Pentecost 20A – October 22, 2017

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21
In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter: “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Both are what’s at stake in today’s Gospel.
It’s early in Holy Week. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a joyful crowd shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Immediately he went to the temple, overturned the tables of the moneychangers, then cured the blind and the lame and in doing so subverted the temple’s economy and purity. Since then he’s been sitting in the temple courtyard, telling stories that are increasingly critical of the religious establishment. Now they have had enough of this wanna-be Messiah and so they go on the offensive. Today we hear the first of three challenges – this one focuses on Caesar and God or to put it in contemporary language, church and state.
Jesus knew something was up just by seeing who was approaching him. The Pharisees and Herodians despised each other and here they are in cahoots. They ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” In first century the Jews Palestine paid a lot of taxes – temple tax, land tax, custom and trade tax, but the one they are asking about is the Imperial Tax. Particularly despised, this tax paid for the Roman Empire’s occupation of Israel. It was a tax of oppression, but not everyone saw it that way. The Herodians, a family political party related to King Herod, benefited from the Imperial Tax. If Jesus were to say, “Do not pay it,” they would report it to the Roman authorities who would arrest him and charge him with insurrection. While the Pharisees did not have much use for this tax, they grudgingly supported it because it help to keep their power secure. However most, if not all, of Jesus’ followers hated the Imperial Tax. It reminded them of their daily humiliation and occupation by the Romans. Surely some shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David” in the hopes that under Jesus’ reign the tax would be eliminated. So, no matter how Jesus answers the question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” he will be caught in a trap.
They thought they had him, but instead of answering, Jesus asks them a question, “Whose face is on the coin?” One of them digs into his pocket pulls out coin, shows it to Jesus and replies, “The emperor’s.” Everyone in attendance knew the commandments. They realized that Jesus had just trapped the trappers in their own blasphemy. That would have been enough, but then Jesus declares, “Give therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s.” But Jesus doesn’t end his there. He pauses, looks his questioners up and down, then right in their eyes and perhaps with a disarming smile adds, “And give to God what is God’s.” He sees the image of God of in them. In fear, they want to lock him up, in faith, Jesus gives them freedom. With just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously called them to a higher accountability and more faithfulness than they imagined possible. He does the same thing with us when he invites us to give to God what is God’s. In other words, to give our very selves.
Bob Dylan who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, sang about this choice in his1979 song, “Gotta Serve Somebody” which he wrote after he converted to Christianity. It was his last hit single and won the Grammy Award for best male rock vocal in that year. It began:
You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
Then the chorus:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Bob Dylan’s right – we all have to serve somebody. The question is who? Will it be the unholy Trinity of “me, myself and I” which in the end always leaves one lost and alone? Will it be a particular political viewpoint, which inevitably falls victim to short-sightedness and fails to see the fullness of God’s creation? Will it be a lifestyle of consumption that leaves us temporarily satisfied until the next new thing comes along? Will it be our families? God’s best gift, but when they become our singular focus, often God’s most disappointing one too. You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Know whoever or whatever it is, you will reflect their image. Who will it be?
Jesus makes it absolutely clear who he serves. It’s God. This is not without struggle. Just a few days after this encounter with this Pharisees and Herodians and right before he is betrayed, he will throw himself on the ground in the garden of Gethsemane and pray, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” But what you want. What God wants. We know what happens next, he’s betrayed with a kiss, arrested, denied, condemned, mocked, stripped, spat upon, hung on a cross, killed. New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright put it this way: “Jesus’ death can itself be seen as Jesus’ own offering, simultaneously, of what was due to Caesar, (for crucifixion was what Caesar did to rebel kings), and what was due to God.” In this simultaneous offering all the Caesar’s of this world are rendered obsolete. For in Jesus’ cross and by his resurrection, “God’s new world is born and claims the kingdoms of the world as its own, because their central and most powerful weapon, death itself, has now been broken.”
I imagine some of you are thinking, “Yes, I get this, we’re to give to God what is God’s – and we know that is everything, but there are still are obligations, taxes to be paid, work to be done, laws to obey.” And you are absolutely right. There are elements in our lives that are part of the world order and should be “rendered to Caesar” as Jesus said. But there are also times when rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s betrays and denies the God in whose image we are made.
An old Bishop from the second century named Polycarp can help us. When he was on trial for his life, he told the Roman governor that as a Christian he’d been taught to give honor to the rulers and authorities appointed by God. But when that same governor demanded that he must curse Jesus Christ and swear “by the Genius of the Emperor” Polycarp responded, “I’ve served Jesus for 86 years and he’s never done me any wrong; how can I curse my King who saved me?” In the face of martyrdom, Polycarp chose to serve Jesus.
“You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” Dylan sang. The question is who will it be? Made in God’s image, we belong to God. We are God’s beloved children. In our baptisms, God marked us with the cross of Christ forever. Believe that. Trust that. Live that. And whenever anyone denies that image in you or in another child of God, challenge that denial with everything you have. It might be a bully that needs to be confronted so he or she can face the anger and hurt in their own souls that is being inflicting upon others. It might be a law that discriminates or a custom that humiliates. It might be abuse, neglect or indifference. Whatever it is, even if it is hidden deep within your own scared self, know that God will always be with you, challenging you, healing you, blessing you. After all, when God looks at us, God sees in us reflections of divine grace and mercy and I am absolutely sure, that makes God smile. Amen.
Eric Shafer, “You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody, Day One, October 22, 2017, http://day1.org/8023-eric_shafer_youre_gonna_have_to_serve_somebody
Ibid.
https://bobdylan.com/songs/gotta-serve-somebody/
N. T. Wright, http://ntwrightpage.com/files/2016/05/Wright_God_Caesar.pdf, page 6.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville