October 19, 2014 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost
“In God We Trust” first appeared on US coins in 1864. The US Department of the Treasury cites “increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War”1 as the impetus for coins to be minted with the phrase. It was a pastor from Pennsylvania who first wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury urging “recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”2 Depending on how you read the history, the desire for this notation could be seen as religious devotion or as an attempt to say that God was on the Union side of the Civil War—or some mashup of the two.
In 1956, “In God We Trust” was signed into law by President Eisenhower as the official motto of the United States3 and has appeared on our paper currency since 1957. The Cold War was going on in the 1950s and “the 1956 law was one of several legislative actions Congress took to differentiate the United States from”4 the so-called godless communists.
It makes you wonder if it was all motivated by religion or politics. Or some squishy amalgamation of the two.
Which is pretty much where we find Jesus with the Pharisees and the Herodians who are trying to set a trap for him. We don’t know a lot about the Herodians but we presume they were supporters of Herod (who was a lieutenant governor of the emperor) and so allied with the occupying Roman government. The Pharisees were teachers and keepers of the law of Moses. Pharisees and Herodians are not people who would typically be on the same side of any issue–except now they are united against Jesus.
So together they ask: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The trap is, if Jesus says “Yes—it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor” much of the Jewish crowd would be outraged. Adding insult to injury, the Roman coins were stamped with the image of the Roman Emperor and had an inscription attributing divinity to him. Saying that the Roman Emperor was divine didn’t sit well with Jews and even handling the money that had the emperor’s image and title on it was offensive to some. Many Jews, living under Roman occupation and oppression saw paying the Roman tax as treasonous—like bowing down to the Roman Emperor instead of to God.
So if Jesus says, “Yes, it is right to pay taxes to the occupying Roman government,” there were many who would have condemned him for his response.
On the other hand, if Jesus answered, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” then the Herodians would have pressed charges against Jesus for advocating treason against the Roman empire.5
He’s trapped either way he answers.
And Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
Instead he calls them out and says, “Why are you trying to trap me? Since you’re so smart, show me the coin used for the tax.”
Jesus’ questioners didn’t have to go far to find the blasphemous coin—several hands went into their own pockets and pulled out coins with the emperor’s head on it.
“Hmmm. Whose head is this?” (That’s a classic Jesus response—to answer a question with a question.)
Whose image? “The emperor’s.”
“Hmmm. Well, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.”
As if that answers the question.
Which also seems to be a classic Jesus response—to say something that requires more explanation and a deeper analysis and so the people looking for the easy answers or the sound bite leave disappointed, confused, or amazed at Jesus’ rhetorical abilities but don’t really press on to find out what Jesus was talking about.
Some people have used Jesus’ statement—about giving to the emperor what is the emperor’s and giving to God what is God’s—to argue for the separation of church and state. To say that there is a realm that belongs to the emperor and a realm that belongs to God. Do you remember sets and sub-sets from math class? Some say there is an emperor-set over here and a God-set over here and they don’t intersect.
But that is not an interpretation consistent with the rest of Matthew’s gospel (or the rest of the Bible).
It seems to me in the world of sets and sub-sets, when Jesus says “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and give to God what is God’s” Jesus is saying that everything belongs to God—the entire universe, everything we have, everything we are—it all belongs to God—that’s the big set.
And within that set there is a sub-set that is what belongs to the emperor.
It’s not one of those over-lapping subsets—like when you have a red circle and a blue circle and the part where they overlap is purple. It’s not as if there is part of the emperor’s set that does not belong to God. In the world of mathematical sets, the set belonging to the emperor is contained wholly within the bigger set belonging to God. Everything, ultimately, belongs to God. That’s the biblical perspective from which Jesus answers.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth.”6 Holding that Roman coin in his hand, looking at his questioners, I suspect Jesus is asking us deeper questions: Whose economy do we live in? Who is Ruler of that economy? And in Whom will we put our trust?
When Jesus asks to see the coin, he asks whose “image,” whose “likeness” is on the coin, whose “eikon” (to use the Greek word) is this? Of course the answer is “the emperor.” That’s the image the coins bear.
“Humans on the other hand, bear the ‘eikon,’ the ‘image,’ the ‘likeness’ of God.”7 (Remember back to Genesis chapter 1 where God says, ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’8) Residents of Jerusalem, people oppressed by the Roman government, “may pay the [awful census] tax but they do not belong to the emperor. They…belong to God.”9
“In life and in death we belong to God” begins the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church. We belong, body and soul, to the living God.
“Humans bear God’s image, and wherever [we] live and operate—whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm—[we] belong to God. [That means our] primary loyalties do not switch when [we] move out of church and into the voting booth.”10 Or out of the church and into the business world. Or out of the church and into the classroom. Or out of the church and into any other place in the world.
Rick Spalding, chaplain at Williams College, writing about this passage says, the Emperor “can stamp his picture and pedigree far and wide, but he cannot come near the true commerce that animates us. So [the Emperor] will get many or most of the coins…but the coin of the realm of our flesh and blood is the image of God. What is [given] to God is whatever bears the divine image. Every life is marked with that inscription, an icon of the One who is its source and destination…Baptism [then] is the watermark of our true currency.”11
Think about that: a watermark is the picture woven into the very fabric of a document. And our true currency—where we find our value—is in the love of God.
Baptism is the watermark of our true currency.
The God in whom we trust is “the God described by the Prophet Isaiah in the midst of the looming shadow of an earlier empire…‘Can a woman forget her nursing child?…Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you,” says the Eternal God. “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.’ (Is. 49.15-16)”12
Marked on the palms of God, we can trust the One who will never forget us and never let us go.
When we look in the mirror or look at others, we may see the mark of a commercial world that values us for what we have or what we can do or who we can call up on our fancy phones, but underneath, in the fabric of our lives woven together by God, between the warp and the weft of all that is, we are God’s treasure. And in that God we can trust.
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1. http://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx, accessed 15 October 2014.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_national_motto, accessed 17 October 2014.
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_national_motto, accessed 17 October 2014.
5. Walter Brueggemann, et. al., Texts for Preaching, Year A, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995, p532.
6. Matthew 6.24
7. Brugemmemann, et. al.
8. Genesis 1.26
9. Brueggemann, et. al.
10. Brueggemann, et. al., pp532-533.
11. Richard E. Spalding, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 190-192.