In our gospel reading for today, we find Jesus still teaching in the temple and the religious leaders still trying to find some way to trip him up. The Pharisees have decided that it’s time to play another round of “Stump Jesus,” and this time, they’ve thought up a clever question to catch him in a trap: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
This question puts Jesus in a tricky spot – because it’s not really a question about money. It’s actually a question about loyalty. If Jesus says no, it isn’t lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, the Romans will be beating down his door to arrest him for sedition. But if he says yes, he’ll be in hot water with the Judean religious authorities for a number of reasons. In the first place, the Judeans absolutely hated the Roman tax – in fact, they led a revolt just a decade or so before the gospel of Matthew was written – because of taxation. But more seriously, the coin itself bore a graven image – a kind of idol forbidden by Jewish law. And the most offensive part of all was the inscription on the coin. Anyone know what it said? It read: “Caesar Augustus, Son of God.” If Jesus openly supported paying taxes to the emperor, the Pharisees could argue that he was a follower of the imperial cult and not a follower of the one true God.
But instead of giving either of those answers, Jesus manages to give a short, brilliant answer that both satisfies and upsets everyone: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Now, it’s tempting for us to interpret this answer in a 21st century context. To us, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” sounds a lot like the separation of church and state, which is not a bad thing. Give your taxes to the government and your offering to the church. But I think Jesus’ response is a little bit more nuanced than that. When he says to give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, how do we know what the emperor’s things are? Because they have his face on them, right? They bear his image. So if we’re also to give to God the things that are God’s, then we have to ask ourselves: what bears God’s image? That’s right, we do! [at this point, I taped a sign to my chest reading “property of God”] We bear God’s image. And for that matter, so did the emperor! We are all made in God’s image. We and all that we have are the things of God that we are to give to God. So it is impossible to limit God to just one corner of our lives. God is at work in all things and in all people.
Our reading from Isaiah also underscores this point. God declares authority over all creation, saying, “from the rising of the sun and from the west, there is no one besides me; I am the LORD and there is no other.” God also takes credit for the military victory of Cyrus the Great, the emperor of Persia, proclaiming that God has called him to free Israel. This was a very surprising turn of events for the Israelites. The Babylonians had conquered them, destroyed their temple, and deported half of their people. They had been waiting and hoping for God to raise up a successor to David to come destroy the Babylonian empire and free them. Now God had sent a Persian emperor to come and do the job?? He didn’t even know God’s name! Cyrus was hardly the “anointed one” they had been expecting. But Isaiah leaves us in no doubt: God had burst out of the boundaries of the Israelites’ expectations and called Cyrus to do God’s work.
God is Lord over all creation and calls people in all places to participate in God’s work of liberation for the world. And if God called a militant king who didn’t even know God’s name to serve, how much more does God call us? We know and love God, and God calls each one of us to use the things that we have been given to join in God’s work. Of course, we are not called like Cyrus to violently conquer the world and to build an empire with armies and weapons. Instead, we are called to love the world and to help build God’s kingdom, using the gifts that God has first given us: our selves, our time, and our possessions.
What does it look like to answer that call? Well, look around. It looks like volunteering our space and our resources to host a food pantry once a month. It looks like campus ministry that reaches out to connect young people with a community of faith. It looks like partnerships with community organizations to serve our neighbors here in the borderlands. It looks like interfaith and ecumenical dialogue. It looks like AA and quilting groups and concerts hosted to raise money for hurricane relief. We already know what it looks like to answer that call. We know what it looks like to give to God the things that are God’s.
And as we gather here today, we show that we are still listening for that call. We are still willing to give more of ourselves to work for God’s kingdom.
Especially now, in the midst of our stewardship season, I think it’s worthwhile to reflect on the many ways that this congregation has obeyed the command to “give to God what is God’s.” Like Paul’s Thessalonian community, we model through these things God’s love and generosity for all the people whose lives our lives touch. And with every kind word we speak, every dollar we invest in this ministry, and every loving deed we do, we are showing the world whose image is engraved on us.