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

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 19, 2015) on Matthew 22:15-22. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


On Thursday, I was driving to meet another pastor and we were meeting at the Ridgewood Coffee shop which isn’t too far from here. So there I was, happily bouncing along when I noticed something I didn’t expect. As I got close, I entered this downtown like area - full of churches and buildings and one way streets - and also limited parking.  And each parking space had the one thing I dreaded - a parking meter.  And not even the kind that accepted credit cards. Oh no, these were old school - the kind that only takes coins.  

Now I consider myself to be a pretty resourceful guy but I’ll admit that since I moved out of NYC - out here to the land of the ezpass - I’d given up on coins. I don’t carry them. And, so here I was, sitting in traffic, my mouth half open because I needed just one - just one physical quarter - and I got nothin’. 

Jesus, in our reading from Matthew today, does something that I really, really, love. Jesus gets physical. When the Herodians and Pharisees get together to question him, we need to realize that Jesus is doing something that other events had not. The Herodians and Pharisees are on opposite sides politically. We know little about the Herodians but we assume that they supported the Roman Empire who occupied Israel. The Pharisees were not a fan of Roman rule. But both felt threatened by Jesus so they gather together and ask Jesus a question. First, they flatter him. They show signs of respect. But then they try to trick him and ask him a political question. Now, the picture that Matthew is painting is one where Jesus is in the Temple, teaching, and that there are crowds around him. The Herodians and Pharisees ask Jesus if it is okay to pay taxes to the Emperor. The question was well chosen, designed to get Jesus in trouble with some chunk of the crowd, depending on his answer. 

So they ask - Jesus - is it lawful - is it religiously, morally, and legally okay - to pay taxes to the Emperor? 

And Jesus responds by getting physical. He asks for a coin. And one is brought to him. 

One way to read and hear Scripture is to focus on the words - on who said what, what order things were said, and what was dialogue and what was narration. But another way to hear Scripture is to notice the physical - the actual location, the scenery, the movements the characters make, and any physical elements that are mentioned, taken, asked for, and explained. Because there is a physical element to the faith life that can be easily overlooked when we focus only on the words, on the order of events, on the who-said-this-who-said-that. We can forget that faith isn’t just a thought exercise. It isn’t just about what we say or what we think - faith isn’t just located in the brain - there’s a rootedness and grounding to faith that goes through our entire body, from our toes to the top of our heads - a grounding that erupts into our whole bodies and soul - and so when Jesus asks for that coin, he changes the question. He takes this thought exercise proposed by the Herodians and Pharisees and he grounds it in the real everyday experience of everyone there by asking for the only kind of coin that a person could use to pay the Roman tax. 

This coin - this coin was special. It was created under the authority of Rome. As the occupying military power, Rome got to dictate who was in charge and who remained in control. And those who were in control had to do two things. They had to make sure that no violent revolts to Roman rule. And, two, those in charge had to be efficient when it came to collecting the taxes and money sent to Rome. And they controlled this by allowing only certain coins to be used. 

So Jesus is in the Temple - and he asks that a coin be brought to him - and this coin called a denarius - and t I imagine Jesus taking this coin into his hand. I imagine that he’s holding it, slowly flipping the coin through his fingers and around his hand. I can see him tracing the images on the coin with his thumb and fingers. On one side is the image of the Roman Emperor - Tiberius. On the other is a symbol of a woman, a goddess, seated with a spear in one hand and olive branches in the other - and she represents the Pax - the peace that Rome had brought to the world - a peace through conquest and violence.  And on the coin is words in Latin, words that the crowd were familiar with - they said “Tiberius Casesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”  

So here is Jesus, in the Temple of God, holding a coin that declares the Roman Emperor as a god himself. This is a coin that told a story - it tells a story of Roman authority, experience, and military might. It defines human experience and the heavens through Roman terms. This coin challenged Jesus. It challenged his Jewish brothers and sisters. It challenged the story of God. And he’s standing in God’s Holy Ground with it firmly in his hand. And its in this setting that Jesus speaks and says “give therefore to the emperor things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” 

To me, by noticing the physical in the story, we can take these words of Jesus and discover in them something that is easy to overlook. Jesus is doing many things here - and this is one of those sayings of Jesus that I personally think we could dig into for a lifetime and its meaning never truly be exhausted - but he’s calling us to not compartmentalize our experience of God.  By physically standing in God’s Temple and facing the physical coin - he’s not declaring that this coin is separate from God. He’s not saying that this coin - this coin that challenges God’s own story - is, somehow, out of God’s reach. Jesus isn’t saying that the Emperor can be seen as separate from God. No, I believe that Jesus is reminding his audience - the Herodians, the Pharisees, the crowd, and us - where do we stand?  Where, physically, are we right now? Strip away the walls. Strip away the pews. Strip away the ceiling - and we’re right where we’ve always been - planted firmly in God’s creation. We are in God’s universe. Empires, rulers, governments, and political powers will come and go - but this place belongs to God.  And We belong to God too. All of us together here - and all of us individually, from our heads to our toes - from our thoughts to our feelings - from our possessions to our identity - we all, physically, belong to God. That reality can’t be subsumed by any coin - by any military power - by any human experience that tells us that mercy, love, and forgiveness are non-existent and meaningless in our lives and world. Jesus’ call - his challenge is not to see the world through categories, to not divide God into just a portion of our life. No, Jesus’ call is to take ourselves as a whole - all of us - our faults and our strengths, our struggles and our joys, our talents, our gifts, our budgets, possessions, and even our doubts and fears - and see all of this - all of us living as a saint-and-sinner at the same time - all of this belongs to God. The call isn’t to divide ourselves but to take ourselves as who we are knowing full well that we aren’t perfect but that we are here, right now, in this place, in this community, called to live our full lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Our challenge isn’t to run away from that call, but to run to it, knowing that we’re not doing this alone, knowing that we all have gifts and talents to share - that we all have gifts we can give - that we all, as the body of Christ in the world of right now - we are called to be co-creators in the actions of God - to bring mercy where there is hurt, to bring love where there is pain, to bring presence where there is only loneliness - to be God’s people in this world - to change this world - because God wasn’t afraid to get physical.  God wasn’t afraid to live a human life. Jesus wasn’t afraid to walk to that Cross. And the Spirit isn’t afraid to fill each of us up  - to make us part of God’s story - for each of us to be God’s gift to the world - for each of us to be God’s currency, God’s downpayment on the kingdom of God that is to come - for each of us to be God’s coin of love, mercy, and forgiveness in a world that still needs it.