We are witnesses today to an attempted set-up, the first of four controversies between Jesus and various community leaders. Some might even call it entrapment. You know what that is: The action of tricking someone into committing a crime in order to secure that person’s persecution. In the United States entrapment is illegal and people sometimes use it as a defense in court proceedings. Today we are looking at first century Palestine and whether illegal or immoral, the Pharisees are looking to entrap Jesus in order to bring about his persecution. They want to get rid of this prophet of God who keeps telling inconvenient truths that confront and even shatter the religious and political status quo.
Jesus, a holy pest if ever there was one, keeps teaching through his parables and examples things like: all are welcome at God’s table; everyone is our neighbor; everyone has access to God’s grace and mercy; one’s station in life is not a measure of God’s love or one’s worthiness; the poor are blessed; the first are last and the last first. The list goes on.
Such teachings are unacceptable to some, especially those who want certain groups of people subservient, devalued, or even dehumanized. A few representatives of the Pharisees greet Jesus with kind words, buttering him up if you will, in order to try and promote their real agenda. They call Jesus sincere, one who tells the truth, saying that he teaches the way of God and gives deference to no one. Compliments are filling the air, but they are empty words. Then they ask the million dollar question: Is it okay to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
Jesus sees through the ruse, using the moment to teach something essential to his proclamation of the Kingdom of God if only they and we would have ears to listen. Jesus knows well that to encourage not paying the tax due to Caesar would be against the law. Thus like a good Rabbi he throws it back on them as he asks a rhetorical question to which the Pharisees know the answer: Whose image is on the coin? It is that of the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, minted and authorized by the Roman government. Furthermore, we know that the coin had inscribed on it these words: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, great high priest.”
Right on the coin itself is a claim to divinity for the emperor, at times even called son of god! A good Pharisee would see it as idolatrous, but nothing is sacred in this moment of attempting to ensnare Jesus in a conundrum. Although they are hoping to get Jesus to say something that will get him in trouble with the government, Jesus’ answer challenges them to have to deal with the very real question of whom they regard as Sovereign over all. Is it God, or is it the emperor? Who has the greater claim on their life, the Lord or the state, which by the way is a great question for us in 2017. The choice is left to the Pharisees just as it is left to us.
In the Scriptures, to say that Jesus is Lord is also to say that Caesar is not. Preceding Jesus’ time in history, Isaiah too is very clear—“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me, there is no god.” The first two commandments of the ten are likewise clear that we are not to worship anything or anyone, but God alone. Idolatry is when we give something ultimate importance or a place of supremacy in our life that is due to God alone. Of course we do it all the time, which is why the Bible, in the story of Israel and beyond, warns us about it over and over and over again. Psalm 96 says, “…the Lord is to be revered above all gods…all the gods of the peoples are idols.”
Let me offer you an example since the central image given us today is a coin – money. Again, Psalm 96 says, “Ascribe to the Lord honor and power. Bring offerings and come into his courts.” We do so at every liturgy, placing our offerings of bread, wine and financial treasure on the altar. If we look at the Scriptures, the thing Jesus talks most about is the Kingdom of God. What does he talk second most about? It is our treasure, that is, our money or resources. Why do you think that is so? It is because God knows that our treasure is God’s chief competitor. We make of it an idol, which is why when we put our treasure there our heart will be there also. Today's lesson from Jesus is not about the separation of church and state. That is a misreading. Today is teaching us that everything is God’s, including the emperor, including the coin, and if the Pharisees would pay attention to their own faith tradition they would know that as well as anyone.
Our call is to treasure God for who God is, to treasure our relationship with God, and to nurture the ways in which we meet God in one another as we bear the image only God has bestowed upon us. The Christ in me meets and respects the Christ in you.
The central way in which we are continually reminded who God is and who we are in relationship to God is when we gather in worship. The worship of God, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit, is the antidote to idolatry and the worship of false gods. So it is that we are gathered here today around this Table of the Lord. We do this to remember him partly because we so easily forget. Here we are re-oriented to the one God, living and true.
The Pharisees were amazed by Jesus’ answer, yet left and went away. I wonder if we might be so amazed that we might instead be drawn closer to him and one another, as we gather to adore him here at Good Shepherd.