To prevent this from happening again – since God knows that the people will continue to wander away after other gods of their own making – God says, I’d just better not go with you. Moses argues him into coming, saying, how will everyone know that we are your people, if you aren’t with us? So God agrees. And then Moses talks him into showing himself to Moses – and God does so, though only the slightest glimpse of his back, lest he overwhelm Moses and destroy him too.
The message: God is a dangerous companion. If we love and obey God’s commandments and live as God’s people. if we fulfill our side of the relationship, God is a glorious friend. God is strong and powerful and fiercely loving, and being people of God opens us to the glory of that love. ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,’ says God, ‘and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ God is not something we can put bounds around and manage. But God takes us up into life that is greater than what we can make for ourselves. If we choose other gods for ourselves, it does tend to blow up in our face. You can call that God’s retribution, or you could just call it consequences. Other gods don’t satisfy what we most deeply need. They have a way of taking control of us themselves.
The thing is, there’s a reason we create other gods for ourselves, whether it be money or success or family or a golden calf. We think we can manage those gods. We believe we can be in control of them and make them act the way we want – that they can serve us, rather than the other way around. It’s tangible and understandable, worshiping a god of our own creation. If it’s money, we can see the numbers add up, we can relish the possessions we buy. If it’s success, we can climb the corporate ladder, bask in the praise, enjoy the perks. If it’s family, we can look around the dinner table and see them all there beaming back at us. It’s all so good and so, well, there.
But of course that’s not all those gods do, is it? Money these days doesn’t neatly earn interest and pile up. The numbers have a way of going the opposite direction. We worry, we sweat, we chew our nails and cut our charitable giving. Success is always slippery, here one day, gone the next, depending on the whims of the market and people in power, and on our own vague feelings of well-being. Have we made it, are we still trying to make it, or have we actually failed? We wonder where we are on the ladder. And family, well, family just doesn’t always act the way we want them to. What did we do wrong? Why can’t they be how we want them to be? Suddenly the gods don’t deliver, or rather what they do deliver is control over us. We give them way more than what they’re due.
Give to God what is due to God, Jesus says. The coin with Caesar’s image and title on it, you can give that to Caesar. But look at yourself. Whose image do you bear? Whose title? You are made in the image of God, says the book of Genesis. Your title is, Child of God. You are marked as God’s right from the beginning. In fact, all of creation is, including Caesar and his coins. We want to partition our lives into church and state, public and private, mine and yours, and stay organized in our categories. But those distinctions are false, of our own making. They carry us into that desperate place of struggle and scarcity, of worry and anxiety. We can’t control other people and make them how we want them to be. We can’t control the forces of chance. We can’t control anything, really. Least of all God, which drives us nuts.
All we can do is give God what is already God’s. Let go of our own control issues. Allow God to make more of us. Trust God to manage the money and the success and the family and all of the other stuff we worry over, and lay down our worries. It sounds ethereal, but it can be very practical, as simple as praying before we sit down with our checkbooks, or as we drive to our office, or as we start our day with our kids and spouses: God, I can’t do this by myself. Help. I give myself and all in my life to you, and ask you to do what you will with it. It makes a difference to do this. Try it this week. See what it is like.
Give to God what is due to God. Which is everything.