JoAnn A. Post
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. 16. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" 18. But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19. Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. 20. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" 21. They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." 22. When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
He sat silently in his desk as the rest of us stood, sweaty hands over our steady hearts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I never really wondered about his mute presence in our second-grade morning ritual. I was too busy admiring the boy two rows over, a hunk-a-hunk-a-burnin’ grade school love. But sometimes, on the playground, the other boys would push him around, call him names, make fun of his parents.
I later learned that my silent classmate was a member of the Jehovah’s’ Witnesses, an American sect that refuses to pledge fealty to any but the one they call “Jehovah God.” Out of loyalty to the Kingdom of God, which they believe to be a literal governing agency, they will not pledge to any flag, fight in any war, worship any but Jehovah God. Their refusal to express patriotism has caused them to be persecuted—often by Christians like us, who have a hard time keeping in perspective our love of God and of country.. It was not long before my classmate and his family moved away, probably seeking religious freedom. Odd, since they lived in a country that preaches religious freedom for all—as long as they agree with us, I guess.
This morning’s Gospel reading is one in a series of five controversy texts in Matthew, stepping stones—or traps—on Jesus’ way to the cross. Jesus has already been attacked by the chief priests and scribes, the Pharisees and Sadducees, and this morning by an unlikely alliance: Pharisees, the equivalent of canon lawyers, and Herodians, a political party rabid in their support of Rome. Under any other circumstances, the Pharisees and Herodians would have despised each other. The Pharisees worshipped the God of Israel; the Herodians worshipped the emperor. But Jesus was a threat to them both, to both God and Country, so they swallowed their pride and their differences in pursuit of this common enemy.
It seemed a clever trap, to skewer Jesus with regard to taxes. No matter what he answered, one or the other of his accusers would cry, “Ah ha! We knew it!” and bring him up on charges either of treason or of heresy. One way or the other, both the temple and the tribunal would be free of Jesus.
But you know how the story goes. Flipping a coin in the air, Jesus saw the image of the emperor on both sides. “This belongs to the emperor,” he said. “Can’t you see his face on it? Give it to him.”
And, leaning conspiratorially toward the Pharisees, he reminded them of one of the earliest teachings of the faith, that we are created in God’s image, that God’s image is embedded on us as surely as the emperor’s was on the coins in their pockets. “This,” pointing to them, “and this,” pointing to the world around them, “all of this bears God’s image. It all belongs to God. You know what to do.”
To whom do we belong? And to whom do we owe our loyalty? Whose image is imprinted on us? It is not only a question for Jehovah’s Witnesses and patriotic zealots; it is not only a party game for Pharisees and Herodians. Whom do we worship and to whom do we owe our loyalty? Three short stories:
Walter was a silently proud WWII veteran, a tank gunner in the Battle of the Bulge. His hard-earned medals and framed commendations filled the walls of their living room. When Walter’s wife died suddenly, he was shocked at how much work it was to plan a funeral on short notice. So one day, he called me and ordered my presence, “I want to plan my funeral. Come today.” So I did.
We talked about texts and music, flowers and eulogies, burial and pall bearers. It was a congenial conversation until he said, “On my casket? The American flag. Not that white blanket you threw over Marian, some baptismal nonsense. I was born an American and I’ll die an American. I’ll sleep forever under that star spangled banner.”
Jeannie’s parents worked at the local factory, both of them pulling multiple shifts to support their small family. There was enough money for what they needed, but nothing more. If she wanted something special, she had to earn the money for it herself. That’s how she bought her junior prom dress, and her first car, and paid for a four-year college degree.
The fear of “not enough” plagued her into adulthood, and, like Scarlett O’Hara, she vowed she would never be poor again. Passing up opportunities and chances, Jeannie worked the same job for 35 years. It was boring, but it was steady and steady was okay with her. When she retired, her pension accounts were comfortably full, her house paid for, and her elderly parents settled in a lovely facility nearby. Friends invited her to travel, to buy a fun car, to take a chance or two. But, all those years of scrimping and saving had left their mark. That money she had saved didn’t belong to her. She belonged to the money.
They were a traditional farm family. Everyone in the household had their chores, divvied up by gender. Men did the field and livestock work; women kept the house and fed the men. Most of the local kids—boys and girls—stayed in the farming community, replicating their parents’ lives. Their daughter didn’t realize how deep those patterns went, how proudly her parents clung to the American Gothic image of the farmer and his dutiful wife. When, after college, she felt called to pastoral ministry, she expected some push-back—it was unconventional all those years ago. But who wouldn’t be proud of a child who wanted to be a pastor? Her parents. They yelled and threatened, cried and criticized. Finally, came the ultimatum. “If you do this, you’ll no longer be our daughter. Pastors are men. You can marry one, but you can’t be one. You have to choose.”
To whom do you belong? What do you worship?
This morning we sing the answer. Remember our opening hymn?
You servants of God, your master proclaim,
and publish abroad his wonderful name.
In a moment we will sing:
Then, hear, O gracious Savior, accept the love we bring.
That we, who know your favor, may serve you as our king.
At the end of our table prayer, we say “Amen!” to this radical claim:
Through Jesus all glory and honor is yours,
Almighty Father, with the Holy Spirit,
in your holy Church,
both now and forever.
The question of ultimate allegiance applies to more than flag pledges and federal taxes. Some of us worship a person or the past, a bank balance or an idea. But none of those gives life. And none of those things is worthy of our praise and faithfulness.
Ancient coins bore the image of the emperor, so they belonged to him. We, on the other hand, bear the image of another. We bear the image of God. To whom, then do you belong? And how shall we live?