Gospel Text – Matthew 22:15-22
You will remember that one focus in this section of Matthew has been on the “little ones” and our call to use power to serve them in their need. Another focus is the question of the Jerusalem elites – “by what authority?” The purpose of power is to serve the little ones – that’s what the reign of God looks like. This is the reverse of thinking in the first century and the twenty-first century. We know that Matthew is focusing our attention on the great reversal at the heart of God’s reign.
Jesus address this theme with a series of parables that turn the question back on the Jerusalem elites. The parables make clear that the Jerusalem elites are, in Jesus’ view, failing in their leadership. They perceive that the parables are not told against the Roman oppressors but against them. So, they shift tactics and try to corner Jesus on some issues that would damage his support from “the people.” The question on taxes is the first of those political trap questions.
1. Translation and the Treasury
Sometimes the NRSV puts textual clarity ahead of textual accuracy. In that process, important details can be lost. Verse 20 is an example of such an error. Jesus asks his challengers to produce a Roman coin. Then he asks another of his counter questions. The NRSV translates the question, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”The word translated as “head” is actually the Greek work eikon, which means “image.” That word is critical to Jesus’ counter question, and the translation masks the power of that counter.
A far better translation would be “Whose image is this, and what is the inscription?” The images on a typical denarius of the time would include that of Tiberius Caesar on the “heads” side and that of a goddess on the “tails” side. The seated woman may be Livia (wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius), Justitia (goddess of justice), or Pax (goddess of peace). Or it may be the goddess Roma, personification of Rome. The inscription on the tails side is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase, “Pontifex Maximus.” By the time of Tiberius, the emperor was the high priest. “PONTIF MAXIM” on the coin claimed imperial authority over worship.
Coinage is rarely just currency. In most cases, coinage is also propaganda. That is certainly the case here. The empire makes claims totalizing claims on its residents – claims that include the religious life and loyalties of people. Judaism forbids the worship of graven images. Such images are regarded as idols, especially when they ascribe divine status to anyone or anything other than the God of Israel. The Jerusalem elites claimed authority over temple worship. But Rome made claims to regulate and control all worship in the empire. Where is the loyalty of Jesus’ challengers? That’s one element of Jesus’ argument.
Clearly, the coin depicts a deity other than the God of Israel, namely that of Roma. But it is the inscription that causes the most problems here. The inscription is “TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS,” an abbreviation of “TIBERIVS CAESAR DIVI AVGVSTI FILIVS AVGVSTVS” — “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus.” The coin describes Caesar Augustus as divine and Tiberius Caesar as a son of a god.
N. T. Wright suggests that Jesus tells his challengers to pay Caesar back “in his own coin.” Is that a surrender to the taxation system or a call to armed revolution? It could be either. And, Wright continues, Jesus tells them to pay God back in God’s own coin. What does that mean? Let me quote Wright at this point: “Jesus wasn’t trying to give an answer, for all time, on the relationship between God and political authority. That wasn’t the point. He was countering the Pharisees’ challenge to him with a sharp challenge in return. Was it, after all, they who were compromised? Had they really given full allegiance to their God? Were they themselves playing games, keeping Caesar happy while speaking of God?” (Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) p. 88. SPCK. Kindle Edition).
The other element is that humans bear the “image and likeness” of God, as we can read in Genesis 1. The real question Jesus raises is far more important than a question about tax policy. “To whom do you belong?” he asks his listeners, us included. Clayton Schmidt puts it well in his commentary on workingpreacher.org.
“But to whom do we really belong? Take a look at any person. Whose inscription is on him or her? Each is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). There can be no doubt, then, what Jesus means here. Give yourselves to God because it is to him that you belong. It is God who claims us, who made us in his own image. We do not belong to anything or to anyone else. We don’t even belong to ourselves. We belong to God in all our being, with all our talents, interests, time, and wealth. “We give thee but thine own, whatever the gift my be. All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”
We who are created in God’s image and likeness belong to God. We have been given the ministry of “dominion” in Creation as the divine image-bearers. Dominion, in Biblical terms, is all about stewardship – the faithful, careful, and loving management of Creation according to God’s standards. Lane offers a helpful definition of a “steward.” He writes, “With God there is never a transfer of ownership. With God here is a delegation of authority. God puts human beings in charge much as a store owner puts a manager in charge. God puts human beings in charge much as someone puts a financial advisor in charge of his or her investments” (Embracing Stewardship, page 9).
2. Possession or Provision?
Jesus declares that the issue is about provision, not possession. The earth is the Lord’s, the Psalmist reminds us, and we know this because the Lord provides. Caesar possesses and dispenses from scarcity and violence. This contradicts imperial theology which portrays Caesar as the provider of all good things. We can see this in an artifact called the Gemma Augustea. On this artifact we see the whole Roman ideology. In the upper register, we see Caesar as a divine figure who joins the company of the gods and guarantees the well-being of all. In the lower register we see how this happens –through violence, slavery, and conquest.
By Dioscurides (?) – Self-photographed, October 2013 (James Steakley), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30890931
Caesar’s provision comes through violence and on the backs of slaves. The Lord provides by grace and in peace. The Herodians were monarchists and would have embraced the imperial ideology of the Gemma without reservation. Jesus names their idolatrous collaboration and complicity.
Who do we trust to provide for us? This can take us to the First Commandment and the First Article in Luther’s Large Catechism. Luther talks in his meaning of the First Commandment about what it means to have a god. Whatever we depend upon in life and death, Luther says, that is our god. So, we might say, show me the money! In his meaning to the First Article, he reminds us that God provides all that we have, including good government (whether the governor knows it or not – see the first reading). It all belongs to God. And in Romans 13, we can see that even Caesar is beholden to the Lord’s provision.
Jeannine Brown puts it well in her commentary on workingpreacher.org.
“The questions raised by this text and our preaching of it must address the call of Jesus to live in wholehearted allegiance to God, while navigating in life contexts that often pull at that allegiance. Such navigation is not easy, and we would do well to seek God’s wisdom and discernment as we desire to follow Jesus in a world full of siren songs. Yet Jesus is the source of God’s wisdom–his wisdom shows through in his answer to this test by the Pharisees and Herodians.”
Do we live in such a way that the world can see how the Lord provides? I struggle constantly with my own scarcity mindset. And I struggle to see the Lord working in and in spite of our current Caesar. So, this text begins with the coin in my hand and the idolatry in my heart. At the same time Jesus challenges any system that pretends to compete with and displace the Lord.
All human ideologies and systems are temporary, limited, and flawed. Jesus followers are called to be loving critics, loyal opposition, principled resistance in every historical setting. Sometimes the need is more pressing, and the idolatry is more blatant (see Bonhoeffer). But our stance in relationship to secular power must always be that of critical distance and truth-speaking. Collaboration and complicity with power are always dangerous for the church. This is an interesting text for our time filled with electoral politics.
This text certainly also provides an opportunity to talk about stewardship principles. I commend to you the excellent little book by Lane and Pomroy, Embracing Stewardship. Lane identifies three stewardship principles that are worth mentioning in connection with our text. “First,” he writes, “God is the creator and owner of all that is. Second,” he continues, “God loves us so much that God has entrusted some of what God owns into each person’s care. And third, “he concludes, “how God’s people manage what God entrusts into their care both flows from their relationship with Gd and impacts that relationship” Embracing Stewardship, page 5). I think Jesus approves this message!
First Reading – Isaiah 45:1-7
The text begins with a shocker. Cyrus, the king of the Persians – the quintessential non-Jew, Cyrus is called the Lord’s “anointed.” This is the Hebrew term for “messiah”! Cyrus will release the exiles from their Babylonian captivity and send them home. He will do so at the Lord’s initiative, even though he has no idea that this is why he is doing it. “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen,” the Lord says through the prophet, “I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.”
The Lord declares that all of Cyrus’ military success is the Lord’s doing! The Lord insists on a hard-edged monotheism that Cyrus would have regarded as just plain silly. But there it is. “Besides me there is no god…I am the Lord and there is no other…I the Lord do all these things.” In terms of the gospel reading, we have a clear statement that everything belongs to the God of Israel and Judah. The Lord can even work through a pagan who has no knowledge of the real power behind the throne.
It is an astonishing, breath-taking claim. But it is the bottom-line assertion of God’s being.
Second Reading – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Preaching on 1 Thessalonians requires a brief summary of the themes and contents of the letter, whether one is doing a one-off sermon or a series for the next month. 1 Thessalonians is perhaps the earliest letter we have from Paul to one of the first Christian assemblies he helped to found. N. T. Wright offers a succinct background statement.
The Thessalonian Christians had only been believers for a short time; we don’t know how long, but it can’t have been more than a year or so at the outside. But already people for hundreds of miles around were talking about this unheard-of thing: quite ordinary people had done something extraordinary, in response to an unexpected message. The only explanation was that the living God had been at work through the gospel message about Jesus. And the only appropriate response to that is thanksgiving and celebration. This first chapter of the letter is Paul’s way of saying ‘thank you’ to God for the Thessalonians, and of encouraging them as well by telling them he’s doing so. [Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 93). SPCK. Kindle Edition.]
Paul commends them, in verse 2, for their faith, love, and hope in the Gospel. These three characteristics might be worth consideration as the basis of a message. Paul points to their “work of faith.” This is not works of the law, but rather the working out of faith as Paul describes in Philippians 2. He notes their “labor of love,” as they witness and serve in the name of Jesus. And he celebrates their steadfastness of hope as they bear up under persecution.
When Paul and his companions were in their midst, together they experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s power. This shows, Paul says, that they have been chosen by God for the mission of the gospel. Paul needs to reassure them of their hope because they are experiencing persecution due to their loyalty to Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
Why are they being persecuted? In all likelihood, they are suffering because they refuse to participate in the local cultic activities – the worship of idols. In particular, they are refusing to participate in emperor worship. One can imagine that such a refusal has civic and political implications. Good citizens offer emperor worship. Bad citizens do not. And there is a price to pay for being a bad citizen. Verse 9 emphasizes the “turn” to God from idols “to serve a living and true God…” This is in marked contrast to the dead and false gods of the local and imperial cults.
Crucial to understanding the letter is knowing that emperor worship had recently come to the Greek homeland. “In particular–and this will be important later on in the letter–there was one recent arrival among the gods of Greece and Rome,” notes N. T. Wright. “When Augustus defeated his rivals and became emperor of Rome and its enormous subject lands, he declared that his adopted father, Julius Caesar, had become a god.” [Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 92). SPCK. Kindle Edition.]
One theme of the letter is the source of “peace and security” we Christians can depend on. Paul critiques the imperial claims to provide and guarantee peace and security in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 (we find ourselves back on the ground covered in the gospel reading). “When they say, ‘There is peace and security’,” Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” Human systems, such as empires, may promise to keep us safe, secure, and stable, but all such systems fail in the end.
The “end” is another theme in the letter. In verse 10, Paul mentions the “wrath that is coming.” Paul expects that Jesus followers will endure persecution in the short term but will be spared the final judgment in the long run. While that final judgment may seem delayed (another theme of the letter), the outcome is not in doubt. Jesus rescues us from the wrath to come. Persecution is temporary and provides opportunities for hard-working faith, loving service, and steadfast hope in God’s grace and peace through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So suffering, in itself, is not an indication of either blessing or curse. One question we must always ask as Jesus followers is whether we are suffering for the right reasons. Do we suffer because we turn toward idols or away from them?
Final thoughts, illustrations, and resources
For information on the Tiberian denarius:
For information on the Gemma Augustea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gemma_Augustea
Charles R. Lane and Grace Duddy Pomroy. Embracing Stewardship: How to Put Stewardship at the Heart of Your Congregation’s Life. Embracing Stewardship, LLC., 2016.
Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone). SPCK. Kindle Edition
Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) SPCK. Kindle Edition