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Sunday, 19 October 2008

What Belongs to God?

Matthew 22:15-22

Has anybody got penny on them? Or even a pound coin? Okay, whose picture is on the front of it?

We’re used to our coins, aren’t we – we barely even notice that they have a picture of the Queen on one side, and a few odd remarks in Latin printed round the picture. They basically say Elizabeth, and then DG, which means by God’s grace; Reg, short for Regina, means Queen, and FD means Defender of the Faith – a title, ironically, given to Henry the Eighth when he wrote a book supporting the Pope against the Protestant Reformation, long before he wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon and had to leave the Catholic church.

When I was a little girl, though, before decimalisation, coins were even more interesting, as they didn’t all have pictures of the Queen on – the old shillings, sixpences, florins and half-crowns had often been issued during the reign of George the Sixth and pennies were often even older – it was not unusual to find penny that had been issued during the reign of Queen Victoria, even! My father used to make us guess the date on the coin, based on which reign it was, and if we were right we got to keep it. Not that we ever were right, so it was a fairly safe game for him, but it made sure we knew the dates of 20th-century monarchs!

Different countries have different things on their coins, of course; if you look at Euro coins, they have a different design on one side depending on which country issued them: the German ones have a picture of the Brandenburg gate, or a stylised eagle; the Irish ones have a harp. Those Euro countries which are monarchies have a picture of their monarch on them, as we would if we joined the Euro, and the Vatican City ones have a picture of the Pope!

This convention, of showing the monarch on your coins, dates back thousands of years, and was well-known in Jesus’ day. But unfortunately, this raised a problem for Jesus and his contemporaries, as the Roman coins in current use all showed a picture of the Emperor, and the wording round the side said something like “Son of a god”, meaning that the Emperor was thought to be divine.

You might remember how the earliest Christians were persecuted for refusing to say that the Emperor was Lord, as to them, only Jesus was Lord? Well, similarly, the Jews couldn’t say that Caesar was God, and, rather like Muslims, they were forbidden to have images of people, either. So the Roman coins carried a double whammy for them.

They got round it by having their own coins to be used in the Temple – hence the moneychangers that Jesus threw out, because they were giving such a rotten rate of exchange. But for everyday use, of course, they were stuck with the Roman coins. And taxes, like the poll tax, had to be paid in Roman coins. You might remember the episode where Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish, and it has swallowed a coin that will do for both of their taxes. But that was then, and this is now.

Now, Jesus is in the Temple when they come to him – in the holy place, where you must use the Jewish coins or not spend money. “They”, in this case, are not only the Pharisees, who were out to trap Jesus by any means possible, but also the Herodians, who actually supported the puppet-king, Herod.

The question is a total trick question, of course. They come up to Jesus, smarming him and pointing out that they know he doesn’t take sides – so should they pay their poll tax, or not? If he says, yes you must, then he’ll be accused of saying it’s okay for people to have coins with forbidden images; it’s okay to be Romanised; it’s okay to collaborate with the occupying power. And if he says, no don’t, then he’ll be accused of trying to incite rebellion or terrorism.

So Jesus asks for a coin. I expect it was the Herodians who produced one – the Pharisees would probably not have admitted to having one in their pockets, even if they did. And he asks whose image – eikon, the word is – whose image is on the coin? And they said, puzzled, Caesar’s of course, whose else would it be?

And we all know what he said next: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God.

It’s kind of difficult, at this distance, to know what he meant. Was he saying we need to keep our Christian life separate from the rest of life? God forbid, and I mean that! If our commitment to God means anything at all, it should be informing all we do, whether we are at worship on Sunday or at work on Monday or out at the pub on a Friday! There is a crying need for Christians in all walks of life; whether we are called to be plumbers or politicians, bankers or builders, retired or redundant! Wherever we find ourselves, we are God’s people, and our lives and values and morals and behaviour need to reflect that.

So what is Jesus saying? It’s about more than paying taxes or not paying them. It’s not about whether we support our government or whether we don’t.

I think he’s saying that there doesn’t have to be a conflict. The image of Caesar is on the coin – but we, we are made in God’s image! If we were coins, the writing around us would say “A child of God”, not, as for the Caesars, meaning that we are gods ourselves, but meaning, quite literally, that we are God’s beloved children.

Sure, sometimes God’s image gets marred and spoilt, when we go astray. I’ve seen coins that have been buried in the earth for years, and they go all tarnished, and sometimes, if they’ve been there for centuries, they build up an accretion of gunk round them to the point that you can’t possibly tell what they are. But even that gunk can be cleaned off, with care – and you’ve all seen those Cillit Bang ads where he dips a penny into the fluid and it comes up bright and shiny again!

Maybe Jesus is saying that this is not an issue to divide people – Caesar gets what belongs to him, which is the coin, and God gets what belongs to him, which is us!

This isn’t just about the fact that we probably owe the Government a limited amount of money in taxation, but we owe God a far greater response, of our very being. It is about that, of course it is, but maybe there’s more.

I think, perhaps that we are being called to appreciate a God who isn’t trying to divide us on contentious issues – we’re quite capable of doing that ourselves. God, I think, is trying to make win-win situations, where nobody loses. Look at the crucifixion, for instance. It’s not about whether it was the Jews, or the Romans, or even we who caused it. Grace is for everybody, no matter who. It doesn’t matter who you were; it doesn’t even matter who you are – God looks at what you can become! God’s way is open to anybody. At the crucifixion, blame is cancelled. We don’t have to live that way any more.

That’s one of the reasons why we are told to forgive. There is no blame. We live in a win-win world. We are forgiven, so we need to pass that forgiveness on – not always easy, but we know, when someone has offended us, that sooner or later we will simmer down and then we’ll be able to forgive.

So Jesus is saying that there is no need to choose – both are right. We pay our taxes, but we give ourselves to God.

Maybe, too, he is also saying that this was not the question. It’s not about whether you should pay your taxes or not – or even about whether a true patriot of the day should pay the poll tax. Maybe he is also asking whether people see God’s image when they look at us.

That’s the kind of question I hate, because I always assume the answer will be “No, I’m a rotten Christian and nobody could possibly see God’s image in me!” But that’s me being paranoid, I dare say. After all, we are told that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and that the fruit of the Spirit will be manifest in our lives.

I do think we try too hard sometimes – we try to make ourselves Christians rather than allowing God to make us so! We try to stamp God’s image on us ourselves; we don’t let God do it. Isaiah said something about potters and clay, didn’t he?

Come to think of it, I used to hate the image of the potter and the clay, assuming I’d be moulded in ways I didn’t like and would be made to suffer all sorts of things. Again, that’s me being paranoid.

But we do need to be open to God, to allow him to stamp His image on us, to write His name on us. That’s our job. Whether or not other people see God in us isn’t really down to us. Obviously, if we know we aren’t listening to God, or if we know something is badly wrong in our life and that this is informing our relationship with God, then we aren’t going to be displaying His image. But for most of us, our job is to stay open, to allow God to mould us. To give God, in other words, what belongs to God – ourselves!


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