Growing up, my sister was the queen of arguments. In fact, she was so good at arguing that we all assumed she’d grow up to be a lawyer. Instead, she has spent her career advocating for the needs of children with developmental delays and disabilities, which is probably a better use of her skills. Anyway, one argument that has gone down in family lore occurred on a long road trip from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Little Rock, Arkansas, and on around to Chicago, Illinois. At some point along some long stretch of Interstate, in the backseat of our Chevy Caprice, my sister turned to me and said, “Say the sky is green.” Unsuspectingly, I turned to her and said, “The sky in green.” “No, it is NOT! The sky is blue!” she barked back, and we were off to the races. I have no idea how long the argument lasted, but I know that she won because, well the sky is actually blue, and she had successfully goaded me into a truly stupid debate.
Young Lisa would have made the Pharisees and Herodians proud. They too down for an argument. Our Gospel lesson this morning is set in the midst of Holy Week in Matthew’s Gospel. After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his interactions with the powers-that-be grew more and more contentious. He threw out the money changers in the Temple, argued with the chief priests and elders over his authority, told pointed parables like the wicked tenants and the wedding banquet that we’ve heard the past couple of weeks, and by now his adversaries were totally fed up. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and this team was about as strange as they come. The Herodians were loyal to the Roman Empire. They carried the name of the late Herod the Great, Rome’s appointed “King of Israel,” and his son, Herod Antipas, who is perhaps best known for serving the head of John the Baptist to his step-daughter-slash-niece on a plate. The Pharisees, on other hand, were a religious party that sought to reclaim the purity of Judaism. They spent their considerable energy and power digging down to the nitty gritty of the Torah, and calling people to be faithful to the various acts of penance for their sins. Of the 613 ritual laws, number two on their list was that one that says, “you shall have no graven images,” but more on that in a minute.
The one thing that the Herodians and the Pharisees had in common was their desire to rid themselves of the itinerant Rabbi named Jesus. His teaching, preaching, and miracles were equal opportunity offenders. Rome was increasingly anxious about rebellion among the Jewish people, and Jesus was now routinely being called the Son of God, which was a title reserved for only Caesar. The Pharisees saw Jesus healing people on the Sabbath, eating tax collectors, and hanging out with sinners as an affront to true religion. They were also more than a little scared that Rome would respond to Jesus by clamping down on all of Israel with power and might. So, they joined forces to get rid of him, and they did so brilliantly, or so they thought, with a Gordian knot of a question from which they were convinced no one could escape.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes?”
The tax that they hoped to use to trick Jesus was essentially a census tax. It had to be paid by every non-Roman citizen for the pleasure of being occupied by Rome. It wasn’t just that it had to be paid annually, but it had to be paid with a very specific coin – a Roman Denarius – that featured an inscription of Tiberias Caesar’s face, with some variation of the phrase “Son of God” surrounding the image. The powers-that-be believed that they had Jesus dead to rights. If he said yes, the Pharisees had him. He would be a traitor to his people, a sympathizer with Rome, and a hypocrite against his God. If Jesus said no, the Herodians had him. He could be brought up on charges of sedition and cast as a revolutionary who called on his followers to not pay their taxes as a sign of protest. The Pharisees sought to wreck his reputation. The Herodians sought to send Jesus to jail.
Jesus, it seems, wasn’t fooled by either. He noticed right away their thinly veiled attempts at flattery. In a quick, and now familiar, pivot, Jesus asked to see the coin used to pay the tax. That they could produce the coin with its graven image so quickly, presumably either inside, or within the shadow, of the Temple is an indictment in and of itself. Pointing to it, Jesus then asked them, “Whose image is that? Who bears that title?” Without realizing that the tables had been turned, they answered, “the Emperor.” “Render therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The scene ends with both the Pharisees and the Herodians walking away, shaking their heads, amazed at what had just happened.
In a world dead set on arguing, fighting tooth and nail for some false sense of ideological purity, and screaming into the echo-chamber of one’s well curated social media feed, this question, “Whose image is this?” should give us all pause. When you look in the mirror, whose image do you see? Do you see someone made in the image of God? When you look at the friends on your Facebook feed, or that neighbor with different yard signs than you, whose image do you see? Do you see someone made in the image of God? When you watch the news, whose image do you see? Do you see someone made in the image of God? As disciples of Jesus, we are called to give the government what belongs to it, but nothing more. To God, then, we give our heart, soul, mind, and strength. To God we give our whole lives, for it is God’s image and inscription that is carved upon our hearts. To God, we give our neighbors, our friends, and especially our enemies, for God’s image and inscription are carved upon their souls as well.
I’ve given a lot of thought lately about what it means to give our family, friends, and even our enemies over to God. I’ve wondered, what does that look like in real life, bitterly divided, 21st century America, and I’ve settled on this as a starting place. Pray for them by name. I don’t mean the kind of prayer that says, “God, make so-and-so think more like me,” but rather a prayer that says, “God, let me see so-and-so with your eyes. Help me to see your image imprinted upon them. Help me to forgive them the wrongs they have done. Help them to forgive me for the wrongs I have done. Help me to love them.” Depending on whose name you insert in that prayer, this might be really hard to muster, but if we are going to be true to Jesus’ call to give to God everything that belongs to God and bears God’s image, it is a prayer worth trying. It is a practice which I firmly believe will help to bring healing to our bitterly divided world.
The Herodians and Pharisees were sure that they had Jesus trapped. It isn’t hard to imagine that many of you are feeling trapped in a world that you don’t recognize these days. Often, we find ourselves seemingly trapped in arguments we didn’t even know were starting, fighting bitterly over things that we might not really care that much about. In a very real sense, it feels like the Tempter is actively prowling around, seeking to divide, to dehumanize, and to blind us to the image of God that is stamped on the heart of every human being. Remember when you feel trapped by anger, fear, or frustration to offer yourself back to God, for you are made in God’s image and you a loved. Offer your neighbors, your friends, and your adversaries back to God, for they too are made in God’s image and loved by God. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, we are not trapped in the bitterness of this world with no way out. God is here among us, continuing to offer to every human being, through Christ, the ability to be set free. The world can have its pittance, its graven images of all sorts, but let’s not forget to offer back to God everything that bears God’s image: our friends, our families, and even our enemies, for no matter what, they too are God’s beloved children. Amen.