October 19, 2014
19th Sunday after Pentecost, Baptism Sunday
“Whose image do you bear?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A Sunday School teacher held an art session in which she asked her youngsters to paint characters from the Bible. As they painted, the teacher toured the room. One child was using lots of white and some green here and there. She told the teacher she was painting the Good Shepherd with his flock. Another child had a huge circular blob. When asked she told the teacher that the figure was “round yon virgin.” One kid had drawn a huge furry-looking creature with a funny look on its face. The teacher asked what he was drawing. The kid responded that his picture was Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” It simply had to be told with this morning’s scripture passage.
Not having had a child of my own, I would guess that part of the anticipation and joy of having one is to see “who” they will most resemble. When little Freddie was born, it was obvious he was Jimmy’s brother. And that is still true when he turns his head a certain way. We can see such similarities often enough, just by looking at family members of all sorts.
Maybe you have your father’s eyes, or your mother’s mouth. I’ve been marked with both my father’s hands and his joy of laughter. Both of my sisters have been marked with my mother’s accounting brain. What marks of family do you bear?
Before we get to the scripture passage for this morning, I think a little clarification will be good. The passage begins by mentioning the Pharisees, their disciples and the Herodians. Roman Herodians were the opposite of Jewish Pharisees. Regardless of all the differences that polarity implies, they shared an extreme dislike for Jesus, and all of them shared the desire to get him out of the public eye.
One other detail: there is a mention of the imperial tax. I hadn’t really paid any attention to that detail before, but it has importance. It was a special tax levied on subject peoples - but not on Roman citizens - on top of the temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes, just to name three. It was the insulting and humiliating tax that paid tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel, so first-century Jews got to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression. I think that the inclusion of this little detail was to define the picture that was being painted: Jesus vs. both laws: religious and government.
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
Thank you, Mary. Like a lot of things Jesus said, these words are hard to pin down to just one meaning; the more you look at them, the more they seem to blossom with significance.
At least I - appreciate Jesus highlighting the physical features of the denarius: sort of an adult children’s message. Before Mary read this passage, most of us would probably have said that the coin was marked with image of Caesar. But how many of us know what the inscription said? “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”
From this side of history and faith, those words may not have much punch. But back then, the Jewish folks had an issue with the coin because it had - in 3D - the designation that both Augustus and Tiberius were divine - God. So that little phrase broke the first commandment - the one about having no other gods before God. And then it broke the second commandment - the one about not making idols. On top of that, by pointing out that his opponents possessed and displayed such an object within the holy Temple grounds, Jesus seeed to raise, not lower, the stakes of the conversation about money and human loyalty. The issue at stake here is nothing less than idolatry.
There’s a little layer of meaning we miss because no one speaks ancient Greek anymore. It comes in the accusation that is thrown at Jesus early in the passage. It’s in the sentence, “You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.” The last part of that sentence could be translated, “. . . for you do not look upon the face of people.”
That little translation may not mean much, except that just a breath later, Jesus calls the accusers “hypocrites.” Back in the day, a hypocrite was literally an actor, and in the Greek and Roman world of that time, actors wore masks to cover their faces when on stage. So Jesus’ opponents say that they know Jesus doesn’t look on the “face of people,” and they are right - and wrong. Jesus doesn’t look at the public face we show; he looks behind the masks, to our true faces - and hearts, and he doesn’t care whether we are black or white, young or old, tall or short, Swedish or not.
And while we’re looking at this passage with all the markings, we might make note that with just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and at the same time, calls them to a higher loyalty than they’d imagined. And might Jesus also be calling us to the same - not trying to trap us, but to invite us to declare or reaffirm our allegiance.
If we close our eyes, and turn our head, perhaps we, like those early listeners, can hear that echo of Genesis 1, where God declares the divine intent in to make us in God’s own image. Funny how that identification can get lost in conversations about money and politics. While we may feel strongly about political loyalties, before any of us are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we are Christian. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business an no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made, we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the some total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.
This passage’s background raises some interesting points, but Jesus’ statement is just as relevant today as it was then. There are elements of our lives that are, absolutely, part of the world order and should be “rendered to Caesar,” even if they don’t register very high on our personal priority lists. But those are elements – our deepest person and self is God’s, and if we remember that, all of life takes on greater focus and meaning.
Being reminded that we are marked as God’s beloved shouldn’t instill a fear of obligations, but a response to living a life out of being blessed. We don’t baptize people to pile obligations on them, to smother them with shouldas’ and need-tas. We take on the mark of Christ so that we can deeply realize how great God’s love is - was - always will be - for us, so that we can bless the world out of such blessing. No matter what we may do or say, no matter where we may go, no matter what may happen to us, yet we are first, foremost, and forever God’s own beloved child. And that identity will, in turn, shape our behavior, urging and aiding us to be the persons we have been called to be. So should we pray.
Gracious, loving God, we are so blessed! Sometimes life takes turns where that feeling is not the first thing that comes to mind. But it is true - no matter what life may bring. So thank you that you have placed us within your church. Thank you for the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and carried the lamp of faith to our generation. We thank you, too, that we, now, for a time, have the responsibility to hold it aloft for others. Let the “same mind be in us that was in Christ.” Give us the renewed resolve to nurture a loving, caring community which reaches out always to the least of your children - especially when it challenges us. Cause us to be strong in faith, loyal in service, and patient in hope. Help us to be faithful to the heavenly vision of this place, and give us will and resolve to cultivate it in those who will come after us. For all the blessings, examples, and lessons, all your people say, Amen.