Last week God was very angry with Aaron and the people for making the golden calf to worship while Moses was on the mountain with God. The people were impatient. Maybe Moses had forgotten them. Or maybe God had. We do have a tendency to think that sort of thing when our prayers are not immediately answered in the way we want.
But they did it this time. God was ready to consume them all. Although Moses talked God out of destroying them, God was obviously still very irritated. In the passages between last Sunday and this one, God tells Moses to tell the people that a safe passage will be made for them to pass into the promised land but God will not go up among them, “lest I consume you in the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
But Moses, always willing to talk with God, to argue with God, to even calm God’s anger continues in today’s passage. “If you won’t go with me, who will you send?” God tells him that God’s presence will go with him. But Moses persists: “If your presence will not go with me, do not carry us up from here. For how will the people know that I and your people have found favor in your sight if you are not there?” Moses demands that God show him God’s glory. = not just the presence, but the glory – the visible radiance and majesty of the Godhead.
God tells Moses that not only will the Radiance of the Divine Majesty be shown to Moses but God will proclaim the name “The LORD”.
“I Am Who I Am” was the name revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush when he asked “Who shall I tell them you are?” The actual name of God was so holy that it was not to be said. YHWH was too Holy; rather, the word Adonai (lord or master) or the words LORD or GOD was substituted.
Moses asked for a declaration of God’s presence and God responded not only by showing God’s glory but also proclaiming the name of God. To see God, even if only the back of God, to have the Holy Name proclaimed was an affirmation of Moses belonging to God, doing God’s will.
The Pharisees are a good example of a “stiff-necked people”. They were persistent in trying to entrap Jesus. Today, they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus’ answer? Give to Caesar what is his. Give to God what is God’s.
But did that answer anything? We are today still asking the questions:
What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?
Do we live in a world where our spiritual and secular lives are divided? To many, that answer is yes, yes we do. We have our church life and then we have the rest of our life.
It reminds me of the Prosperity Theology. The idea is that financial blessing/physical well being are the will of God for some people. If we do good, we are given good. Sickness and poverty are caused by lack of faith.
Are you sick? Are you poor? Obviously, your faith is lacking. The result of this thinking is that it keeps people from feeling empathy or compassion for those they do not know who are sick or poor – especially those who live in poverty. Any support offered is for the benefit of the giver more than the one receiving.
Prosperity Theology is a good example of the division between our spiritual and secular lives. God and Scriptures are used to get what the person wants, not spiritually but materially. That idea is the exact opposite of all the teachings of the Gospel, the Epistles, and the Hebrew texts. Scripture points to the idea that God uses the believer, not the other way around.
We can see that the Pharisees question is a political one meant to separate rather than to unite. They were trying to trap Jesus by his own words. His answer would either violate Jewish law or Roman law.
The Roman tax was one imposed upon all the Jews in Jerusalem. But on the coin of Rome was the head of the Emperor of Rome. The denarius had Caesar’s image on it and it also had an inscription calling the emperor the son of god. For a good Jew to carry this coin would have been idolatrous. But the tax had to be paid.
For most of us, if we don’t pay taxes, we can wind up following Jesus from a prison cell. It’s just reality, at least for those of us who can’t afford the loopholes. The same was true then. It was the law of the land.
But is that the main idea of this passage? Give to Caesar’s what belongs to Caesar?
Perhaps Jesus was saying give back to Caesars what is his. The NIV uses the term “give back” rather than simply give. Return it. You don’t need it. Give it back. That is a difficult idea for us to contemplate. How would we exist in a consumer market if we gave back all our money to our government?
Or is the second part more important? What does belong to God?
As I was reading and preparing for this sermon, I ran across an article from 2004 by Rabbi Arthur Waskow from the Shalom Center and he wrote about this passage from a Jewish point of view.
He told this story from the teachings of rabbis who were in the same time frame:
“Our Rabbis taught: Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler Who is beyond all Rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler [like Caesar] makes many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was shaped in the Divine Image … "in the Image of God." And yet not one of them resembles another.
The very diversity of human faces shows forth the Unity and Infinity of God, whereas the uniformity of imperial coins makes clear the limitations on the power of an emperor.”
He said to read the Gospel story as it is written in Matthew. But then he retold the story adding one line and a simple gesture.
"Whose image is on this coin?" asks Jesus.
His questioner answers, "Caesar’s!"
Then Jesus puts his arm on the troublemaker’s shoulder and asks, "And Whose Image is on this coin?"
Perhaps the troublemaker mutters an answer; perhaps he does not need to. Not till after this exchange does Jesus say, "Give to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is Gods."
Jesus purpose was not to divide the material and spiritual. He was simply saying look at the coin. Does it reflect the image of God?
What then, if we remember that the first human – adam – was made in the image of God and as a result, we all are made in that image of God? How does that affect our understanding of “Give to God what is God’s?”
What if Jesus is calling us to be active in our understanding of our sacred diversity, of the many ways in which God’s image is offered to us? What if, as the Rabbi suggests, that we are being called to not only look at but affirm our differences even as Caesar “tries to reduce us to uniformity?”
“The very diversity of human faces shows forth the Unity and Infinity of God...”
Look at one another. Look around the room. See the diversity of our faces. Understand it is the divine diversity of the image of God. In that image, there is a Oneness, in spite of the diversity, simply because we all are in that image of God.
What if Jesus is calling us to a deeper understanding that we are called to a more profound commitment to follow God? A radical understanding of belonging to God? Like Moses. What about an even more radical understanding that we belong to one another simply because we love God, God loves us, therefore we love one another with all our differences? Not in spite of but because of those differences?
Giving to Caesar’s what is his suggests that we all act the same as Caesar, think the same, even in our religious practices. But, giving to God what is God’s is understanding that there are many differences with only one sameness – and that is, God.
When we expect all to conform to an idea, a belief, a practice we hold as our own, or a race we are, we open the room to division, not unity. Because that division makes it into Us and Them.
To be divided because of differences is more closely in line with following Caesar as if Caesar was truly the son of god. And that is a total subversion of Jesus’ intention.
To fear another because we do not recognize our own self within that other one is to fully profane the idea of God. It is not our own likeness that we should seek.
It is no wonder that God was so angry and put out with the people of Israel that the only thought was to consume them. How many times throughout history has God wanted to consume the human race, even as it is made in God’s own image? We are a stiff-necked people, prone to our projections of grandeur, our sense of self-righteousness, our pronouncements of superiority. We are stubborn and selfish, greedy and impatient. We are weak and yes, we are stupid. Too often we practice our religion as though we think that if we pray enough or give enough or give a little to the poor that we will be rewarded with wealth and good things.
There is a major faultline in that thinking. It threatens to destroy all for which we yearn. That Peace which passes all understanding does not come to us through material wealth. Peace as we desire it – that is, trouble leaving us – does not belong to those of us in this Christian faith. Wealth does not either, for that matter. Moses certainly had little peace or wealth. Neither did Jesus. We are not told to go and reap the harvest and save it for ourselves in case we need it later. We are told to give, then give more. We are told to love, and then love more. And then we are told to love even more.
Some might call it irresponsible to preach these words. What if someone gives all that they have to poor Joe standing by the highway and then that person has nothing left to live on? Should we do that? I cannot say.
I obviously have not.
But I pray for those who have no home, or are underhoused. I pray for those who are hungry. I work towards righting those injustices that cause people to be without their basic needs being met. I try to remember that words and actions matter. I know we can’t just show up. We have to DO. So I do.
Most of all, I remember that today, I am living in the kingdom of God. Now. Right now. I belong to God, I yearn for God. All I am is for God. Therefore, all my actions have to reflect that. I don’t always succeed but I try. Is that enough? I hope so.
As we gather at this table, to be One in the body of Christ, we do so as individuals made in the image of God called into being with one another and with God. And then we will go out in the name of the Most High and Holy One into the world, as individuals made in the image of God to be with others made in that Divine Image to do the work of that Divine One.
Give to God what is God’s. Remember that we are to love God above all other things, first and foremost and lastly. Remember that we are to love one another as God loves us. And just as importantly, remember that you are loved by the One in whose image you are created.
Give to God what is God’s.
God & Caesar: The Image on the Coin, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 10/6/2004