Yr A ~ Pentecost 21 ~ Matthew 22:15-22
You know how lots of times I tell you about how scripture passages that appear to be straightforward are actually very tricky and need really careful unpacking to get to the deeper meaning? Well, today’s scripture is not one of them. There’s nothing tricky about it. And there’s nothing subtle about it either. Once we hear it there’s no mistaking what Jesus is saying to us. The only mystery is why do we have such a hard time following his teaching?
I haven’t done this in a while, and if you’re a visitor today I assure you that I don’t talk about this all the time, but today you get a sermon mostly about money. Did you know that Jesus taught more about money than any other subject? Twenty-seven of Jesus’ 43 parables – that’s 62% – have to do with money and possessions. Approximately one of every ten verses in the gospels deals with money. The whole bible has around 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 on faith, but more than 2000 on money. Then, as now, money was a huge faith issue.
So it’s not surprising that Jesus’ enemies choose to use the minefield of money to try to entrap Jesus into making a mistake so they can discredit him. A subtlety in the text that you may not have picked up is that Jesus’ testers in this tale are described as the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. In other words Jesus is facing off against agents of the church and agents of the state! They ineptly try to butter him up with false praise and then slyly ask him if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor.
If he answers yes then the religious accusers will jump on him for abandoning the purity of the religion and if he answers no the state accusers will jump on him for going against Caesar. Jesus will have none of that simplistic, dualistic, either/or nonsense, and gives them a fantastic and penetratingly deep answer.
Jesus asks them to toss him a coin. Looking at it he says, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (Matthew 22:20)
But the Greek word isn’t the word for ‘head’ it’s the word e-i-k-o-n – icon. An icon is something that represents something bigger. Another translation is ‘image’. Image is a powerful theological idea. We first encounter it in the book of Genesis when we’re told that humankind is created imago dei, in the image of God, as God’s icon.
So when you put that deeper meaning together you see that Jesus is actually asking a really profound question of us as he holds up that coin – and it isn’t really about Caesar at all. He’s basically asking “whose” you are.
Whose image? Whose image is imprinted upon your soul? Whose image does your life strive to resemble? Whose image is influencing your character, your actions, and your dreams?
Is it the image that’s printed on the coins? Because if you look at the state of the world it certainly feels most days like it’s money, or the frantic lust for money, that seems to be driving the bus.
Whose image? Whose likeness? Whose alikeness – as in who are you more alike? What does your life look like? If someone who didn’t know you well took a look at you, whose likeness would they see? Would it be more like Caesar’s or more like God’s?
I know, that’s not really fair – because when you look at someone all you can see is the tangible worldly stuff – the material stuff of money and possessions. You can’t see someone’s true likeness with the naked eye. The “God-stuff” is deeper.
And to be even fairer, Jesus doesn’t ask us to choose. Jesus doesn’t castigate people for having, needing, or spending money. He holds the coin, has us look carefully at it, and he asks us a key question: What is the rightful place of this coin in your life? read on