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Sunday, 16 October 2011

What belongs to God

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! That might be a fun game to play with my grandson in a few years’ time - guess which country this euro-coin comes from, and you may have it. Assuming, that is, that the Euro survives its present crisis, but that’s another story.

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. We know from Paul’s letters that in the best of all worlds, Christians should pay their taxes and live quietly under the radar, exercising their democratic right to vote and not taking part in violent overthrow of a legitimate government. Doesn’t always work like that, of course, but by and large.

Maybe the clue is in that word image - eikon. For are we not told that we are made in the image of God? If our picture were on a coin, it would say round the side “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! No need to choose – you don’t have to be either a quisling or a resistance worker. We don’t separate what belongs to Caesar from what belongs to God – we give ourselves to God, and the rest follows!

Is it, then, about possibly owing a small amount of money in tax, but owing God a far greater amount – our very being? Yes, that is definitely part of it. It was, I think, forty years ago this week that I first consciously said “Yes” to God; and yes, that does make me horrendously old! But the more I go on with God, the more it seems not only possible, but also sensible. You see, God created us in His image and likeness, and not only that, but God redeemed us through Jesus, and empowers us, by the Holy Spirit. So yes, we do owe God our very being – we are created by him, and without him we wouldn't exist. It's not so much that we owe him the duty of giving ourselves back to him – we do, of course, but we know that! It's more about not being able to fulfil our potential on our own. We are made in God's image, but unless we allow God to indwell that image, to empower it, we will never really fulfil our potential as human beings. So we owe it to ourselves, almost as much as we owe it to God, to say “Yes” to him, to open ourselves to Him.

So we are made in God's image, and as such we owe it to both God and to ourselves to give ourselves back to God. But we also owe it to God and to ourselves to make sure that our image reflects God.

We owe it to God and to ourselves to make sure our image reflects God. There's a wonderful book by an author called Georgette Heyer, I don't know if people read her much these days, but this book is called “These Old Shades”, and in it, one of the characters – a child – is taken to Versailles and sees the king, and her rather sleepy reaction at the end of the evening is, “He is just like on the coins!” I wonder whether anybody would recognise God after having seen us. Would they say, “He's just like on the coins”?

The thing is, we do mar God's image in us – I mentioned earlier how coins can be so covered in the gunk of ages as to be unrecognisable. But coins can be cleaned – again, remember the Cillit Bang ad. Our prayer of confession today was one of the alternate Anglican ones, which I have always loved for the words “We have wounded your love and marred your image in us.”
This, for me, reflects the fact that we are made in God's image, and that sometimes that image gets distorted.

I am well aware that this sort of thing is apt to make us all feel guilty, apt to make us feel we must be terrible Christians, and so on. But that's so not what I want to do here. After all, there are plenty of other ways of distorting God's image – look at the Pharisees, for instance, who tried to turn God into a set of rules and regulations. Or in our own day, look at some of the more extreme Christian sects in the USA who want to preserve unborn children at all costs, including the mother's right to her own body. Or that church that proclaims that God hates gays.

Yet all of those are following God to the best of their ability. Yes, they have got things tragically wrong. Yes, they are distorting, marring, God's image in them. But they are not, I think, any more evil than you or I are. And God will, I pray, help them find their way back.

Because that, in the end, is what God is all about. God minds far more about our relationship with him than we do! We wander off, we get lost, marring God's image in us, distorting Christianity into something very much less than it is – oh yes, I've been there and done that – and yet, every time, the Good Shepherd pulls on his Barbour and his Wellies and goes looking for us to bring us back into the fold. We don't have to do it ourselves. Indeed, it's when we try that the distortions are apt to happen. We just need to be open to allowing God to keep us clean and polished and ready for action!

The coins that bear Caesar's image on them need to be given to Caesar. But the coins that bear God's image – we ourselves, each and every one of us who names the name of Christ as Saviour and as Lord – those coins need to be given to God, reflecting His glory, and allowing Him to work in our lives to make us more and more like Him, and more and more the people He designed us to be. Amen.


  1. Very interesting beginning, then cleverly gotten to the point. Especially the "following God to the best of their ability." One of the most difficult things for me to reconcile (and not the subject of your sermon, I know) is how to deal with all the great world religions. Your pointing out that others are not necessarily evil is interesting and speaks a bit to my reconcilation issue. It brought to mind a statement by a U.S. political candidate recently to the effect that (and not a direct quote) "well he may live a good and moral life as a Mormom, but that doesn't make him a Christian". Really enjoyed reading this.

  2. I could never reconcile them either, but a very wise teacher pointed out that in John's gospel Jesus says that he is the only way to the Father; he carefully doesn't say he is the only way to God! So if we want to know God as Father, we need to come through Jesus - but there are as many ways of doing that as there are Christians, no doubt!

  3. Amen, Annabel. I have such a hard time (and not that I am the most tolerant person in the world, mind you) with a friend of mine who is close to evangelical Christian. Who has made anti-Semitic comments (and no, I am not Jewish, nor is my husband a practicing Jew). I wanted to say "Have you forgotten that Jesus was Jew?!"

    In any case, I really enjoyed your sermon, and I so, so appreciate your open-mindedness. xx

  4. I think open-mindedness is a function of age; I was a lot less so 30 years ago!