Why do we worship the things that we worship? Why do we develop the attachments that we do?
This week, as I thought about today’s Gospel reading, I found myself wondering “why does Jesus invoke the name of God and the name of Caesar in the same breath?”
The Pharisees inquire: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
As we just heard, Jesus answers their question by asking for a coin. Now the coin that they handed Jesus was a denarius, a roman coin made of silver, about the size of a dime. The denarius was the most common coin of the Roman Empire’s currency. As Jesus indicates, the denarius has the face of Caesar Augustus on it, and is imprinted with words that declare Caesar’s divinity. The coin probably said, “Tiberius Caesar, the son of the divine Augustus, the Augustus.” Tiberius was the Caesar, the emperor at the time, and was the stepson of Octavian, the first to be called Augustus, a name that itself conferred divinity. On the back, the coin declares Caesar “pontifex maximus,” the greatest High Priest, the one who connects us to the Gods.
It’s strange, perhaps, but provocative no doubt that Jesus would use this coin to tell the Pharisees that they should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. It’s stranger still that a pharisee would be caught handling such currency, imprinted with such a bold contradiction of Jewish law.
Does Caesar deserve divine status? Does Caesar deserve the worship that comes along with being divine? Of course not, and there’s no chance that the Pharisees would have answered in the affirmative. So why should Jesus answer them with such an aphorism?
In children’s chapel downstairs the children of Saint David’s are hearing the 10 Commandments. The first of those commandments, as many of you of course know, is that the Israelites are to have no other god than Yahweh. The second is that they shall have no graven images, no idols. It seems that a pious Jew might have qualms about handling such currency.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar or not, they were no doubt attempting to entrap him in a moment of if not idolatry, at least infidelity to Jewish law.
Our reading from Isaiah today—while perhaps more overtly political than the 10 Commandments—addresses just this point. Cyrus, the King of Babylon and Persia, is reminded that there is only one God, Yahweh, who goes before him in all of his victories. And this God goes does so because he has chosen a people as a witness of his power and care, as Isaiah tells the Israelites in the chapter just before this.
God has appointed Cyrus as king for the purpose of freeing the captive Jewish people and rebuilding Jerusalem. This God is king of kings. This God not only connects heaven and earth. This God decides the fate of earthly kingdom’s. And yet, God’s agenda is not an earthly-political one. God‘s agenda is providential. God’s will is salvation.
Back to our Pharisees, we see that their agenda is very much an earthly one. Their attachment to the law is not out of worship for Yahweh, but rather out of self-interest. And accordingly, their agenda implies that they’ve lost faith in Yahweh’s will and ability. Ironically, they’re now leveraging Caesar’s power to punish Jesus.
But Jesus reminds them that The Lord of the Sabbath is also Lord of Caesar, although he does it in a clever way. Yet, Jesus’ answer is not motivated by self-preservation. Whereas the Pharisees’ plan depended on Jesus giving a yes-or-no answer, Jesus confronts them, and us, with a complex problem.
Do we owe Caesar the tax with his own currency? Jesus seems to imply as much. But do we also owe Caesar the worship and respect that the inscription on the denarius claims?
No. In fact, that belongs to God alone.
So, what do we owe God? What do we owe Jesus? To answer this question, we, like King Cyrus, need to know who God is, who Jesus is. Moreover, we also need to understand our allegiances to the institutions, and perhaps even the currency, that so direct our everyday life. Do these allegiances conflict with the devotion that God alone is due?
It’s almost unavoidable in our consumerist, polarized, and secularized political era to not be devotional toward our institutions. But in the process of offering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, have we given Caesar what is God’s?
The denarius is imprinted with Caesar’s lordship. If we could see our hearts, whose Lordship would be imprinted there?
20th Sunday after Pentecost
St. David’s Episcopal Church