The Teachings: Risking Challenge
March 15, 2020
Rev Carla Wilks at Mt Seymour United Church
This Lent we are looking at the key events in the final week of Jesus’ life. Last Sunday we talked about his skirmish in the Temple market. You would think that he might back off after that, that he would lay low, stay out of the way. But that’s not the case. Jesus just keeps showing up at the Temple—despite the risk.
He keeps putting himself out there. And that makes him susceptible to those who want to trap him, to twist his words and get him to say something damning.
This time it is Jesus’ teaching that gets him in trouble. It turns out that his ability to draw the people to his teachings poses a threat, a challenge, to the authorities. Today we want to try to place ourselves in the crowd as we witness the conversation that unfolds between Jesus and the authorities.
The conversation begins with the test from someone in the crowd, asking the question Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? This is a trick question, just being asked to try to get him to say something which will get him in trouble. If he answers “no, don’t pay your taxes” he will be quickly be in trouble with Rome. If he says “yes, pay your taxes” he will alienate other groups in the crowd by being seen as a collaborator with Rome. . It’s a very clever trap they have laid. They’ve got Jesus right where they want him.
So Jesus comes up with a witty response saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The things which are Caesar’s—represented by the coin in the story—are taxes.
But Jesus’ people had more reason to complain than most. Taxation back then carried a more sinister connotation than it does now, because when you paid taxes you were helping to prop up Israel’s oppressors, the occupying army of the Romans. Taxes weren’t paid to Israel or Judah. Most of the tax dollars went directly to Rome. And this was offensive to the Jews. Like any other occupied land, the people of Israel resented their hard earned money going to the treasury of the people who ruled over them.
To add insult to injury, the Roman tax had to be paid with a Roman coin— and that coin had stamped on it the image of Caesar himself with an inscription that read: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus, high priest.”
As if that weren’t bad enough, remember that for a good Jew, the coin with Caesar’s image on it violated the second commandment: “You shall not make any graven image, any idol.” Any good Jew would consider the coin to be exactly that.
But Jesus knows what they’re up to. “You’re trying to trap me.” So instead of answering them directly, he asks to see one of the coins for paying the tax. Not only does he not answer their question, he turns the tables on them with his own question. They bring him the coin, a denarius, and he says, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they reply. And he astonishes them with his reply, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
You see what he accomplishes. By asking for a coin with the idolatrous image of Caesar on it he turns things around to put the spotlight on his critics, exposing them as collaborators with Rome. They have in their pockets coins with the idolatrous image of Caesar stamped upon them!
Not only that, but by asking “Whose image and inscription is on it?” he raises the issue of ownership and allegiance. Every Jewish child had been taught to say by heart, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps 24:1). The Jews were in conflict with the occupying Romans not only because they resented paying the Roman tax, but also because Jews had a very different idea than the Romans about just who owned the land in the first place.
Then Jesus ironically replies to his critics, “give back” to Caesar what belongs to Caesar — but “give back” to God what belongs to God. Note that he does not specify just what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. He doesn’t have to. Again, he is talking to people who know scripture by heart. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps 24:1).
Poor Caesar Tiberius, he stamps his image on a piece of metal and thinks that he owns it. That coin is a symbol for Caesar’s self-delusion that he owns just about everything.
Jesus implies that Caesar may own this piece of metal — after all, his image is stamped upon it. But that’s all Caesar can lay claim to. As Genesis says, all of us are made in the image of God. God has stamped God’s image upon us. We are owned, claimed. We should therefore take great care in what we “render to Caesar” and what we “render to God.”
To whom do we owe what? What things ought we render to God and to the service of living fully in God’s way? These are big questions, questions today’s story invites us to grapple with.
Years ago, General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army was asked in an interview toward the end of his life what the secret of his successful ministry. The interviewer said: “He hesitated for a second, and . . . I saw the tears come into his eyes and steal down his cheeks, and then [General Booth] said, ‘I will tell you the secret. God has had all there was of me. There have been men with greater opportunities, but from the day I got the poor of London on my heart and a vision of what Jesus Christ could do with the poor of London, I made up my mind that God would have all of William Booth that there was. And if there is any power in The Salvation Army today,’ he said, ‘it is because God has all the adoration of my heart, all the power of my will, and all the influence of my life.’”
I find those words moving. William Booth gave to God “all the adoration of my heart, all the power of my will, and all the influence of my life.” Imagine if we all did this. If living in the fullness that God intends for us and loving as God so loved us… What would our community and our world look like then?
A retired pastor named Walter Harms sums it up like this: Harms says that we cannot do anything for God. “You cannot hug God. You can’t give God a dime. You can’t demonstrate in concrete form love for God. But you can love all those made in the image and likeness of God. You can hug them. (but not right now!!) You can give to them in their need. You can demonstrate to them you are vitally interested. You can give them your attention and time. And in loving them you love Jesus who in flesh and blood has shown us the image and likeness of God!”
He’s right, isn’t he? Whose image is engraved on our coins and bills? Government leaders and the queen. But whose image is imprinted on our hearts? God’s.
This week has been a very unusual and interesting one in our world and in our community. My heart and my focus have been in thinking about our community in relation to Covid-19. Every day this week Nancy and I would gather in her office around our computer at 3:30pm to watch Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix give their daily briefings so that we could get an accurate assessment of the situation and make decisions for our community – what changes we need to make in worship and in the Thrift Shop to minimize risk. I was so impressed by the way that Dr. Henry presented the facts in a very straightforward way, very clear and concise. But what impressed me more was her level of compassion and understanding. She did not just present the facts. Yes, she told us that the best way to prevent the spread of the virus was by socially isolating. But she also emphasized that we all need to do our part to protect the most vulnerable in our community. She reminded us of the importance to stay connected amid the need for social distancing – the need to take care of each other and especially of the most vulnerable in our communities.
This week I came across a prayer called Pandemic by Lynn Ungar, a Unitarian Minister who lives in California. I thought it was a beautiful connection of our faith and what is happening right now in our community.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
— Lynn Ungar 3/11/20
I think we have an unusual opportunity right now with the spread of the coronavirus. We may not be able to see one another in person as much as we are used to, with many things being cancelled to minimize risk in the days immediately ahead, but what can we do to stay connected? What can we do to care for the vulnerable within our church who will be impacted by social isolation? What is our call to care for our neighbor? We have already had people in our congregation offer to deliver groceries or make phone calls to others in our community if needed.
What can we do to care for the vulnerable in the church and the wider community who face economic loss and other hardships because of this situation? Jesus certainly knew something about this – about caring for the most vulnerable in our society. So how do we follow Jesus’ example and do the same?
Pondering these questions can lead us to new ways of being the church together and being the church for our neighbors. And along the way we will be loving the image and likeness of God stamped on each of them and on ourselves, and so loving God through loving them.
So yes, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s (it’s not that much after all). But more importantly, render unto God that which is God’s. And MOST importantly these days, don’t forget to wash your hands like you just cut a bunch of jalapenos and have to put your contact lenses in! Amen
 Sermon largely based on one by Brad Van Fossen