Whose Image? (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Matthew 22:15-22


It’s a gotcha question. You know the kind: one in which there is no good answer. You answer one way and people are mad. And you answer another way and other people are mad. This question has to do with patriotism and civic duty, which remains a hot question even to this day.

Back in the summer, as some of you will recall, I went with our two sons to St. Louis to take in a couple of baseball games. And before every game there was of course the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. I stood with everyone else, took off my St. Louis Cardinals cap and placed it over my heart, and sang along. I always like blasting out those last lines: “The land of the free. And the home of the brave.” Hey, what can I say? I love America. I’m proud of our flag. And, for that matter, I respect those who serve our nation in its various branches of the military, even if I haven’t always respected the wars they have been asked to fight. Admittedly, I don’t think of all that while I am standing for the national anthem with my Cardinals cap over my heart, but I like to think of myself as a proud American nonetheless. I love this country.

And yet, I remember that line from O Beautiful for Spacious Skies (which my musician wife says would make a better national anthem than the one we have, musically and in other ways): “God mend thine every flaw.” It is a reminder that our nation has its flaws as well. Just like all of us. It may be a good country, even a great one, but it is not a perfect one. And last year, to protest one of its biggest flaws, the quarterback for the San Francisco Forty Niners regularly took a knee when the national anthem was being played before a game. No standing. No hand over the heart. It was more a gesture to be seen in some churches or during a time of private prayer. He was the child of a black father and a white mother, who was adopted and raised by a white couple. But it was the burdens of many blacks in this country that weighed on him. And so he took a knee during the Star Spangled Banner. It was his silent protest.

Some appreciated what he was doing. But many did not. He was booed. And he lost his job. Some say it was because his talents as a quarterback were not what they needed to be. But many think it was because of what he did on the sidelines during our national anthem.

As time has passed and as political forces have weighed in, it continues to be a hot issue. And the issue seems to be this: what does it mean to be properly patriotic? What does it mean to love our country? And, as proud as we may be of our country and its flag and those who have sacrificed for what that flag represents, we as Christians are confronted with another question: To whom or to what do we owe our ultimate loyalty? Even if to live according to that loyalty may mean the boos and displeasure of others? Even if to live according to that loyalty may mean that we may lose the jobs for which we have labored and prepared ourselves for many years?

The tensions raised by what that NFL quarterback did and what many NFL players do now every week in protest are, frankly, nothing new for me and some of us who are here this morning. I came of age, along with some of you here, during a time when the slogan, America. Love it or Leave it, was a bumper sticker on many a car and a slogan on the lips of many a self-styled patriot. I don’t recall athletes taking a knee during the Star Spangled Banner. But I do recall other acts of disrespect to the values of our nation at the time. Laws that kept black people from the spaces occupied by white people (segregated restaurants, segregated restrooms and water fountains, and even segregated churches) were disregarded. The raging war in Viet Nam, with which some of us have been painfully reminded by a recent Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, spawned disrespect for our nation, especially among young people of draft age—the burning of draft cards and sometimes even the American flag, the disruption of political gatherings such as the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago.

So, some of us here were confronted in our younger years with what it means to be a person loyal to both this country and to our faith. And it was not an easy thing to discern. We wondered: Is it possible to stand with your cap over your heart and sing the Star Spangled Banner and stand with your hand over your heart, saying, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the republic for which it stands. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”? Is it possible to do that and still be a committed Christian living in the way of Jesus?

It was and is a hot issue. And it was a hot issue even in Jesus’ time. So much so that the Pharisees, who had had just about enough of Jesus and his criticisms, thought they had the ultimate gotcha question for him. So they sent some of their younger proteges and some Herodians to Jesus in the temple to ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But first they tried to butter him up with some compliments: “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.” But, unlike some of our politicians, stroking Jesus’ ego didn’t fool him. Jesus wasn’t to be buttered up.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” Jesus responded. And it was a test. If Jesus said, “Don’t pay the tax to the emperor,” he could be accused of sedition. He could be accused of being a traitor to his Roman overlords and arrested. Radicals had come before him and they would come after him, saying, “Rome is corrupt. It’s emperor is a false God. Rome is bleeding us dry. Rome doesn’t belong here.” And there would be rebellion and fighting and folks would be killed and property would be destroyed. And, bottom line, Rome would still be in power.

But, if Jesus said, “Pay the tax to the emperor. If you look at our law as the people of God, it calls upon us to be respectful to authority. To pay them what is due.” If Jesus would have said that, many of his followers would have been disheartened and disenchanted. The tax was on the annual harvest of poor farmers and their property. It was tough having to pay it. It felt to them like the government was trying to squeeze blood from turnips. And what’s more, the tax reminded them that they were occupied by a foreign power. A foreign power had taken over what clearly belonged to God’s people, at least as they saw it.

So the Pharisees had their gotcha question for Jesus. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” As they saw it, no matter how Jesus answered, he was in trouble. Like today. To some, stand for the anthem and you are in danger of selling out Jesus and your faith. Take a knee and you are disrespecting your country and your flag and the many people who have sacrificed their lives so that you can have the freedoms you enjoy in this great nation of ours, including the freedom to practice your faith as you see fit.

But Jesus was not one to be manipulated or outsmarted. He asked his questioners to show him the coin with which they paid their taxes to the emperor. It was the denarius. And it just so happened that they had one to show him. It was a silver coin. And on the head of the coin was the head of the reigning emperor, and the tail of the coin had an inscription that identified this emperor as, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus,” that is, as high priest of the pagan Roman religion.

So, Jesus asked his questioners, “Whose head is this? Whose image is on this coin? And whose title?” And they answered, “The emperor’s.”

Yes, the emperor’s. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” Jesus said. In other words, Jesus was saying, pay the tax. Give him his denarius. And then we might imagine him pausing a few moments before he said, “and give to God the things that are God’s.”

What in the world does this mean? The interpretation through the centuries has been influenced by something that Tertullian, a Christian thinker of the early third century, said, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image, which is on man.” In other words, the coin bears Caesar’s image, and belongs to Caesar. Humans, on the other hand, bear the image of God, and therefore belong to God.

Every time a child is baptized in this church this is what we say. They belong to God. Every time we renew the covenant of baptism at the beginning of the year in this church, we affirm that we belong to God. Every time one of you comes up here after worship and places your hand in the water of our baptismal font, you are remembering that you belong to God. This is your deepest identity. This is our deepest identity.

So, when you wake up in the morning, and go to the bathroom to scrape a razor across your face or to do whatever you think needs doing to make yourself presentable to the world, what you see in that mirror may concern you. You may think of the things that you did that you wish you had not. You may think of the things that you have failed to do that you wanted to do. You may think of the person you wish you were that you are not.

But I would remind you to remember what Jesus said about you and what the church said about you when you were baptized. You belong to God. You have been created in the image of God. Regardless of how old you are, you are God’s child. So, yes, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But give to God what belongs to God, which is yourself.

It’s a tough call sometimes. Stand with cap over the heart or kneel in protest? Stand for your country or with those hurting because of what your country is doing? Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s or to God the things that are God’s? Jesus doesn’t tells us outright. He simply tells us that we belong to God. We bear the image of God. And he invites us to let that guide us, to let that be what encourages us how to live.

When I was in the Boy Scouts I worked for an award called God and Country. The award seemed to imply that somehow the two were the same: God and country. As I got older, I learned that being a part of this country of ours has its responsibilities: paying taxes, honoring laws, working for the common good, learning to live in community with others. But I also learned that I belonged to God, and that this was a higher calling, even if it did not always conflict with my calling to be a responsible citizen in this country. But it did require of me to ask at every critical juncture—when wars were being threatened, when people were not being treated as those who are created in the image of God, when the gift of God’s creation was being threatened—what is it that God would have me do? What is it that God would have us do? For those of us who seek to live in the way of Jesus, these are the most important questions that we are invited to ask.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, October 22, 2017

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