TRINITY XXIII – Dicit Dominus
Introit: (Jer. 29) Thus saith the Lord: I think thoughts of peace, and not of affliction: ye shall call upon me, and I will hearken unto you: and will bring again your captivity from all places. Ps. (85) Lord, thou art become gracious unto thy land: thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob.
Collect: O God, our refuge and strength, who art the author of all godliness: Be ready, we beseech thee, to hear the devout prayers of thy Church; and grant that those things which we ask faithfully we may obtain effectually; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like? They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship. They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth; from his place shall he not remove: yea, one shall cry unto him, yet can he not answer, nor save him out of his trouble. Remember this, and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure: calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it. Hearken unto me, ye stouthearted, that are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it shall not be far off, and my salvation shall not tarry: and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory. (Isaiah 46.5-13)
Gradual: (Ps 44) It is thou, O Lord, that savest us from our enemies: and puttest them to confusion that hate us. V. We make our boast of God all day long, and will praise thy Name for ever.
Epistle: Brethren: Be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample. (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.) For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. (Philippians 3.17-21)
Alleluia. With thee, O Lord, is the well of life: and in thy light shall we see light. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: The Pharisees went and took counsel how they might entangle Jesus in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way. (St Matthew 22.15-22)
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
Today’s Gospel begins with a surprising alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians: “They plotted together how they might entangle Jesus in his talk.” The Herodians were the supporters of the ruling house of Herod, the half-native dynasty of puppet kings by whose administration the Roman Empire ruled the conquered land of Judea. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were Jewish patriots, deeply concerned with maintaining strict adherence to the traditions of the Law. The two groups could not be more opposite. Yet there was one thing about which Pharisees and Herodians could agree: This Jesus must be stopped. So, they plotted together and came up with an ingenious scheme. First, they would flatter Him as a fearless preacher of truth: “Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man.” And then, they would ask Him a question about paying taxes: “Tell us therefore, what thinkest thou? Is it lawful [i.e., consonant with Jewish Law] to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”
It was a very clever question. If Jesus approved the tax, He would lose the support of all patriotic Jews, especially of the common people, who hated the Roman overlords. But if He spoke against the tax, He could be cited as an insurrectionist. If He refused to answer, He would lose everyone’s respect. It was hard to see how He could escape. He had often slipped through their fingers before, but this time, surely they had Him! But our Lord, instead of stepping into their trap, turns the tables on them with a brilliant move. First, He asks them to show Him a coin. The fact that they are able to do so was the first pitfall for them. Carrying a graven image of the emperor, who had set himself up to be divine, was in direct violation of their own faith and Law. These coins were the currency of the empire, but were forbidden within the precincts of the Temple. In order to get around this religious dilemma, the Jews were required to exchange their empire coinage for specially minted temple money prior to entering the Temple grounds. Producing a coin means that they are caught with something they were not even supposed to be carrying. Then, He asks them about the image on the coin, and upon their reply that it is the emperor, He simply responds that they should give to the emperor those things that belong to the emperor, and to God, those things that belong to God. Their trap had backfired and they were put to shame once again, so left in silence.
But hidden inside His response is something that ought to challenge us all. Surely, if the money carries the image of Caesar, then the money falls under Caesar’s domain, so give him what is his; but then give God what belongs to God. It sounds simple enough … until you really think about it. What exactly is he saying? “Render to God what belongs to God.” And what belongs to God? Well, everything, really. But by asking the question of the image on the coin, He is ultimately pointing us to the question, Where do we find the image of God? His words, in fact, send us right back to the very beginning – to the first chapter of Genesis, where, as the final act of creation, God decides to make a human being: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.” And from the beginning, God inscribed upon their hearts His Word and His Law. Regardless of sin’s entrance into this world, regardless of the fall and the sad state of human relationship both with God and with one another, we human beings still bear that image, even if we cannot see it, cannot believe it, cannot find it.
The problem is, we forget that. We forget whose image is traced upon us – on our make-up, on our relationship with other human beings, on our relationship with this whole creation, and on our hopes and dreams and disappointments and innate worth. It seems that today’s lesson is far from the reality that most people live. Today many, perhaps most people, do not even “render to Caesar” if they can help it, and they certainly do not render to God. We have lost the concept that there is anything bigger than “us” out there, whether the “us” refers to our group, or to ourselves as individuals. Especially in North America, where individualism is such a strong current, we seem to have become obsessed with personal triumph and satisfaction, at the expense of anyone and everyone who might stand in our way; “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.” In actual fact, what we tend to do, because of the frailty of our own flesh, is to render unto Caesar that which belongs to God. We put our trust in earthly princes and empires, as if this world is all that matters. We trust in our governments oftentimes more than we trust in God Himself. We look to them for every good and blessing, and think that, so long as something is not illegal according to the laws of the state, then it must be good. We have rendered unto Caesar that which belongs to God.
In a world in which we have created gods in our own image, whether these gods be religious or political, we seem to have found a loophole in Our Lord’s challenge to the religious/political authorities of His day. When what we have pretends to bear the stamp of our own image, then we render only to ourselves. The difficulty with this is that the world then becomes filled with an array of petty tinpot gods each pretending that he or she has ultimate authority, when in fact that authority is only an illusion. We become enslaved to a system which demands more and more from us in order to maintain our illusions of wealth, power, and status, only to find that we cannot escape that final authority that looms over all of us: death.
Today’s readings offer not only a rebuke of the way of life that seats ultimate authority in ourselves, but also, thankfully, a gracious and life-giving alternative. St Paul says in our Epistle: “our citizenship is in heaven.” Do not put your trust in princes, in a child of man in whom there is no salvation. We are created as beings that bear the very stamp of God’s own self. And this image is not upon us as individuals, but upon us in relationship with one another. God claims all of us with His own image. And when we go wrong, when we turn away from God and one another to become our own “Caesar,” God continually comes among us, to reclaim us as His own.
We get it mixed up and backwards. We place the greater value on those shiny coins (or bills or cards) we carry in our pockets. They are what matters in this world of ours. Do we have to render them to anyone else: the needy, the desperate causes, the offering plate that gets passed around the pews? Even without the images—the heads of whatever current “ruler” claims possession not only of our coins but of our life, our hopes and dreams, and our very being—we are caught in a tug-of-war over what or who has the authority, the right, to claim ownership of us, and that which is of ultimate worth and value in our lives. Our Lord’s command to “give to God what belongs to God” is asking for no less than an offering of our whole selves. And when we come right down to it, even “the things that are Caesar’s” actually and ultimately belong to God.
Now it is somewhat nonsensical to pretend to give to God something that already belongs to Him. But then, the offerings we make are not for God, but rather for us. It is our acknowledgement that we know in Whose image we are created; that we recognize to Whom we belong. Such an acknowledgement turns us upside down and inside out, and leads us to a fuller participation in relationship with God and one another in the here and now, as a preparation for the final and total participation we will share when all other empires have passed away, and there is only God’s Kingdom to call forth our loyalty. It is not the coins, the money, the material items, that are of ultimate worth. Let Caesar have that! God claims that which is truly valuable in this world. And what God claims cannot be bought and sold in the marketplace or trafficked to the highest bidder.
God claims that which bears His image. Even the worst that sin can do, even the worst which we can do to ourselves and to one another, cannot totally efface that image which we bear, the image of the God who knows us and loves us. And He will not have His image traded off for some trinket of lesser value. Give your money to Caesar, but know that you, your life and your being, belong not to any of the competing dictators who wish to use and then discard us, but to God. Our lives are His, and God would have what is His own, even if it costs His own life in the process of claiming us. Our Lord Jesus Christ came as the image of the invisible God, exchanging the righteous image of God’s only-begotten Son for the tarnished, battered, defiled image of a sin-tainted human creature, and He rendered unto His Father that which is His Father’s. This was no game of semantics for Jesus. The stakes were high, and the cost would be great. What was made in God’s image must be returned to God, and not allowed to remain lost or unclaimed. He rendered everything, so that we could be reconciled to God. He gave His life, He suffered upon the Cross, He marked you with that Cross in Holy Baptism, so that you would be His own, and a citizen of His kingdom. Render unto God that which is God’s. Believe and trust in Him only, for He only is God, and in Him only is salvation.
What will that mean for your life here, and hereafter? We belong to God, and must return ourselves to Him. There can be no question of a divided allegiance: Caesar is not a god, whatever his pretensions. Today’s Collect recognizes God alone as our refuge and strength, and the author of all godliness. The more we grow in faith and holiness, the more we learn to submit our will to His will for our lives. Earthly concerns and matters can have no final satisfaction for us since, as St Paul says, “our conversation”—our true citizenship— “is in heaven.” Certainly, Christians have a duty to the world and community in which we live, and to the powers by which that world is governed. Yet, while Church and State may be distinct in our current society, our spiritual life is one; we cannot be a Christian on Sunday and a pagan on Monday. In every activity, whether sacred or secular, it is our duty to render to God that which bears His image and superscription—our whole selves, our souls and bodies.
“Render unto God the things that are God’s.”
Collect: Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee: and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.