Sermon: Icons

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what 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 he 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Matthew 22:15-22

My sermon from the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2023) on Matthew 22:15-22.

Two weeks ago, something I heard a lot was the phrase: “I have cash if it’s easier.” I was, once again, co-leading an elementary school’s Scholastic Book Fair and many remembered how temperamental the registers can be. My working theory  is that the whole fair is focused on kids as the buyers. The machines have no problems processing all the singles, fives, tens, and twenties needed to buy the latest copy of Dog Man or one of the dozens of books entirely devoted to sharks. But since the fair I run occurs after school, we have to accept and process gift certificates, online prepaid accounts, free book vouchers, Visa, Discover, Master Card,  American Express, Apple Pay, Benjamins, Jacksons, and all kinds of coins. Every transaction is its own kind of adventure since we’re never quite sure how someone will pay. And while the cash did flow, money we couldn’t see was how most people bought their books. For a while now, our wealth has been defined by a series of 1s and 0s. Yet it’s only in the last decade or so when using physical money can make a financial transaction harder than it needs to be. Many of us, I’m sure, have a friend – or maybe we are that friend – who never has the physical cash needed to split a check, buy a book at a book fair, or even toss a coin in a wishing well. So when Jesus asked if anyone around him had a bit of cash, that’s an experience we can relate to. But instead of paying for his portion of the check, Jesus responded to a question wondering how we should split our lives. And before he even answered the question, he asked for a small metal silver prop that had the face of the Roman Emperor on it. 

The context for today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew frames the entire story which is why, week after week, I keep bringing it up. Jesus, at this point in Matthew’s story, was living through what we call “Holy Week.” He had, days before, arrived in the city of Jerusalem on a donkey while a small crowd waved palm branches in the air. Jesus presented himself as a humble king who then immediately went to the Holy Temple. The Temple had recently been expanded by King Heord and there was a tradition of allowing all kinds of religious teachers from the many different flavors of Judaism to preach, teach, and talk about God during the festival of Passover. Jesus wasn’t the only itinerant preacher hanging out in the Temple but he was one of the more disruptive ones. The religious leaders in the city kept asking Jesus what he was doing. And Jesus, being Jesus, responded by telling stories centered on the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words and actions weren’t designed to be peaceful and those who disliked him felt like they had to do something before the legion of Roman soldiers patrolling the city took matters into their own hands. The religious leaders sent their disciples to Jesus, hoping Jesus would say something they could use to turn others against him. And since they were in a place where Jesus had tossed out the money changers and merchants who provided pilgrims with the animals and the correct kind of currency they needed to worship at the Temple – they asked Jesus about money and wealth. 

There are several different ways to enter this story and I’ll admit I initially focused on the t-word since my quarterly property tax payment left my mortgage’s escrow account earlier this week. But before we focus on the question Jesus was asked, I wonder if we should lean into what Jesus asked them. Jesus said, “show me the coin used for paying the tax,” which, to me, implied Jesus didn’t have one. Now throughout the Bible, it’s difficult to know if Jesus regularly carried any cash at all. For example, when he sent his followers out to do God’s work in the world, he told them to leave all their money behind. On one level, this was a bit silly since Jesus and the disciples relied on the monetary support of others – especially women – to travel the land while preaching and teaching. But it does show how Jesus had a rather nuanced take when it came to living within the economic structures that existed in his world. He was, like all us, part of that world – experiencing how we use money to proclaim who has valued, who matters, and to add additional meaning to our lives. Yet when he needed a coin to illustrate a lesson he wanted to share, he had nothing in his pocket. Jesus, I think, was doing more than simply being that friend who never seems to have cash when they need it. He, instead, did his best to live outside of the economics of the Empire. Stanley Hauerwas, in a commentary about this passage, wondered if the reason why Jesus wasn’t carrying the coin was because it was etched with an image of the Roman Emperor himself. Rather than carrying a symbol of wealth and power that proclaimed how the emperor was divine, the son of gods, and was destined to control the entire world – Jesus lived as if there was another way to be. That choice is, I think, a bit easier for the one who could heal the sick and feed thousands with only a few loaves of bread. Yet the absence of the denarius in Jesus’ own hand is something we should reflect on even though many of us rarely have any physical money at all. 

When we pay attention to what Jesus didn’t have, we realize how his answer to the crowd wasn’t an illustration of the separation between church and state or even a commentary on the righteousness of taxes themselves. It was, instead, a call to a deeper kind of discernment wondering why we’re holding onto this money in the first place. This is a deep and difficult question to answer since money does shape and transform our lives. The lack of money or even the abundance of it often determines how we interact with each other and with God. Jesus wasn’t asking those in front of him to make a checklist about what they can give to God and to Caesar. He was, as we heard over these last few weeks, much more interested in showing how we can live our lives as if the kingdom of God was truly near. The coin Jesus refused to carry embodied an empire that didn’t have much room for the kingdom of God. And even though much of the money and wealth we carry today is invisible, that doesn’t mean that our money is imageless. We choose to give money its meaning and value, allowing it to shape, define, and limit the relationships we have with each other and with our God. Even if we are the friend who never carries money, we let money carry our emotions, thoughts, hope, and dreams as we live within the various kingdoms that make up our world. Yet this money isn’t the only thing that bears an image; since we, through God’s handiwork, bear one too. As those who were created in the image of God, what we say, do, trust, and believe ends up reflecting the fullness of who we know God to be. That reflection is often defined by what we imagine love, service, power, and faith looks like. But God doesn’t let those holy values be defined only by us; God chose to send us God’s son – so that we discover who, in Jesus, God chooses to be. We are to love as he loved, to serve as he served, to welcome and include and pray and forgive and to not hold onto those things that say something other than God is what defines us. Money does play a role in how we live our lives. And we can’t always copy Jesus by not participating in the money-focused world we actually live in. But we can choose how to use that money and whether we let it consume the image God has already given to us and our neighbors. It’s said that money makes the world go round even if that money is something we can’t really see. Yet as Jesus reminds us in today’s reading – that money doesn’t need to be all we hold onto as we go around our world too.