Sermon for 10/18/20: Caesar’s Coin: But what is the real question?

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20 Pentecost

Psalm 99; Exodus 33:12 – 23; I Thessalonians 1:1 – 10; Matthew 22:1 – 14

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



I. The Question. What motivates us to pose the question?

At some point in our lives, the question “who is your favorite?” has been put to us all.  Maybe not in those precise words, but in whatever variation, I suggest that questions hides a more basic one, one which is perhaps more unsettling and, thus, begs serious consideration.  When we hear that question, particularly as voiced in its many variations by school-aged youth when, among a group of friends, one will turn to another and ask, “Who is your best friend?  It’s me, right?  Tell them!”—we tend to shrug it off or to state, “It’s just kids being kids.”

Upon reflection, however, some are moved to conclude that the question “Who is your best friend?” is not as innocent or as friendly as an initial evaluation would declare.  This is not a friendly question.  It is a question [that] a true friend, a best friend, should never need ask.  At its best, it is a potentially embarrassing question.  At its worst, it hides a baser feeling or motivation, requiring a response that is perhaps not reciprocal.  Does the question from “Best Friend A” signal a feeling perhaps of “A’s” own inadequacy or inferiority?  Conversely, one might conclude, the “best friend” question is a camouflaged move to exert “Best Friend A’s” power over another individual or group, an attempt to declare “ownership,” where ownership is neither expected nor acknowledged.

Should “best friend B,” the one to whom the question was posed, have dared answer: “You are!” then others in the friendship group would be offended and feel pushed aside.  Had “Best Friend B,” in an act of appeasement, responded, “Well, all of you are,” then no one would have been pleased.

This question, whether as posed by school friends or by the Pharisees, as in today’s gospel, is ultimately not about friendship nor money.  At stake is the reputation and status of Person B.  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?” The Pharisees knew [that] if Jesus answered ‘yes,’ to the question if it ‘is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,’ those who resented the Romans, because they occupied Palestine, [would] be angry.  If Jesus answered ‘no,’ the powers-that-be would regard him as a revolutionary, a conspirator against the occupying force.  Jesus surprises his questioner, after examining the coin, by stating the obvious: Caesar’ image is imprinted on the coin; then give it him.  But neglect not in giving to God what belongs to God.  However, how does one define or describe those things that belong to God?

Debaters on college debating teams, or the judges, recognize that the response that 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.  If we deal in the money of the state, if we receive services and benefits from the state, we must be prepared to pay taxes to the state and the common good.  However, this is not the entire answer.  Jesus retorts with a foundational observation: Prior to the establishment of the state, there was and is an infallible authority, the Divine Creator, the originator of all things!


II. Contemporary lessons gained from the debate

   A. Discerning what the real question is.

An astute listener to the question or debate recognizes that no one has asked Jesus about God, but Jesus speaks of God so as to remind his listeners that God does have a stake in this matter.  God stands above all others, even the emperor.  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 not always simple.

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 [or not] 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)

Often we prefer a simple yes or no, especially during times of stress as we now find ourselves, besieged by a deadly virus and political uncertainty.  We look to authority figures or authoritarianism for simple answers, answers that portend even greater difficulties.  We could fall into the error of pride, thinking that there is only one way of looking at something and thereby concluding [that], surely, our way is the right way.  Should we deny the possibility that God is among us, active, refreshing, renewing?  Should we not allow God to be God and to implant in us a longing for new understandings befitting our own generation?

Although some fifty years have now passed, I recall the heated, vivid after-hours debates in seminary down the road at Harvard Square, those conversations that mirrored those of the general population during the Vietnam War era.  Ours was the contemporary version of the Boston Tea Party debate.  We argued because a new telephone tax was to be imposed and because that tax seemed directly tied to 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 more legal 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 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?

Jesus’ parable lives today.  He acknowledges that there is a place for government and political leaders in our world.  And, yes, God can and does work through governments and leaders, indeed, perhaps, in spite of politics and governments.  God worked through Caesar Augustus and his census that caused the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem, thereby fulling an ancient scriptural prediction.  God worked through Cyrus of Persia (Babylonia) to return the Hebrews to their homeland.  Granted, Cyrus and Augustus may not have seen it in this way, but people of faith saw it that way.


   B. Appropriate recognition of and involvement with the stateI voted

Christians are not exempt from discerning and 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. The Ultimate Answer to the Hidden Question

Because I lack the confidence 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, provided me during a rehearsal break for our campus chorus 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 clueless regarding 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.  That context is God’s claim on everything that God has made.  Every other claim is limited and normed by the Devine claim.  Certainly the emperor gets his taxes, but then give to God what is God’s.  No leader, no government, no nation should be given more than what belongs to it.  Blind obedience to any leader or state is idolatry.  Only God is worthy of total commitment and faith.  And God and country must not be confused as being synonymous.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees on that day points out just how separate these two can be.  Just as voting and other civic actions are valid expression of a Christian’s involvement in the world, so are questioning, criticizing, and even protesting an ill-aimed policy.  The Pharisees wanted a simple answer; they wanted to eliminate Jesus through a typical political debate tactic, but they lost.  In losing, though, they received a truthful answer.  Jesus called them and calls us, even in the 21st Century, to wrestle with the 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