To whom ought we pay tribute? The Empire? Or, God? It’s a trap. And we easily fall into it ourselves. But not Jesus. It is commonly understood that Matthew 22:15-22 has to do with the question of paying taxes – specifically, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Just one glance at the questioners and one knows something is up. The Pharisees and their followers often question Jesus, but this is the first time we see them side-by-side with Herodians. This is an unlikely pairing since the Pharisees are observant Jews seeking to maintain their Jewish identity and integrity even under Roman domination. While Herodians support and were beneficiaries of the Empire. Pharisees did not consider Herod and his line to even be Jewish, while the Herodians side with those who had access to wealth and military power. Like Henry Kissinger who called power the “ultimate aphrodisiac,” they agree that wealth and military power constitute the only religion that matters. And, oh yes, they bear the name of Herod, associating themselves with the political descendants of the king who slaughtered all of Jesus’ contemporary co-religionists. That should be our clue that conversation is neither innocent nor safe. It’s a trap.
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” says Jesus. This is the real trap! An observant Jew would not have a denarius in his or her pocket since it bears a graven image and announces that “Caesar is God.” The very fact that they can produce the coin exposes them as hypocrites, posers, opportunists. Anyone with this coin is breaking at least two of the Ten Commandments. Then Jesus poses the real question: “Whose icon (eikon) is this, and whose title?” That is, “Whose image is on the coin?” They answer, correctly, “The emperor’s.” Then comes the all too familiar, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Astonished, the hypocrites leave with their plot to entrap him in tatters, exposed as the posers they are. They realize this is no longer about taxes.
“Whose image is this?” With this one question Jesus asserts that this is not at all about paying taxes. It is about who we are and whose we are. For Jesus knows, as the Pharisees and even the Herodians should know, just as we should know, that from the beginning, we are all created in God’s image – male and female we are created in the image of God. Imago Dei. Not the emperor’s. Not the Pharisee’s. Not the Herodian’s. Further, for those of us who are baptized we each bear another image on our forehead – the cross of Christ traced with oil blessed by our bishop as a sign. It is a sign reminding us to whom we pay tribute in all things. We believe that the bond God establishes in Baptism is “indissoluble.” This makes us God’s Beloved forever, just as Jesus is declared God’s Beloved at his baptism by John in the River Jordan.
Now it is true that since we are created in the image of the perfect love of God, we have the freedom to choose – we can claim our belovedness, or we can deny it, but it remains indissoluble just the same. This question of “image” runs through the entire Bible from beginning to end. Henri Nouwen, in his book, Life of The Beloved, at one point pulls together a number of scripture passages that address this belovedness of ours into one statement. One might call it a Beloved Creed that distills the very essence of what it means to be human.
I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will satisfy all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, your partner, your spouse … yes, even your child. Wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.
-Life Of The Beloved, p. 30
One hopes that the astonishment of the Pharisees and the Herodians comes from some recognition that this is what Jesus is really talking about, not some mundane question about taxes. One hopes that they came to some deeper awareness as to not only who they are, but whose they are? Are we the Empire’s? Or, are we God’s? And if we are God’s, then to whom are we to pay tribute? And, how?
The oldest Eucharistic Prayer in our Book of Common Prayer, Prayer D, dates back to the days of the early church, and has been authorized by many denominations for use if we ever get back together and share communion with one another as one church again. There is a paragraph about Jesus that gets at the “how” question.
“And, that we might no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” BCP p. 374
This offers some clues as to how we are to live into our being “created in the image of God.” We are to live no longer for ourselves. This is a radical and revolutionary assertion in a culture of me, myself and mine. And God’s Spirit, God’s breath, God’s wind, is given to energize us to complete Jesus’ work in the world, “to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” Not some, not most, not a lot, but “all.” All people, all creatures, all things are to be fulfilled. This is His “own first gift” for all of us who bear his image on our brow. It is His tithe. The tithe is always from the first fruits. It is what is given first of all before all other commitments.
We are meant to note that this text about images operates subversively in every context in which governments act as if citizens have no higher commitment than to the state. Whenever and wherever the divine image is denied, persons are made by political circumstances to be less than human.
As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan once declared about Goliath, there are always Herodians among us calling us to deny and subject our higher calling to baser and lesser instincts. We may pay the tax, but that does not mean we belong to Caesar. Our primary loyalty, says Jesus to his questioners, is to God and no other. As Saint Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait upon his Son whom he raised from the dead.”
You are God’s beloved. God is well pleased with you. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.