Sunday, October 22, 2023

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

“Render unto Caesar” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Exodus 33:12-23, CEB)
Gospel Reading (Matthew 22:15-22, NIV)

Not far from my great-grandparents’ tiny village in the Scottish Lowlands lies a larger town by the name of Linlithgow. The main reason people visit Linlithgow these days is to see its royal palace, which has stood there for the better part of a millennium. The building’s claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of two Scottish monarchs, James the Fifth and Mary, Queen of Scots. And I know this because it said so on the sign out front.

The fact that folks continue to visit Linlithgow Palace is interesting because the place definitely ain’t what it used to be. Because no king or queen has lived there since the seventeenth century, it hasn’t been taken care of very well for the past four hundred years. A fire during the eighteenth century destroyed the roof, among other things, and it’s pretty much gone downhill ever since.

But I think that it’s still worth seeing. Among the people who agreed with this sentiment were Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, who made a point of dropping by Linlithgow Palace for a tour when they were in town in the late eighteen hundreds.

Victoria and Albert were so inspired by their visit, in fact, that they decided to take the time to carve the Latin version of their initials, VR and AP, into the giant stones on the top story of the building for future generations to behold (though, truth be told, they probably had their servants do the actual work for them).

And why would they choose to vandalize this ancient building, one might ask? The most obvious answer is, “Because they could.” I mean if you or I tried to chisel our initials up there, we’d be arrested on the spot and the damage would be repaired quickly. But Victoria and Albert were royalty, so tourists more than a hundred years later make a point of going to pay homage at the scene of their crime.

And since Victoria was the reigning British monarch, the place pretty much belonged to her, so another possible motivation for this royal graffiti might have been to remind anyone and everyone for posterity’s sake who was in charge.

Why would they choose to do this in Latin? I seriously doubt it was because they felt the need to try and throw people off their trail; it was probably because it made the art (and thus the artists) appear more important. I know I’ve said this on numerous occasions, but everything just looks and sounds significant when it’s in Latin.

And that’s what this is really all about, isn’t it? Seeming important, putting your indelible mark on something for all the world to see, making sure that people know you matter.

The rich and the famous and the powerful seem especially good at making this happen. Maybe it’s not because they are any more or less inclined to do so than the rest of us are; maybe it’s simply because they actually have the means to pull it off and get away with it. The result has been an endless stream of libraries and stadiums and money with important peoples’ names and faces emblazoned upon them.

Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus, Pontifex Maximus. This would likely have been the inscription on the coin that Jesus requested from the Pharisees who were questioning him in today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel. “Tiberius Caesar, lordly son of the divine Augustus, high priest” is what it would have said if it were written in English. For the record, Tiberius was the Roman emperor during Jesus’s time here on earth.

The eight words on this coin weren’t printed in Latin in order to make Caesar seem more important; they were printed in Latin because that just so happened to be the language of the Empire. But, make no mistake about it — their appearance on that otherwise worthless piece of metal was meant to convey, in no uncertain terms, the idea that Caesar was in charge. And the picture of him that also appeared on this coin served to emphasize this essential point.

All of this wouldn’t have sat too well with those Pharisees who were questioning Jesus. The emperor’s portrait, the reference to his divinity, the acknowledgment of his role as high priest, would have been unbelievably offensive to their Jewish piety. At the very least, this one tiny coin was a clear violation of both the first and second commandments — you know, the ones about having no other Gods, and neither making nor worshipping false idols. Oh, and the Pharisees were the religious authorities, the high priests, of their faith.

And so it’s kind of strange that they’re able to locate one of these coins so quickly and easily when Jesus asks them for one. Indeed, the fact that they are willing to disobey the law, their covenant with God, by possessing or even coming into contact with such a sacrilegious item in the first place betrays their own hypocrisy — which Jesus is more than willing to point out to them here. But they’re far too focused on other things to have given this much thought.

The Pharisees are more concerned with trying to set a trap for Jesus; that’s what their seemingly innocuous question here really is, after all. The Pharisees have even enlisted the support of their sworn enemies, the Herodians — who were supporters of King Herod and the Roman Empire that put him in power — in order to help them accomplish this goal. As they say, politics makes strange bedfellows.

While the Herodians had no particular horse in this religious race, they wanted Jesus gone for their own reasons; he was, after all, disrupting the entire order of things that helped them to achieve and maintain power. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” is what the men of this strange alliance ask him.

Now, Jesus, being Jesus, understands exactly what is going on here and he decides to call them on it: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” is how Jesus responds to their loaded question. Because Jesus also knows that there isn’t a straightforward answer that isn’t going to get him into really big trouble.

If he says that it’s fine to pay taxes to the emperor, then he’d incur the wrath of the Jewish people who had big problems with this — the tax they were being asked to pay was used to fund the Roman army that occupied Israel; in other words, the Jews were being compelled to foot the bill for their own oppression. So, if Jesus were to reply “yes” here, then it would appear as if he were approving of this abhorrent practice.

But if Jesus were to reply “no” here, declaring that it’s wrong to pay taxes to the emperor, then he’d be accused of treason and turned over to the Roman authorities. It seems that he really can’t win.

And so what Jesus does next is pretty darned clever. He asks the Pharisees to produce a denarius, the aforementioned coin with the emperor’s name and picture on it that was used to pay the Roman tax. And, as I said earlier, the fact that they can do this without even batting an eyelash — in violation of the very commandments they themselves profess to follow — speaks volumes about who they really are and what they really stand for.

Then Jesus said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [Or, if you happen to prefer the King James Version, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.]

When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. [Which is really just Bible-speak for “they took off because they didn’t know what the heck else to do.]

Their inability to respond makes perfect sense, because what Jesus does in this exchange is reframe the entire nature of the debate. In conceding that this insignificant little piece of metal — with Caesar’s name and image on it — belongs to Caesar, Jesus’s reply to the Pharisees and Herodians actually implies a much bigger question, and it’s one that Jesus doesn’t even have to ask. That question is this: So, what bears God’s image and thus belongs to God? 

The answer, of course, is us.

Don’t you see? The Caesars of all places and times can stamp their pictures and their names on all the coins and other stuff they want, trying to creating a sense of fear or envy or adoration or awe or respect in people, and this will never even come close to what being made in God’s image can and should inspire in each and every one of us:

a spirit of gratitude for the grace we have received — one that impels us to dedicate our lives and our very selves to serving God as God calls us to do — by loving God and our neighbor as ourselves.

In our tradition, when we baptize someone with water, in the name of the Creator, the Son and the Spirit, we also mark them with the sign of Christ, acknowledging that they belong to him forever; and we celebrate that the Holy Spirit will forever be upon them because they are a child of God.

We are God’s children. We are, we have been, and we always will be God’s beloved. We and God are inseparable.

And that’s what this is really all about, isn’t it? Recognizing that we’re important because we’ve been made in God’s image;

understanding that God’s likeness is upon us for all the world to see; knowing in our hearts and minds and souls that we matter because we first mattered to God.

And for this we should give thanks. Amen.