Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.(Matthew 22:15-22)
Then, at the bottom, there is a sardonic caption: “Join us as we organize against corporations, using social networking (by corporations), smartphones (by corporations), serviced by wireless carries (that are corporations), wearing clothes (made by corporations), capturing it all with cameras (made by corporations), and getting there via cars, buses, bicycles, and shoes (made by corporations). We deserve more from these greedy corporations. Join us afterwards at Starbucks!”
It is biting satire. And it poses a trick question: can you protest the very corporations that you rely on for your food, clothing, and everyday needs?
It’s a trick question because if you try to answer it, because there isn’t a good answer. And in many ways, this picture is actually asking us a modern version of question that the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus in today’s gospel: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
Like the person who put together that Photoshopped picture of the protesters, the Pharisees in today’s gospel have spent a lot of time thinking and plotting, working hard to come up with THE PERFECT trick question. They’ve invested time and intellectual energy into creating an inescapable conundrum, crafting both the perfect rock and the perfect hard place.
At the time, the Jews were being forced to live under Roman rule. If Jesus is to say that it is lawful to pay taxes, he would be committing heresy by legitimizing Roman rule over God’s rule. If, however, Jesus answers that it is NOT lawful to pay taxes, then he is committing treason. It’s a trick question because there is no good answer.
What is so funny about today’s gospel is that after all the time the Pharisees have invested in trying to trap Jesus with the perfect question, Jesus blows it away in approximately eighteen seconds. Pull out a coin, he says in response to them. Whose image is on it? The image of the emperor? Good then. Give to the emperor what belongs to him. And give to God what belongs to God. And that is that. Jesus has successfully answered the question, and successfully shown that he is the clever one, easily winning the battle of wits that has been set before him. The religious leaders are amazed.
And, perhaps, so are we. Or maybe, we are not as much amazed as we are confused, left scratching our heads about what exactly Jesus means. Does his response mean that he sides with the Wall Street protesters or stands against them? Is he for taxes or against them? Does this mean he supports big government or small government? Jesus’ words in today’s gospel get at the heart of what it means for people of faith to live in a world that ceaselessly battles for our allegiances, economic and otherwise.
Coke vs. Pepsi, Cubs vs. White Sox, Republican vs. Democrat, fast food vs. slow food, quantity of life vs. quality of life, time vs. money: we live in a constant battle for allegiance. And as people of faith, we are constantly living a struggle between empire and God, between the world as it is and the world as we want it to be, between the demands of “real life” and the true desires of our hearts. In this context, how on earth do we give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s?
Not to be trite, but the answer is simple: we must choose to remember whose image we bear.
When Jesus holds up a coin for all to see, he points to the image of the emperor that the coin bears. Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor, he says. That is, let the empire take care of the things that bear the image of the empire. Return to the world the things of this world - money, status, ambition, busy-ness, commerce, politics, shopping malls, degrees, resumes.
The things that bear the image of the emperor are not necessarily bad things; many of these things are good and necessary for the order and function of daily life. But the things of the emperor are all temporary, and you are not created in their image.
The number of hours that you work in a week, or the number of hours you feel pressure to work: these are not the whole of you. These are things of the emperor.
The awards that your children win - or don’t win; your children’s grades and extra-curricular activities: these do not define them, nor do they define you. These are things of the emperor.
Your height and weight, your fashion sense, your manicured nails or your broken ones: these are not the whole of you. These are things of the emperor.
Even your political views, your opinions of the economy, your employment or your lack thereof: these do not define you and your life. These, too, are things of the emperor.
No matter how often or how deeply we interact with the empire, with the temporary structures of this world, we still do not bear the emperor’s image. These things of the emperor are not the things that were created to be the deepest desires and reflections of our hearts.
When Jesus holds us up and points to us, just like he did with that coin, he points to a very different image, an indelible image stamped onto each of us, deeply embedded into our very hearts and souls: he points to the image of God.
We read in Genesis 1 that “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
God did not create us to bear the image of the emperor. God did not create us to bear the image of empire, democracy, capitalism, consumerism, patriotism, or any other “ism.” God created us to bear his own image. God created us to reflect the image of the divine; the image of the eternal.
The divine image is one of hope and peace, love and compassion, grace and patience, forgiveness and contemplation, creativity and joy. Into this image were you crafted, and your worth comes not from what you build, earn, or achieve, but from God’s divine grace and mercy that have claimed you and redeemed you. And because we bear this image of God, God asks us to give over our whole lives to his care.
Give to God the things that are God’s. It is not a demand. It is an invitation.
God invites us to give up our burdens by handing them back to him. God invites us to give him our fears and anxieties. God invites us to give to him our hopes and dreams. And God invites us, through the rushing waters of baptism, to give him permanent residence in our hearts, minds, and souls. In return, God promises to live in us and act through us, making us vessels of divine love, grace, forgiveness, and hope.
Now, it is the tricky, complicated, broken, redeemed nature of creation that we will daily get tangled up in both God and empire. We can’t escape empire and we can’t escape God. We will always be those people who protest corporations using our iPhones. We will always be stuck making imperfect decisions about how to prioritize the temporary and the eternal.
But we always have a choice.
We can always choose to remember and live according to the image in which we are created. We can choose to remember that we bear the thumbprint of the very God who seeks us out and lifts us up. We can look at ourselves in the mirror every morning and see the cross that has been marked across our foreheads, whether in oil, water, or ashes. People of God, we have been eternally sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. This is the image that you bear to the world. This is the image that defines you.
I want each of you now to turn to your neighbors sitting next to you in the pew. I want you to reach over and trace the sign of the cross on their forehead, and look them in the eye as you tell them “You are made in the image of God.” Take a moment, right now, to remind your neighbors of the divine image they bear.
And then tomorrow, when you wake up, before you brush your teeth, before you pay any attention to your hair, before you tend to any of your other regular morning business, I want you to catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror. Look at yourself, bedhead, unwashed face, and all, and see through your bleary morning eyes that same cross on your forehead. Look yourself in the eye, and say, “I am made in the image of God.” Repeat this every morning this week.
If you are feeling ambitious, I challenge you to seek out a mirror every time this week that you feel disappointed, pressured, or out of balance. I challenge you to seek out a mirror every time the things of the emperor start to weigh you down. Go back to that mirror and look yourself in the eye, and remind yourself, “I am made in the image of God.” See how your week feels different when you really commit to remembering whose image you bear. Come back next week and tell me about it.
My friends, you are all created in the image of our loving and gracious God, a God who spared nothing for your creation and redemption. You have been marked and sealed with the divine image. You are people free from the demands of the empire, freed in Christ to love and serve one another, freed in body and soul to give up to God your life, and to give in to the hopes and dreams God has for you. May you always remember in whose image you are made, and may you be blessed by it.