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Sermon: Whose Image? October 18, 2020

October 18, 2020

Today’s Dispatch is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church this morning on the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The gospel is Matthew 22:15-22. You can view the sermon here. The image is a photo of a Roman denarius (public domain). Be well, friends. You are loved.

Sisters and brothers, friends in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this day, in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The first presidential election began in 1788 and concluded in 1789, lasting several weeks. Can you imagine? MSNBC and Fox News would have had wall-to-wall coverage, reporting on every angle of the event as the people waited to hear the result, day after day. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Then again, the result was never in question. George Washington was elected unanimously, receiving all 69 votes in the Electoral College. Again, can you imagine? A country so united that it was of one mind concerning who should be president? Washington was elected unanimously twice. No one has been the unanimous choice since the eighteenth century, and I don’t think we’re in danger of such an event happening again any time soon. Washington’s election was inevitable, an event that no one could doubt. There were other certainties in 1789, too. This was the same year the Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Even then, 231 years ago, amidst the birth of a new nation that had fought a war specifically to stop paying so many taxes, taxation was a certainty. As sure as the sun would rise each morning in the east, so would the government impose taxes upon its people.
  2. As in the new republic, so in the old empire. Whatever one thinks of taxes in the nation today, the taxes levied by Caesar were not primarily a means of raising funds to support the common good; they were a means of oppression. The emperor taxed the people because he could, to remind them that they existed under the iron boot of his rule. It was under these conditions that the Pharisees and the Herodians sought to entrap Jesus in the last week of his life: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Simmering in the background of this question is a heated debate. The Pharisees and the Herodians hated one another. The Pharisees saw Rome for what it was, an oppressive occupier that cared nothing for the people. They believed that total obedience to God’s Law would lead to a new birth of freedom in the land. The Herodians, on the other hand, were more practical. Having failed to beat Rome, they joined ‘em. If they were going to be part of a defeated people, why not enjoy some of the spoils? They helped enforce Rome’s rule, lining their own pockets as they went. But both groups were opposed to Jesus, for he spoke of a truth beyond both their fanaticism and their collaboration. Jesus knew that to answer the question before him would lead either to the retributive wrath of Rome or the anger of the people. If he said that taxes shouldn’t be paid, he would be guilty of sedition; if he said taxes should be paid, he risked the anger of crowds, who suffered under the oppressive burden. Jesus chooses a third way: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
  3. It sounds at first like a side-stepping of the issue or a too-simple division between worlds, what we might call a separation of church and state. To be sure, as human beings we have responsibilities in this world even as we wait for the world to come. But to say that Jesus is cleanly dividing this world and its responsibilities from the next is to miss the point and to imagine that he is wearing the powdered wig of an Enlightenment legislator. No, Jesus is, as usual, up to something much more radical. Whose image do you see on the coin, he asks. His interlocutors, ready participants in this world’s economy, produce a coin awfully quickly and show that it bears the image of the emperor. Fine, Jesus says. Give back to Caesar what Caesar made, but give to God what is God’s.
  4. To our ears, this seems like a division of worlds, but only because we’ve forgotten how to listen. Yes, this world’s powers have the power to print currency and levy taxes. In some places and times this is oppressive; in others it is the effect of the government working together for the common good. Most of the time it’s probably some of both. But in all times, it is a reality that operates within a greater truth. Caesar, whatever he imagines or pretends, is only granted a limited run. He can put his face on anything he wants but his time will run out and his image will fade away. We will always live within the rule of this world’s powers, be they oppressive or benevolent. But as people of faith, we also live with the anticipation of a new kingdom that is already being birthed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Caesar can put his image on all the coins he likes, but you and I bear the image of the creator God; you and I have been marked anew with the cross in the indelible waters of baptism. This changes how we live in this world. David Lose writes, “Whatever alliances we may make with the powers of this world – or with those who oppose them – these alliances are always temporary, dictated perhaps by the demands of the circumstances, but ultimately directed by our relationship with the One who created us and whose image we bear. This means that following Jesus’ counsel is always a matter of discernment, prayer, and confession, as we will frequently fail and always struggle to discern what God-fearing participation with government requires.”
  5. As Christians, we are called neither to cast our lot completely with any particular candidate and party nor to pretend that we can remove ourselves from the process. We are called instead to resurrection living as those who bear the image of God, working for the good of our neighbors and this world however and wherever we can. We support Caesar’s work when it benefits the people, particularly those who suffer want at the margins of society, and we work to correct Caesar’s work when it is in opposition to God’s will. And we do all of this as people who know and confess the everlasting rule of the true king, Jesus Christ.
  6. In our stewardship, in our giving, and in our living, we remember that everything we have belongs to God. It comes from God and returns to God, even if the emperor stamps his picture on some of it in the meantime. We are called, therefore, to give generously, for we render unto God that which belongs to God. We give not only our resources but ourselves, for we bear the precious image of God; we are the coinage of the kingdom bearing witness to our creator and redeemer.
  7. In a world of yard signs and omnipresent logos, we are the ones who bear the mark of Christ. Yesterday, our fourteen confirmands were reminded that they bear the light of Jesus Christ, that they are called let that light shine so that others may see their good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. This is the call for each of us, for all of the baptized. Death and taxes are inevitable, but they are not forever. Death has been conquered by Christ, leading now to life both endless and abundant. Life in this world been transformed. We can’t stop paying taxes, but we can stop accepting the world at its broken face value. Marked with the cross of Christ, we live as citizens of the peaceable Kingdom that is even now breaking into our world, the Kingdom in which the needs of the least of these, not the powerful, take center stage. You, forgiven sinners, belong to God for the sake of Jesus Christ. Give to God what its God’s. God already has you anyway. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

From → COVID-19, Sermons

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