This sermon was preached on Holy Tuesday 2011 (19/4/11)
This Holy Week we’re spending time with Jesus in Jerusalem, watching events unfolding on the journey from “Hosanna in the highest” to “Crucify him”.
We’ve already seen confrontations between Jesus and religious leaders. We’ve seen the way Jesus cleared the temple court of traders and heard how he countered questions from Chief Priests and elders about his authority.
Today it’s the turn of a group of Pharisees to try catching Jesus out. They’ve come up with the perfect catch question:
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
If Jesus says “no, it’s not lawful for us, as Jews, to pay taxes to the emperor” then the Roman authorities will act swiftly to crush the suggestion of rebellion and many of Jesus’ followers will be frightened off. If Jesus says “yes, we should pay taxes to the emperor” he will lose those among his followers who are hoping he will lead a movement to free them from Roman rule.
And there’s more … The denarius, the coin used for the payment of taxes, carries the image of Caesar and an inscription describing Caesar as Son of God. The image and the title offend against Jewish laws which prohibit the making of graven images and the worship of any other God. So Jesus might even give the Pharisees grounds for accusations of blasphemy.
So, it is the perfect plan – however he answers their question the threat he poses to their authority and status will be neutralised.
Before we think about how Jesus answers this question it’s worth reflecting on how he faces this sort of opposition. Yes, he is a “man of sorrows acquainted with grief” but he is also a man of extraordinary strength and courage. he is taking on the leaders of his people on their home ground and must know what harm they can do to him.
He takes them on anyway and we might imagine the Pharisees’ faces when they realise with dismay that once again they’ve got it wrong.
When Jesus answers “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” they know that, somehow, Jesus has managed to get the better of them – again. He hasn’t spoken out clearly on one side or the other, the trap is empty and they’re looking foolish – again.
Of course the question never was a genuine seeking of advice, or a way of opening up a discussion on the subject. But if the Pharisees had genuinely wanted an answer to their question what would they have made of Jesus reply?
What are we to make of it today as we reflect on our own faith journeys this Holy Week?
In his book “The Message of Matthew” Michael Green says this: “The coin bears Caesar’s image, give it back to him. You bear God’s image: so give yourself back to him.”
If we have ears to hear I think Jesus is asking us to remember who we are – the people of God whose image we bear and whose presence is with us.
He calls us to choose again the new life he offers us;
to see things as God sees them,
to live in this world with Kingdom values of love, justice and mercy rather than the values of power, wealth and social status.
The message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is among us now, within this world with all its complicated forms of government, authority and administration of justice.
It is from within this world that Jesus calls us to give to God what belongs to God who is constantly working to make his voice heard. And his voice is heard. It might be hard to hear it in the clamour of everyday life but it’s there, like the still small voice after the earthquake, tsunami, wind, fire and nuclear threat.
God’s voice cuts through the commercial atmosphere of competition and exploitation speaking of fairness and encouragement
His voice cuts through cries for vengeance and war speaking of understanding and peace
His voice cuts through the strident tones of ambition and ruthlessness speaking of humility and gentleness
He calls for our voices to speak this language of God’s Kingdom in this world, along with others who speak that language, even if they call it something different.
“You bear God’s image: so give yourself back to him”.
It’s a call to put the vision of God’s Kingdom above our own prejudices, resentments, jealousies and ambitions.
It’s a call for us to be the people God wants and needs us to be and to become.
We bear God’s image, so let us choose to give ourselves back to him in this holiest of weeks.
God of our salvation,
help us to turn away from those habits
which harm our bodies and poison our minds
and to choose again your gift of life,
revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Collect for third Sunday before Lent. Common Worship)