Rev. Adrianne M. Meier
St. Thomas Lutheran Church
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 22:15-22
I can execute one magic trick. Matt taught me to do what called a French Drop. You hold a coin between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand, and then you grab the coin with your right hand, give a little puff maybe a magic word and – ta da! It has vanished. Perhaps I can find it behind your ear or in my pocket. I think the only being I ever actually tricked was our old dog, JJ – teasing him for a moment or two with a treat. My slight sleight of hand. It seems that Jesus has dabbled a bit in coin magic himself – oh, I hope that’s not heretical – but he did use a coin to win an arguments and vanish his opponents. Of course, the argument wasn’t about money, it was about what it means to be made in the image of God.
First grade is when kids learn about coins, I’m a little far from my own elementary education, so I’ve enjoyed overhearing virtual school lessons that remind me that the portrait of Abraham Lincoln wasn’t placed on the penny until the centennial of his birth in 1909. The denarius of Jesus’ time changed with the emperors. Coins were vanity plates; Warren Carter of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma calls them “handheld billboards of imperial propaganda” designed with “busts of imperial figures and inscriptions.” Interestingly, Pharisees didn’t carry coins because the Caesars proclaimed themselves gods, and to carry coins with graven images would be to submit to idolatry. This isn’t the first time Jesus has been asked about taxes and coins and the empire. In chapter 17, Peter is accosted on the street: “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” No sooner does he arrive home than Jesus asks him about it. Jesus’s response makes clear that paying taxes does not mean that one ascribes loyalty to the empire over God. Rather, loyalty to God is paid in other ways, essentially his point in today’s passage: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; render unto God the things that are God’s.” So what is God’s?
If what is due the emperor is that which bears the emperor’s image – the coin; then it follows that what is due to God is that which bears God’s image. And that answer takes us all the way back to the beginning, back to the story of creation, where humankind was created by God in the image of God. We bear the image of God – you and me. Over the question of taxes, Jesus reminds us that it isn’t loyalty to any system – no government, no diet plan, no country club, no political party – no system on earth gives us value; our value was given to us at the beginning of time, when God creates humanity in God’s image.
We shockingly devalue what it means to be the image of God. Among other things, we attempt to limit the image of God to some spiritual realm. Maybe this is because we don’t like the bodies we’re in or because we are cognizant of how much they’ve changed over time or because we’ve felt betrayed by our bodies. This summer, I ran my first 5K on the birthday of my daughter Evelyn; eight years earlier I was sure I would never trust my body again. It is hard when your body breaks to believe this body is made in the image of God. Maybe we also want to limit the image of God to something spiritual because we’re wary of ascribing to God gender or race. Or because we’ve seen so many pictures of Jesus unmoored from time and place and somehow relocated from Jerusalem to Stockholm.
But maybe God really does look like you, even if you are from Stockholm and certainly if you’re from Nairobi or Shanghai or the Onondaga Nation south of Syracuse New York. Maybe we limit God because when we assign God a body we treat it like a snapshot – a changeless photograph of a point in time – instead of like a true, complicated person with achy joints and greying hair. But what if we lean into this instead? What if God needs a hearing aid, an insulin pump, or a shower? What if the idea of being created in the image of God is an invitation to celebrate the fullness of human life on earth – “bane and blessing, pain and pleasure” (as it says in the hymn “In the Cross of Christ I Glory”)?
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a Talmud scholar from the early 3rd century, who once said, “A procession of angels passes before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, ‘Make way for the image of God!’” Who would we be and how would we act if we really believed that every last inch of us was made in the image of God? Who would we be and how would we act if we believed that being made in the image of God was a big deal?
Who would we be and how would we act if be believed it about each other? Nadia Bolz-Weber tells a story about what happened to her hip little church, House for All Sinners and Saints, after she preached a huge community Easter service: the wrong kind of people showed up. Of course, by the wrong kinds of people, she means “normal people” in dockers and polo shirts. She said she really struggled because she thought she was forming a church for people not generally welcomed in a church and these newcomers could be welcomed in any church. She called friends for advice who told her, “”Yeah, you guys are really good at welcoming the stranger when its a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad.” She told the story to her church at a meeting designed to explain to the newcomers what House for All was really about it.
At the meeting, one member stood up and said, “Look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record as saying I’m glad there’s people who look like my mom and dad here, because they love me in a way my mom and dad can’t.” That, to me, is what we’re talking about. We – humanity – are made in the image of God. The image of God is made complete by embracing its entirety.
That leaves us, I think, with one remaining question. If we render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s by paying the taxes Caesar demands, how do we render to God what God demands? In Matthew’s gospel, the answer is simple: it is the text we will hear in two weeks on All Saints’ Sunday – it is the Beatitudes which require of us a life of nonviolent resistance of the systems of this world that are unjust and evil and a life lived for our neighbor. To render to God what is due, is to move beyond simple kindness to working for peace and justice on behalf of the least and marginalized, to make visible the image of
God when it appears in the least and the lowest, and to celebrate the image of God in all people, everywhere.
[While Jesus was telling parables to the chief priests and elders,] The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in his teaching. So they sent their disciples–and some Herodians–to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and that you show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then Jesus said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”
Then Jesus said to them, “Give, therefore, to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
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