Image and Inscription

Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: Mark 12:13-17

Fill in the blank to this well known proverb: “There are only two things certain in this life: death and _____.” Yes—taxes! (Everyone’s favorite subject!) This is the time of year when many of us are filing—or at least thinking about filing—our taxes. Some of us wish we’d taken out more withholdings from paychecks or retirement disbursements. We lament that if we’d made just a little less cash we’d be in a lower tax bracket, but the government is happy to accept the overage. Of course this conversation isn’t confined to the months just before the filing deadline. All year round our elected leaders (and those who hope we will caucus for them on Tuesday night) talk about taxes being misapplied, too high or too low. Taxes are a constant source of conflict and controversy.

Today’s gospel shows us that it has always been like this. Jesus is in an argument with other Jewish religious leaders about whether or not to pay a required but sacrilegious tax to the emperor. This was something called a poll tax or head tax—levied on every person for the sheer privilege of being alive in the Roman Empire. The Jews and every other occupied people were required to pay using a Roman coin. A denarius was issued by the emperor personally, and if you picture a quarter you’ll have some sense of the coin. In the middle was an image of the emperor, Caesar Augustus, and around the edge was an inscription which declared the divinity of Caesar. That’s where the controversy becomes especially pointed, because obedient Jews stay away from graven images of other gods. They were strictly forbidden from idol worship—it’s the very first of the Ten Commandments: “Have no other gods before me.” Some in Jerusalem felt that using the required coin and paying the tax was idolatry. It placed the occupying Caesar above their own religious duty. But others felt that it was better to keep peace with Rome and save Jewish lives, rather than risk war with such a powerful enemy.

This is the dilemma that the Pharisees and Herodians brought to Jesus. They planned that he would either refuse the payment of taxes or, by calling for them to be paid, give evidence that he didn’t fully honor the commandments. They would either hook him for being a political revolutionary, or for being unfaithful. But he gets out of their trap! When shown a coin, he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” It bear’s Caesar’s image, and an inscription of Caesar’s divinity. Then comes Jesus’ marvelous, paradoxical reply: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus refuses the false premise of those who oppose him. The tax merely returns to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—Jesus sees no reason to withhold it. But neither does he give any ground on the proper devotion to God alone.

Pharisees and Herodians want to keep everyone focused on the problem of taxes, but Jesus shows that this is about much more than the right use of money. If the coin has an image and inscription of Caesar, then it rightly belongs to the emperor. But where does one find the image and inscription of God, in order to rightly give what belongs to God? Jesus calls his audience to think theologically about their lives. He knows what the first chapter of Genesis says, that God created humankind in God’s own image. Human beings are the coin of God’s realm—look at humanity and we will see the image of God’s own self. The inscription of God is in humanity also. In Moses’ last sermon to the Hebrew people before his death he calls them to “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) If the coin holds an inscription of the divinity of Caesar, this is the inscription written on human hearts: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” You and I bear the image of God in our creation, and our hearts carry the inscription of loyalty to God alone, so our lives are properly given only to God. Give the emperor his coin, Jesus says, and give God your very life.

It is about idolatry after all. But Jesus isn’t so concerned about a shallow image of a false god on a little coin. Rather, he asks us, are we loving God with all our heart, soul and might? Have we given our whole selves to God? Or are there things in our lives that we have come to regard with such importance that they get in the way of understanding ourselves first and foremost as made in the image of God? These idols of all sorts of things—not just money. What must we give to Caesar and not cling so closely to, so that we can truly give to God the things that are God’s?

A few months ago, Javen and I treated ourselves to some new gadgets. They were on sale before Christmas, so each of us got an Apple Watch. You might have seen that I use Apple products a lot. I’ve already got a laptop and a phone, both of which are almost always within arm’s reach. I almost sleep with the laptop; I do sleep beside the phone. Now, with the Watch, my Apple “trinity” is complete. And this new addition to the collection is delightful. It lights up with a flick of the hand, I can see text messages at a glance, track my fitness throughout the day, and make phone calls from my wrist. It even tells the time! I like what the watch seems to say about me too—I’m a hip trendsetter, an early adopter. Kids in particular are fascinated with it. Their curiosity produces one question after another about its capabilities. Once they notice it, I have a hard time making conversation about anything else. This makes me feel so cool, having something that many seem to covet. But I’ve also noticed how the watch has started to feel a part of me. Without it, I start to feel rather boring and incomplete. When I show up at the gym and have forgotten it on the nightstand at home, it’s a rough start to the day! It goes everywhere I go, and literally clings to me.

The image of Apple and the inscriptions on this little screen have taken hold in me. What was just a device now asks for my permanent use at all times and places, even here in worship. I would never preach a sermon from a laptop with a company logo on it, for fear that the tools of the messenger would get in the way of the message. But that’s what I’m risking when I wear this watch in worship, especially behind the communion table. Here, I don’t want the focus on anything else but Christ’s invitation, the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. That’s the point of an alb: to cover up whatever might draw attention away from Christ in the words and the meal. As the servant of Christ at this table, I want to fully inhabit and communicate his invitation, leaving everything else behind. Maybe you’re not fascinated like children or myself by this thing, and other pastors could wear it just fine, but I know my attachment to it, so I need to leave it behind. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Here at the communion table, Christ sets me free and reminds me of that essential truth. Apple can make a shiny bauble of a watch for my wrist, but they cannot have me—we belong to God alone.

As it is with the watch, so also with all the other devices and demands in our lives. For you, it might be a smartphone. Maybe it’s all the Facebook notifications and shares. Perhaps it’s the forever-long to-do list by which you measure your worth. Or the number of friends you have, or the success of your family members, or the dollars in your bank account. All these things have a rightful place; there’s a time for using the emperor’s tools for the emperor’s tasks. But at the communion table we are gathered—just as we are—by a loving God, then are given the freedom to set aside any other loyalties we cling to, or which cling to us. We are never to forget the higher authority within and around us, the image and inscription of God. These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Thanks be, to God.

Let us pray: Sovereign God, thank you for the coins, watches and other good things you have given us. Free us from clinging attachment to them. Feed us instead with your endless Spirit, until our lives are spent in loving you with all our heart, soul and might. Amen.

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