Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.
Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, "The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity."
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
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.
Today’s gospel lesson is the account of Jesus being tested by some young temple lawyers who wanted to trap him into either condoning the Roman tax on the Jewish people, thus drawing their outrage, or, condemning the tax and branding him a rebel and open to arrest by the Romans. But Jesus turns the tables on those who sought to entrap him. He calls for a Roman coin and asks whose image is on it. Of course, it is the image of the emperor. And, then, he gives this reply, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Fast forward to the year 2023, to this church setting, to society and the culture in which we live today. How do we make sense of this response of Jesus to the young lawyers?
For me, I am challenged by this response. What did Jesus mean when he said it? I do not think he was merely trying to avoid being trapped. Rather, I believe he, or the church which gathered around his story, was trying to teach us, the followers on the Jesus Way, how to live. And living is not easy, is it?
There are so many voices around us, so many authorities telling us how to live. There are the authorities in our family. Our parents. Our grandparents. Our children. Our siblings. There are the authorities in our educational experience. Our teachers, our fellow students. There are the authorities in our community, and our society. Police. Politicians. Attorneys. Judges. Business leaders. Actors. Writers. Public figures of all sorts.
And then there are the intangible authorities of our personal experience, those shaping events that have led us down one path or another, but still influence us in how we live today. And, of course, for those of us here, there is the church, Jesus, and God. And so I think it is appropriate to ask the question of ourselves: By what, or whose, authority do we live?
Perhaps you are thinking, as I am, that these authorities all mesh together, overlapping one another in their influence on how we live. After all, there is no one single authority behind our actions. Many factors go into why we do what we do.
Still, the response from Jesus haunts me, and I think it should, because I know that I am convicted by it, and I think we all are. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” What are the things of the emperor? What are the things of God? Well, I know what society says about the first question and I know what my faith says about the second, and furthermore, I know that there is a conflict between the two answers.
What or who is the emperor in our time and place? Most people will say it is where human corporate power is most prevalent. Right now the United States and its military-industrial complex is the closest thing to an empire, followed, in some order, by the same systems in China, the European Union, and Russia. As Americans, we are asked and expected to follow the dictates of our laws and our elected and appointed legislative and judicial bodies and individuals, with particular obedience to the Constitution. So, to give to these authorities the things that belong to and are governed by these authorities, is to obey them.
And what are the things of God? Life itself, and all Creation, including ourselves. Unspoken in that interchange between Jesus and the young Temple lawyers, but understood by all, was the language about image. The image of Caesar was on the coin. That was clear. But the image of God is in every person, for we are created in God’s image. God has stamped us for God’s own. We belong to God. We rebel against this but we know it is true. We create idols of money, property, power, prestige, education, position, all to somehow control our lives, to hold on to our lives, but, if we are honest with ourselves, none of this is ours. It is all on loan from God.
Perhaps I have asked the wrong question when I ask, by what or whose authority do we live. We can figure that out pretty quickly for ourselves. Perhaps the better question is this: If we belong to God, how should we live?
The prophet Micah had an answer to this question: What does God require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
To act out of a sense of belonging to God is a lifelong quest or journey. Never over, at least not until we die. And even in dying, as the hymn goes, we belong to God.
So I offer this question. How do we live, how do we relate to our community, our world, and our environment from the perspective of those who belong to the Creator of Life, the Sustainer of Life, the Redeemer of Life, the One we know in Jesus, who died that we might know Abundant Life.
The theologian Paul Tillich said that “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.” Ultimate Concern is that which demands complete surrender of the person who faithfully accepts the Ultimate. To give to God the things that are God’s is to give God all of who we are. And still live in the world. Still deal with our imperfect selves. Still make mistakes and treat people like things, and things like people. Still confront the fear within and around us when our consciences tell us one thing and the powers and principalities of the world tell us another. As flawed and fearful as we may be, God loves us and invites us to give our lives back to God. Our task is to open our eyes and ears, to watch and be aware of how God is working in the world and in our lives, to see the opportunity to say yes to God, even when it may be no to the authorities we have followed for so long.
Give to God the things that are God’s and to the other authorities in our lives the things that belong to them. Amen.