“A Matter of Image” Matthew 22:15-22

“Tell us then, what you think?”  

          Sometimes there is literally no space between a question raised in biblical times and one raised in our everyday life, and “Tell us what you think?” is certain such a question!

          You can sense that this is a mousetrap with a hair trigger even before the real question is put to Jesus.

          It is a trap we’ve stepped into ourselves, only to have it spring and snap on us in unexpected ways.

          It happens to us on social media.

          It happens in the casual conversation.

          It happens when the microphone is thrust into the public official’s face for what seems like an innocent query or opinion.

          “Tell us what you think….”

          BOOM!   Suddenly we’re put on the spot!

          In the Gospel today a trap is being set which two opposing groups hope will prove to be the undoing of Jesus and his popularity among the people.

          “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” That is the question asked with just enough “buttering up” ahead of time of Jesus to hope that he will make an “off the cuff” remark that will come back to bite him.

          We don’t know much about the Herodians, but their name probably tells us everything we need to know. 

They were adherents loyal to the local Judean government who depend upon tax revenue and their political connections for power and influence.  

If Jesus makes a statement against paying taxes, they will surely make that known to Herod and to the local Roman officials. They would treat such words as those of an insurrectionist, speaking against the Emperor, maybe a threat for inciting rebellion.

Jesus’ activity in Jerusalem will be short lived if political opponents are aroused.

          We do know a great deal about the Pharisees, who were strict adherents and interpreters of the religious laws and leaders of the people, and they don’t much like the way Jesus is supplanting their spotlight. 

If Jesus says “You have to pay your taxes” they will circulate that word among the people and paint Jesus as just another leader of failed promises who will do nothing at all to throw off Roman occupation. 

“He’s no “Messiah”” they will say. “Not if he is unwilling to engage in revolt against the oppressor!”

          “Tell us what you think…”  There is supposed to be no right or safe answer. 

          A politician in our day would employ the tactic of changing the question, “here’s what I wish you would have asked me.”

          Jesus however doesn’t do that.  What he does is far more confounding and interesting.  He enters the question on a deeper level.

          You need to know a bit about coinage in Jesus’ day to catch what he is doing.  

First of all, coins were not just representative of the economy, they were “weight measures.”  

One Denarius is a measure of a particular quantity of silver, which is then struck and inscribed with a mark showing the reliability of that measure.  This is what it is “worth”, as attested to by this official mark.

          There were all kinds of coins floating around in the economy.  The Shekel, the mite all  were simply weight measures of silver, gold or bronze, precious metals used in trade, all bearing a strike mark that guaranteed its weight, and showed you were it came from.

          The Temple had its own coinage, the Shekel, weighed and struck with images of the temple, lamps, or scripture.

          In the case of the coin Jesus asks for, it is inscribed with “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus, High Priest.”   This is who guarantees its weight and value.   This is therefore, who guarantees the coin, and to whom it rightfully belongs.

          But then Jesus pivots the conversation.  

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

          What things belong to God?  

Well, in whose image are we “struck?”

          Who gives us worth and value?

          Who is it that has measured us, determined our worth, and see us as precious enough to mark us, strike us with the seal of Baptism and mark us with the Cross of Christ forever?

          It is God to whom we belong!  All of humanity, all of creation!

          Jesus, by asking for the coin and asking about the inscription has pushed the conversation into a new and deeper direction.

          He’s made us acknowledge the realities of this world.   Taxes do have to paid, the Emperor does have say and sway by virtue of his title and ability to set value on things, but the Emperor’s values are not the only ones to be considered!

          And, while Tiberius may claim the title of “divine one”, is that really the case in your mind?  Herodians?  Disciples of the Pharisees?

          You do have to acknowledge that getting along in this world does mean doing business with the powers that have influence and control.  

          But this question of what Jesus thinks?    That pushes us down another level, because it pushes us down to considering what ALL of us really think!

          Jesus thinks everyone has intrinsic value!

          God so loves the world that he sends Jesus, not to condemn the world but to save the world!

          If you want to know what God thinks about people, look at what Jesus thinks about people!

Watch Jesus’ actions as he gathers the poor, the lame, the dispossessed, women, children, and those with no portion in life and gives them good things, honor, a voice, and respect.

He feeds them.

He heals them.

He listens to them, converses with them, forgives and restores them.

Commends them for their faith and calls them to follow him as valued disciples.

          If you want to know what God thinks about those created in God’s image then you need to look at what the whole of scripture reveals, how God comes time and time again to God’s people throughout history to gather them, to heal them, to call them out of slavery and into freedom.

          If you want to know what God thinks of people, then watch the divine drama unfold as God calls Abram and Sarai and gives them promises.  

Watch as God uses evil for good in the story of Joseph.

Watch as God sends the Prophets to call God’s people back from their running after idolatry and injustice to begin to work again for justice and to have consideration for the widow, the sojourner, the orphan and to provide hospitality to the stranger in their midst.

          If you want to know what God thinks about God’s creation, then you have to look at how time and again God calls for creation to be cared for, how the Psalms point to creation as the sign of God’s delight and how the heavens declare the glory of the Lord and the depths attest to God’s power and majesty.  

          God does not think of the world as disposable, God thinks of it as something worth saving, preserving, delighting in and protecting!

          And now, Jesus comes to proclaim the Kingdom of God and that Kingdom breaking in upon this world, granting a different vision of how we might live together in justice and in peace.

          And in the face of that, you’re worried about paying taxes?  

          Tell me what you think?  They ask Jesus, those hoping to trip him up, and instead Jesus flips it all around!

          Give the Emperor this pittance of a coin  —  but give to God the glory of creation and your very own self, for you belong to God!

          Give to God the glory of all that God has created and care for it as the precious gift that it is, more precious than silver or gold!

          Give to God the praise God deserves for having made this world and all that is in it.  Begin to see the value and worth of one another instead of measuring everything by denarius or dollar.

          You see what Jesus does here, and why the Herodians and Disciples of the Pharisees walk away amazed?

          They have been shown a much wider world, and a vision of the Kingdom of God where Emperors no longer have any real power.

          They have been reminded in whose image they are struck, and now are shaken to the core at the shallowness and pettiness of their own thinking, plotting to trip up the God who commands the winds and the waves with a silly question about taxes??!

          They leave amazed because of this answer to the question, “What do you think?”

It has opened their hearts and minds to the fullness of God’s love for this world and the call to transform it into something more than a mere transaction of precious metals.

          And now, the question that looms before them, before you, before us all is this:

          “Tell me what you think?”

          Would you rather live in the world that bickers over taxes, or join the Kingdom where all of the glory and grandeur of God’s love is opened up for you?

          Well, tell me what you think?   Do you want to stay here in the world where we bicker over taxes, or do you want to enter the Kingdom of God that Jesus has come to reveal? 

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