Sunday October 19, 2014- 19th Sunday after Pentecost/Ordinary 29
On Being Imprinted
It turns out that buying a couch justly is harder than I thought. All I wanted to do was purchase a simple couch. One of my housemates moved out, and took the couch with her. We thought about buying one on Craigslist, but then everyone got all squeamish about possible bed bugs since they’re not uncommon in upholstered furniture in the city. We looked for a second hand couch through friends, but all of their couches were too big to fit up the stairs to our second floor apartment. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. But if I bought a cheap sofa, I would be benefiting from other humans paid sub-standard wages working in unsafe conditions make cheap sofas. And I’ve worked on toxic chemical policy long enough to be suspicious of the foam rubber, the toxic fabric treatments and treated woods. And then I missed the tax-free weekend for a better price, but I don’t really believe that tax-free weekend is good public policy. As much as I try to use my money in ways that are just, I am a hypocrite if I say I use money justly Every possible decision seemed morally compromised.. Either expensive and non-toxic and humanely produced or inexpensive and toxic and inhuman. And to think this long about a couch is ridiculous and a waste. It’s all so compromised and boring and utterly intractable.
All our structures are compromised. All our exchanges are tinged with injustice. It is really hard to make just decisions in a broken economic system. The gospel text from Matthew has Jesus showing those around him just how compromised everyone is within imperial economic systems.
It’s the Tuesday of Holy Week, in an occupied land. There’s talk of a Jewish uprising against the occupying Roman power. Jesus has come into Jerusalem in a triumph parade on Palm Sunday that looked more like a circus show and political farce than the royal entry of a savior. Yesterday, he was flipping the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. Tomorrow, he will be arrested. But today, the religious and political leaders are looking to entrap him, to hear him say something so scandalous that he can be arrested. They stand in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Two parties who want nothing to do with one another, two groups that are usually fighting against one another- the Pharisees and the Herodians team up to entrap Jesus. The Pharisees are the Jewish religious leaders who don’t like the Roman rule, but aren’t acting out like the Zealots. The Herodians are Jews who have teamed up with Rome. They find a common enemy in Jesus.
The start with flattery, before they pounce: “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?” There are other people hanging around listening, Jews from all over the occupied territories who have come into Jerusalem for the Passover. They push forward to hear. Like a zinger question on live tv during election season, this is good theatre.
It’s a trap. If Jesus says it’s lawful to pay the taxes to the Emperor, he angers the Pharisees and the crowd incensed over paying more taxes to an occupying power. If Jesus says it’s unlawful to pay the taxes to the Emperor, he angers the Herodians loyal to Rome. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. We translate the word as ‘tax’ here, but in the original Greek it’s κῆνσον or “census.” “Show me the coin used for the census.” Remember that line from the Christmas story? Mary and Joseph heading to Bethlehem because of the census, all the world shall be counted, but as all the people are being taxed by the occupying power. They have to go to their hometown because they didn’t have any land to tax. The census wasn’t just about counting people, it was about finding out how much money there was in the occupied territory and then extracting the money. People too poor to be taxed for their landholdings were called “Capite censi” or those counted by head. These are the lowest class people. The economic system is utterly corrupt that there are people taxed not for what they own or earn, but simply for being. The Pharisees and Herodians are asking Jesus if it’s lawful for the poorest to pay a tax simply for being. Say Yes, and the poor revolt. Say No, and the occupying power crushes you. This kinda question that will get you killed.
But Jesus turns the conversation around, “Show me the coin used for the census,” Jesus says in vs 19. It’s more than a children’s sermon object lesson. One of the Pharisees reaches into his pockets and flips Jesus a coin. (Flip to Rachel?) “Whose head is this?” The Emperor’s, they respond. Jesus asks. “And whose title?” The inscription reads “Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs” (“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Divine Augustus
Standing in the Temple, the central and holiest place for Jewish religious life, the Pharisee tosses Jesus a Roman coin. Here’s the problem: Jews aren’t supposed to have objects with graven images, remember- it’s in the Ten Commandments! And especially in the ritually pure Temple! They’re stuck. They’re complicit. The Pharisees, the Herodians, they are all caught in the perverse economic system of imperial rule. No decision is a good one in this setting. With a coin in your pocket, everywhere you go, the Emperor goes with you. Every exchange you make, you reaffirm the power of the empire. And the emperor is claiming divinity? What do you pledge allegiance to? God or Empire?
This is how dangerous it is to confront the domination of money and empire in our lives. Jesus is talking about things bigger and more complex than whether or not to buy a couch on tax-free weekend. After spending a week with this story, I’m less convinced that this is a passage about taxes and more convinced that this is about idolatry and the imperial power money has over our lives. How can you pledge allegiance to God when the empire is calling itself holy?
When I was in 6th grade, a new girl transferred into our middle school from Ohio. She seemed nice, pretty with long brown hair and bright blue eyes. She should have blended in easily with all the other kids trying blend in until we were an undifferentiated mass of beige. But she stood out. When we stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, placed our right hand over our heart and chanted in rhythm- “I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America…” Rebecca just stood there. Her hand didn’t move. Her lips didn’t move. She stood quietly, looking straight ahead. It took a full decade for me to realize that Rebecca was raised in a community of Mennonites, a tradition of Christians that rejected infant baptism, dating to the 16th century in Europe. Mennonites are so convicted by the Lordship of Christ, about God’s sovereignty over everything, that they do not pledge their allegiance to anyone or anything but God.
Most of us don’t go that far. We just go along with our coins in our pockets that proclaim “In God We trust,” and our hands over our heart. And in a verse that has confused the Church for millennia, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” as if the world could be nicely sorted into two baskets: Caesar’s stuff over here and God’s stuff over here.
When Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” in verse 20, another way to translate that is “Whose image?” In Greek, the word is ikon-εἰκὼν . The coins are imprinted with the image of the emperor. Give the things with the Emperor’s image on them back to the Emperor. Icon, image. Same word as Genesis 1:27 where at the beginning of Creation humans are “made in the ikon of God.”
And what is made in the image of God? Everything. Every human being. Everything imprinted with the image of God, indelibly imprinted with the image of God. You, you, you are the ikon of God. Whatever else has been stamped on you, you are forever imprinted with the image of God. What are the all-encompassing claims of ownership in our own lives? What demands our loyalty, our sacrifice, our allegiance? my calendar? my checkbook? my status? my nation? fear? Whatever demands that you pledge allegiance, whatever power and control the money in your pocket exerts, however your life has become ruled by money or lack of money, you are made in the image of God. Whatever else you have been imprinted with, you are indelibly imprinted with the image of God. In the middle of Jesus’s final week, when everything was on the line, when the temptation to trust powers and idols other than the God who shows him to the cross were at the highest, Jesus said it’s all God’s. All of this is God’s. Give Caesar his cut, fine. But Give God everything. Everything. God the toddler pointing around to all of creation and saying “mine, mine, mine, mine. All mine.”
The temptation is real to place our allegiance in other gods. But there is good news in this story. Whatever else you have been imprinted with, however strong a hold the empire has on your life as we live in broken economic systems, you and every one else in all Creation are indelibly imprinted with the image of God. May it be so for your this day. Amen.