Sermon, 10/22/23. Caesar’s Coin: But what is the real question?

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21 Pentecost

Psalm 96; Isiah 45:1–7; I Thessalonians 1:1–10; Matthew 22:15–22

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein. Ps.24:1

So spake the psalmist.  And Jesus said, according to Matthew’s record, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus Christ is in total agreement with the psalmist, and so, today, I am moved to ask two questions: First, what prompted the Pharisees to ask that specific question of Jesus, and second, what is the real question which the learned elite, the Pharisees failed to ask?  In order to seek a plausible answer, I have chosen to divide my meditation into three parts:
I. Asking the right question, in order to get the right answer.
II. Are there contemporary situations that illuminate the Pharisees’ question?
III. The ultimate answer to the unasked question.

I. Asking the right question for the right answer

In the mid-1940s, as our nation was still involved in the events of World War II, I was still a young boy.  The film industry was still producing war propaganda films.  In the early 1950s, the film industry was not yet governed by restrictions according to age, and so I was old enough to gain admission to movie theaters if the teenage brother of my best friend, Cecil Rhodes from England, deigned to let us tag along.  In that era, the film industry was not yet governed by restrictions according to age, and so Cecil and I marched off to the movie theater to see a war film. For 9 and 10 years old boys, it was exciting, the film, and the presentation was realistic enough regarding the horror of war.

One film, whose title I do not recall, showed ghastly battle scenes.  But that is not what caught my attention as a 9 year old lad.  What caught my attention, was the question which the American troops in their trench put to the opposing German troops, who had called out: “Don’t shoot.  We’re Americans!”  The Americans, in their trenches, called out “Prove it. Sing the second stanza of ‘O, Say, can you see.”  Those lines open, as any American knows, our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

When the German troops began to sing the second stanza, the American opened fire, thus taking out that squadron of the enemy.  You see, the American troops knew then, just as we know now, no American knows the second verse of our national anthem.  We do well just to sing the first, before the sporting event erupts.  But a second stanza we do have, and it is relevant to the question, how to ask the right question, in order to get the right answer.  Our national anthem’s second stanza, composed 1814 by Francis Scott Key (1779 – 1843) reads:
O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand
between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
and this be our motto, “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

It is in the second verse, that the magic words, “In God we trust,” find voice and connects us to today’s gospel.  This does not establish one religious affiliation or allegiance as a national church, but does, accidentally or intentionally, does set our nation on the philosophy of “American Exceptionalism.”  That phrase came and went but found its first lasting visual manifestation in 1864 on a 2-cent coin during our nation’s Civil War, used by the Union supporters.

Jesus refuses to play into the trick question of the Pharisees.  Jesus rejects that bifurcation. He responds, rather, with a question: “Look, yours is a fair question, but a still fairer and more basic question should be:  “How do we use that which has been given or collected for the common good?”  Can one define or describe those things that belong to God?

II. Are there contemporary situations that illuminate the Pharisees’ question?

Members on a college debating team or their judges recognize that the response which Jesus gives is a clever one; however, it is not a direct answer to the question posed.  Yet, it is an answer, a clear and debate-winning response. 

An astute listener to the Pharisees’ question recognizes that no one asked Jesus about God, but Jesus speaks of God so as to remind his listeners that God also has a stake in this enterprise.  God is the principal shareholder. God’s claim on us is greater than any other earthly claim on us. 

This response illustrates once again that a simple answer is not always forthcoming, when we seek guidance to life’s perplexing questions.  The truth is simple, always simple, just not something which can be expressed in a made-for-TV soundbite. 

The Pharisees were aware whose image was on the coin.  However, Jesus, as were the Pharisees (who were the learned men, the theologians and religious practitioners of their day), was aware of one commandment which has guided our Hebrew sisters and brothers, and us as well, over the centuries.  God informed Moses and his often-disgruntled group that under no circumstance were they to make a graven image and proclaim that that was God’s manifestation on earth.  When Moses asked how he (Moses) should describe God to the Hebrews, God’s response was and is: Tell them that ‘I Am that I am’ has sent you to lead them.  God does not need a coin or a golden calf.

Jesus’ question and subsequent response address us directly, even if posed millennia ago.  It is a good place to be, even if it is not without challenges.  Christians are meant to wrestle with the scriptures, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and then to live as faithful followers of Christ.  We live, whether we articulate it daily to ourselves in the privacy of our chamber, to fulfill the meaning of Christ’s call: ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’ (Matt. 16:24 – 26)

Although some fifty years, while in seminary just off Harvard Square, where like today demonstrations took place, I recall the heated after-hours debates which mirrored those of the general population, during the Vietnam War era.   We argued because a new telephone tax was to be imposed, and that tax was being levied to support the war effort.  Many Christians felt that it was their duty as Christians to refrain from paying the tax, even though it was illegal not to pay.  After all, those who did not own telephones were not subject to the proposed tax. 

Other Christians felt that, as citizens of the state, they had to pay the tax and protest the war in other ways. Still other Christians felt that the war was just, and it was their duty to pay the tax.  All of these people were Christians, but they held different convictions on this issue.  And, yes, there were accusations made of treason, of lack of patriotism.  And, yes, some Christians chose even to accuse others of not being Christians.  Several of us seminarians asked the basic question, the question hidden in Jesus’ response: What good aim did war ever serve, particularly one where we were the aggressor?  How did this build God’s kingdom on earth?

Christians are not exempt from discerning and from articulating what is right and what is wrong in politics, what is ethical and what is morally reprehensible.  Jesus did not attempt to dehumanize the Pharisees, even as he vehemently disagreed with them at every turn.  If God can work through governments and leaders, then it is important for Christians to be involved in government and politics.  Voting, holding office, learning about difficult issues, serving in political actions groups, paying taxes are all good things for Christians to be doing.  What is not good for Christians is to demonize those who hold differing points of view, or to assert that only their group holds the secrets to eternal truths.  For only God can know the thinking of God.

III. In Plain Sight: The Ultimate Response to the Unexpressed Question

Because I lack the confidence and talent of a stand-up comic in a coffee house in Washington Square or Greenwich Village in NYC, I refrain, at least from the pulpit, from attempts of that sort.  However, a humorous anecdote, shared some years ago by a colleague in the Physics Department, himself being a staunch Episcopalian and possessing a great tenor voice, during a rehearsal break for our campus chorus, provided me with a more contemporary expression of Jesus’ explanation.

A biologist tried for decades to replicate God’s accomplishment of creating a man out of dust, in the belief that should he be successful, he could produce cures for the illnesses that beset humans, and perhaps thereby receive a Nobel Prize.  Moreover, science dictated that successful experiments could and should be duplicated, in order to validate outcomes.  So dedicated was the biologist to his work, that even after he no longer received lucrative financial grants from foundations and had to resort to his own resources, he continued.  His effort went unrewarded time and time again.  Until one day, he created man.  So elated was he that he called God from heaven, in order to demonstrate his genius.  God, the ever-knowing Creator, asked for a demonstration.  And so the biologist invited God to go with him outside.  The biologist stooped down upon the ground and began digging, explaining to God that the first ingredient was dirt.  Whereupon God exclaimed: STOP, you fool!   That’s my dirt.  I created it.  Go get your own …. Dirt!

The Pharisees were numb to the ultimate question which they were asking when they came to Jesus for an entrapment.  Jesus’ answer puts everything into perspective for us, and for God’s people of every time, every place, every creed, and every race.  Jesus called them and calls us, even in the 21st Century to wrestle with that truth.  Our faithful response can only be: 

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.

And let all the people say AMEN