Jesus’s opponents ask him a trick question. They want to trap him, so they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
This is a loaded question. If Jesus says, “Yes, it is lawful in God’s eyes to pay taxes to the emperor,” he will lose popularity with the people. His numbers will go down in the polls, he will lose political power because the people hated the taxes.
You think you don’t like taxes. At least our taxes pay for roads, schools, fire departments, police departments, disaster preparedness and relief, military, agencies to make sure we don’t have mercury in our spinach and lead in our drinking water and so on. Clearly these institutions are human. So they will fail and the all need improvement. But at least they are accountable to us, because we elect their bosses. In the Roman Empire, there was no accountability. Roman authorities could beat you, put you in prison, even kill you, and if you were not a Roman Citizen, you had no recourse. Meanwhile, your taxes went to pay for the occupying Roman army, which crucified your cousin three years ago when he got caught up in a riot in the marketplace. Your taxes paid for the obscene luxury of the very, very, very rich while your children starved. The people hated the taxes.
On the other hand, if Jesus said, “No, it is not lawful in God’s eyes to pay taxes to the emperor,” the Romans could come and take him away. Those were fighting words.
It was a trick question, a trap, based on the assumptions that money and politics are absolute forces. You know what assumptions do to you and me. As usual, Jesus questions the assumptions. He turns the trap on its head.
Jesus says, “Show me the coin.” They show him the coin that is used for the tax, a denarius, about a day’s wage. “Whose image is here?” He asks, “Whose likeness?” They say Emperor Tiberias. And indeed, the Roman denarius of that time was imprinted with the profile of the emperor Tiberias, just like we have a profile of George Washington on our quarters. We have George Washington on our quarters because, even though he was a human being and therefore fallen and wrong about some things, for us, he also stands for some other things that are important to our identity as a nation, to our politics. For example, telling the truth. “I cannot tell a lie,” we say about George Washington. So when we look at our coin, we remember honesty as part of our identity, part of our politics. That’s a good thing.
When people looked at a denarius, they saw Emperor Tiberius. They remembered Emperor Tiberius was in charge. That’s what they were saying about their politics. Maybe not so much of a good thing.
Also, there is writing around the edge of the denarius, just like we have writing around the edge of our quarters. Our quarters say “E Plurbus Unum.” Which is Latin for “Out of many, one.” Again, says something about our national identity that I believe we would do well to remember these days, I think. “Out of many, one.”
The writing around the Roman denarius was different. It said, “Emperor Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” That meant Emperor Tiberius was son of a god, was divine. The coin was making a claim of divinity for the ruler. It was putting a human being in the place of God. The coin was an idol.
Now, we do not make idols out of our coins these days. The writing around the edge does not claim George Washington or Abraham Lincoln as divinity. But I do think we make idols out of our money and our politics. In Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me,” Luther says that an idol or a god (that’s with a lower case “g”) is anything we fear love and trust above all else.
I think some of us sometimes trust our money. We feel safe because if we feel we have enough money. We feel secure, even significant. Sometimes we might even slip into feeling a little superior because we have money.
Likewise, I think we make a god out of our politics. If our ideas are well represented in the halls of power, or if our people hold office, we feel more secure, like the future is bright, we feel safe and significant, even sometimes, superior.
More often, however, I would submit that we fear our money. We feel unsafe because we don’t think we have enough money. So, we want to get as much money as we can. We want to keep as much for ourselves as possible. We get very angry if we think someone is going to bring it about that we have less money.
Sometimes we can even slip into feeling insignificant if we feel we don’t have money. If we are working two or three jobs and still can’t make ends meet, if we feel crushed by debt, like there is no way out, we can feel like dirt.
Likewise, far more often, I think we fear politics. If our ideas are not well represented in the halls of power, if our people do not hold political office, or if our ideas and people seem unable to do the things we want them to, we feel less safe, less secure, less significant. We can feel like dirt.
Jesus takes a question about money and politics, those two old gods, and as usual, turns it upside down. He says: “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s.”
In other words, yeah, yeah, the emperor does have a certain degree of authority, even if he is a schmuck. But what is God’s? Is not our money God’s? Is not our politics, the emperor, the government, God’s too?
Remember, we’re talking about the real God, with a capital “G,” the one who brings people out of slavery into freedom, out of evil into good, out of brokenness into wholeness, out of death into life. Both money and politics are accountable to this God. And it is our duty as Christians and to hold them accountable to this God.
And for that matter, whose are we?
Various leaders over the ages have been stamped on coins: George Washington, Emperor Tiberius. But whose image is stamped on the core of your being? Was it George Washington’s even with all the good things that he represents? Emperor Tiberius? No? Tell me this, in whose image are you made? Is it President Trump’s image? Is it Angele Merkel’s? Is it Xi JinPing? Kim Jon-Un? Vladimir Putin? No? That’s right. No! The image of God is stamped on you. We are made in the image of God, in the image of this same, real God who brings people out of slavery into freedom, out of evil into good, out of brokenness into wholeness, out of death into life. We are made in the image of that God, as is every other human being on this planet. Every single one.
And what is the inscription written on us? Is it E Pluribus Unum? That’s a good mark, one of various marks that we do well to follow. But what is the mark on our forehead? Is it “Emperor Tiberias, son of the divine Augustus?” Is it Emperor fill-in-the-blank, leader whoever, the divine one?”
No. The inscription on us, marked on our foreheads with the oil of anointing at our baptism is the cross. The cross. We are the people who are a part of God dying for all those people whom God has made. Every single one. That’s who we are. The people of the cross. The people of hope.
So, just to be clear. Money is not divine. It is not a god. Money does not keep us safe and it does not make us who we are. Money is a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver. We learn how to use the tool properly, to serve God by providing for all people, including ourselves, and by celebrating life.
Politics is not divine. It is not a god. It does not keep us safe and it does not make us who we are. Politics is a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver. We learn how to use the tool properly, to serve God by providing for all people, including ourselves, and by celebrating life.
God is God. God keeps us safe. God makes us who we are. By the cross of Jesus, God saves us and makes us a part of God’s work in the world.