Give to God the Things that are God's - Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost (October 22, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Exodus 33:12–23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10 | Matthew 22:15–22
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21).
This past week, the world has continued to wrestle with how to respond to the ongoing conflict in Gaza between the Israeli Defense Force, and Hamas, a militant group bent on Israel’s destruction… with many, many civilians caught in between. In retaliation for the truly brutal attacks on Israeli civilians, the IDF has blockaded Gaza, and bombarded the territory, in preparation for a full on assault apparently to rescue hostages, and to end the threat that Hamas has continued to play.
In the midst of conflicts like this, more tragedies are almost inevitable. And this past Tuesday, one such tragedy took place: Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City was hit with an explosion that killed hundreds of people. Both sides blame each other for this horrible loss of life… and people around the world joined in to voice their outrage by picking sides and protesting.
As it has been for centuries, our world is still deeply divided… and for many, the only way forward seems to be to just keep on fracturing, and then fighting over the pieces.
But there are other ways forward… ones which call us to step back from the power games at play around us, and to look at each other and ourselves from a very different perspective.
Our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew tells us of an encounter between our Lord Jesus, and members of two very distinct groups that had come together to trap Him and take Him down: the religious Pharisees, and the politically motivated Herodians.
The Pharisees are probably pretty familiar to many of us. They show up a lot in the Gospels, usually in confrontations with Jesus about what faithfulness to God and His Kingdom really looks like. As a group, they were not so much rulers or official leaders, as they were religious reformers… calling God’s people to separate from the ungodly, and to practice a more strict adherence to the Law of Moses given at Mt. Sinai. They were known for an uncompromising demand for religious obedience… but in the Gospels Jesus often calls them out for hypocrisy… neglecting the needs of their neighbours, while promoting a basically self-centered spirituality.
On the other hand, we have the Herodians: supporters of the puppet “King” Herod, the ruler of Galilee kept in place by the good graces of the higher-ups in Rome. Like Herod, his followers were a bit more politically savvy and power hungry than the Pharisees. They cared more about keeping control of the country, than with any particular ideology or agenda, be it godly or not. Rather than getting caught up in the religious debates of the day, the Herodians were more focused on self-centered power-games.
As you can imagine, these two groups, the Pharisees and the Herodians were usually at odds with each other. They represented the opposite ends of the political and social spectrum. The Pharisees were firmly entrenched in their Israelite heritage, seeking to bring back the glory days of God’s people by promoting moral purity… and obedience to God’s holy Laws… at least as they interpreted them.
The Herodians, however, had embraced the dominant culture and values of the wider Greco-Roman world… seeking to bring about a new and glorious future for… well, first of all themselves… and for the rest of their country too, all by keeping in Rome’s good books… through obedience to the Emperor’s whims, whatever they might be.
Like so many groups we could think of today, these two communities were polar opposites… but as we heard today they both came together to fight against a common threat: someone who challenged the influence and power of both parties… stirring up the common people’s hopes in a new way forward… a way devoted, not to their own sense of moral superiority, or to the whims of the tyrants of the day… but devoted to the Kingdom of Heaven, to the glory of God they had glimpsed at work in Jesus Christ.
As the saying goes: the enemy of my enemy is my friend… and so these two groups set aside their differences for a change, and teamed up to take this Jesus down… and trap Him with an unwinnable choice: Should God’s people continue to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
Of all the questions to trap Jesus with, why would they choose this one? Why was this such an issue?
Well, it makes a lot more sense when we remember the long story of God’s people, and their unique relationship with the Living God to be set apart… to be a community devoted to Him alone.
A few weeks back, we took time to reflect on the 10 Commandments together. Without looking, can anyone remember Commandment Number 2? Right, ‘No graven images!’
And last week, we heard how at the crucial moment when the Covenant agreement was being sealed, Israel had broken this very Commandment, and made an idol of a calf to worship.
Idolatry, the worship of graven images, which was a practice shared by all of Israel’s neighbours, would remain a near constant trap and temptation for God’s people, from Sinai and down through the centuries… and after their Exile in Babylon, and eventual return to their homeland, many Israelites were afraid of what would happen if idolatry took root among them again. And so, groups like the Pharisees took a strong stance against graven images.
But on every Roman denarius there was the image of the Roman Emperor… a tangible reminder of who was supposed to be in charge and calling the shots in day-to-day life. Every transaction, every exchange was done in this Gentile Emperor’s name, and with his image. While under Roman rule, God’s people were forced by using these coins and paying taxes with them, to acknowledge again and again that their whole lives were in the Emperor’s hands.
And while some like the Pharisees might resist this claim… to openly reject it and teach others to stop paying taxes to Caesar would get Jesus into a whole lot of trouble… likely leading to His arrest, or worse.
But, if Jesus publicly supported giving taxes to Rome, the Pharisees would make sure that all the religious leaning folk who deeply resented Roman rule would know about it, and turn on Jesus, losing Him most of His popular support.
And so, while it might look like an honest question about Israelite religious law, this was all a political trap… an attempt to publicly force Jesus to choose between two options that would each have a disastrous effect.
It was a trap… but it was a trap based on a very particular perspective… an assumption both parties seemed to share: the idea that Jesus’ mission relied on the approval of other people… the crowds, the authorities… just like they did. And so they assumed that they could stop him by forcing him to choose one side or the other… undermining His support by dividing public opinion, so his opponents could finally gain the upper hand.
But Jesus knew full well that their assumption was wrong. He didn’t need anyone else’s support or approval to accomplish His mission. Rather than courting the favour of religious reformers or savvy political hacks, all Jesus needed was to remain fully devoted to His Father in Heaven, and to do His Father’s will here on earth.
Jesus knew that rather than playing power games, or fighting over control… the way forward is only to be found by sharing in the glorious life of the Living God.
This is what Moses was wrestling with in our first reading this morning. Atop Mt. Sinai, we found him interceding on behalf of the Israelites, pleading with the LORD and searching for a way for God’s people to move forward after Israel’s disastrous idolatry had threatened to completely destroy their new relationship with the Living God.
At this point, God had agreed not to abandon this whole project, but told Moses He would no longer dwell in the presence of His sinful people. He would not go with them personally, but would remove His glorious presence. Moses knew this would be terrible news, as God’s people only stood a chance if God was with them always… and so he pleaded for the LORD to reconsider. Exodus 34:15-17,
Moses said to the LORD: “‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
For Moses’ sake, God agrees to go personally, to share His divine presence and life with Israel. Once again, Moses’ intercessions open up the way for God’s people to dwell with the LORD… to stay in close connection to the One who is their only hope.
And in this moment, Moses expresses one of the desires of his own heart: that is, to see God’s glory. Not just to witness an awe-inspiring sight, but to have an experience of knowing the Living God intimately… of getting a deeper and truer sense of God’s own heart, and what makes Him tick.
And Moses is granted a glimpse of God’s glory… the most any mortal creature could handle. And as it turns out, it becomes a life-changing experience that reshapes Moses’ whole life, and changes forever how he related to those around him.
In Exodus 34:6-7, we’re given a glimpse of God’s glory too, a glimpse of His divine character and heartbeat as He reveals this picture to Moses:
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
There’s so much we could talk about here, but that will have to wait for another time. In short though, these words reveal God’s holy love to Moses, a holy love that invites Israel and the whole world to share in it wholeheartedly.
But then something else amazing happens. Exodus 34:29, “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”
Sharing in God’s presence and life changes us. And so getting a glimpse of God’s glory, Moses began to share in it too. Without even realizing it, he began to reflect God’s radiant life through his own life… which, after all, was God’s intentions for humanity since the beginning… and which was His gracious desire for His chosen people: to reflect His glory with their whole lives… as His images of holy love.
Turning now back to Matthew. Confronted by the trap from the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus asks them for a coin. Then He asks them: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” In short, whose glory does this coin represent?
The word here for “head” is actually “icon” or “image”… a word that we know ripples back all the way to Genesis 2, when all humans are described as being created in God’s own image… destined to reflect His divine glory through their lives together, sharing God’s goodness and love with each other, and with all of creation.
When the Pharisees and Herodians respond that the coins bear the image of the Emperor, Jesus says to them: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:20-21).
The Roman coins made the claim that Caesar is in charge, and deserves everyone’s devotion. God’s image however is not found on coins, but on His human creatures… and so everything about them… about us all rightly belongs to Him.
All humans together bear the image of God. All humans exist to share in and reflect His goodness and glory, to the world and to one another. What we do with lifeless coins, which so many prize above all else, is so much less important than what we do with our whole lives… which belong to our Father in Heaven, and which we’re called to devote to Him wholeheartedly here on earth.
All humans together bear the image of God. Every life belongs to Him, whether they know it or not… and how we treat every life, every person, really does matter! While our world may be convinced that the only way forward is to tear humanity apart, Christ calls us to entrust our neighbours… and even our enemies, to the holy love of God. No one is disposable. No one is written off. All are beloved, and belong to Him. As Christians, this is the Good News our lives must make know to God’s broken world.
But these days, we’re constantly being asked to choose between all sorts of conflicting sides. To prove our devotion to this or that political party, social priority, and so on… and also to vilify and demonize, and de-humanize everyone on the other side... to imagine that “we alone” are the image of all that is good, and right, and true… and that there will be no peace until the “other side” is taken care of.
The truth is, it’s easy to fight. To turn on each other, and tear each other apart. But the way forward calls us to believe that the One who created, and sent His Son Jesus, to save us all, has not simply abandoned us to tear apart His good world. He has revealed His glory, His holy love… most of all through Christ’s own death for His enemies at the cross… so that we might share in it… and share it with those all around us.
Jesus calls us to not get trapped in the world’s ways of doing things, but to give our whole selves whole-heartedly to God… to the One who gave up His life to save us, and to share His glorious life with us.
Jesus, the One who truly is the image of God uncorrupted by sin and self-centeredness, is still with us… and He prays for us even now. In our moments of terror and temptation, He stands right by our side to save. And we can trust that in Him, God truly hears our prayers, and that He will not abandon those who turn to Him… even if, for a time we too must suffer, we know that we will share in Christ’s glory forever.
The Faith we’re called to Live is not about choosing the right side of any of the divisions that our world demands we make… our Faith calls us to see our lives and the lives of all others as destined, through Jesus Christ, to reflect the Living God’s goodness and glory.
The Love we’re called to Grow is not just for those who are like us in mind, body, or convictions. We’re called to extend God’s holy, self-giving love to everyone, even to our enemies, just as Christ Jesus did for us on the cross.
The Hope we’re called to Share is not based on “our side finally coming out on top”… but on our Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, who has given His life to save us sinners from the wrath to come… so that all those around us might catch a glimpse of God’s glorious New Life too.
I don’t claim to have all the answers to the many deep divisions and conflicts tearing our world apart today. But if we’re to give to “God the things that are God’s”, as Christ calls us to, and as He empowers us to do, through His Holy Spirit… trusting Him with our whole lives, nurturing His love among us, and sharing this hope with our world, then I truly believe that our Risen Lord Jesus will guide us forward… and that His saving presence will dwell among His people, so that His healing, and resurrecting power might shine, and fill the whole earth with God’s saving glory. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School