Isaiah 45:1-7 Psalm 61:1-13 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Matthew 22:15-22
On Thursday there was an event in the church for Money Week. I didn’t attend it but as they were setting up I noticed that they had floodlights up the pillars, all green. Green is the colour of money I guess all over the world, so influenced are we by the United States in matters of money.
The world of Jesus’ time was under a similar influence from the Roman Empire. They used coins not notes, and the colour didn’t matter so much, as the head of the Emperor who was on the coin. The event on Thursday was a debate amongst experts about financial planning and such weighty matters. I was tempted to pop in and ask the question Jesus was asked: “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” or maybe for today I would have phrased it “Is it appropriate under Christian teaching to pay taxes to the government or not?” Maybe I would have to have expanded a little – if as Christians we hold strong opinions on some political matters – like military action, or child poverty, or care of the dying – can we withhold our taxes from certain things or direct them to be spent in a certain way? At what point do our religious beliefs or our lives of faith affect what we do including the way we spend our money. Or expanding even further I could have asked the question “who does our money belong to?” The experts would have said I am sure – to the individual of course!
I heard about one priest who when today’s reading came up gave everyone a permanent marker and had them drawe the sign of the cross on their credit cards during the sermon. After that every time the members of the congregation used their cards they were reminded of the question in todays’ reading. 
Jesus’ question about the taxes is not actually about personal income. It is about the politics of taxes and land and who is in charge. Our gospel readings for the last few weeks have been politically charged as we watch Jesus and the Temple leaders go head to head. Today the leaders think they have caught him out. “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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” You have to hear the smarmy tone as they sidle up to him. Matthew notes that it is the Pharisees and the Herodians who ask the questions – normally two groups who would vie with each other for power but now they are united in their desire to trip Jesus up.
And it might seem like an innocent enough question – but let’s remember the setting. Israel is occupied by the Romans, they are an armed occupying force. Everyone had to pay taxes to the occupiers.
So to say yes to this question (yes it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor) meant Jesus was supporting the occupier, the oppressor of the Jews. But to say no – we should not pay taxes, would be to invite sedition and the wrath of the Roman soldiers. Then there is another layer of meaning here – on the Roman coins was the head of the emperor – just like the Queen is on our coins – but the Roman emperor was seen as a god, and was worshipped, and the inscription on the coins, said the divine emperor. The coins were seen as a symbol of Roman power and religion and the most strict Jews believed you should not ever even use the coins because that meant you were acceding to the Roman emperor being divine. And the Romans in fact let the Jews have different coins for use for transactions in the Temple because of this problem.
So a simple question about taxes was also a question about the divinity of the emperor and what the people should do when confronted daily with the need to acknowledge the divinity of this emperor who had invaded their country. Many like King Herod and the Herodians mentioned in this passage were the accommodating ones who found a way to live and let live; others like the Pharisees and other more radical groups were hardline in their opposition.
So which way was Jesus going to jump? Jesus says – bring me a coin – whose image is this – and whose title? –
the emperor’s they reply - well then – give to the emperor what is his. And then Jesus turns to one of the people standing by him and says – whose image is this? Whose image is this person created in? God’s they reply – then give to God, the things that are God’s. And the people are stunned. Jesus has sidestepped the question of tax and turned it into a question of humanity.
There is a parallel and similar passage to this gospel story in the Talmud, the Jewish Rabbinic teaching collected over the centuries. In it we read Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler who is beyond all rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was…And yet not one of them resembles another. (Sanhedrin 38a)
Humanity is created in the image of God, and not one of us resembles another, how vast then our understanding of God can become. As vast as the number of people and cultures who walk the earth.
And yet in all that diversity each of us still are called to give to God the things that are God’s. And Jesus is not half hearted when he makes that declaration – he does not let the Herodians get away with paying a few coins to Caesar and forgetting about it for the sake of peace and quiet.
He does not let the Pharisees use him for political reasons to get at the Romans either. He demands that they both look at themselves and think about what they give to God.
How about us; how would we feel about a cross indelibly marked on our credit cards. That cross is marked on our foreheads when we are baptised and again on Ash Wednesday with ashes.
We are marked as Christ’s own for ever. Is that just the Sunday part of us or our whole selves? Is it our lives, our relationships, our money?
How about us as a faith community. How do we show our values and our priorities in the way we are stewards of our buildings and our parish income. We earn considerable money from our carpark next door and we give none of it away. We spend it on keeping the church running, sure, but that is largely for ourselves; we give none of it away.
In our individual financial giving we give very little to our faith community; 6 % of our budget is covered by parishioner giving. We have not provided for the next generation at all. Over the next months the Vestry and I are going to be asking us all to think carefully about how committed we are to supporting this faith community – in time and talents and money. Then hopefully we will be able to afford to give plenty away, to show that we do not belong to ourselves, but to God.
I am in the middle of reading Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan and Aslan says that when the authorities ask Jesus the question – is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar – they are essentially asking him “are you a zealot?”, are you a revolutionary who is opposed to Rome. And Jesus’ answer coded though it is – as was their question – is a resounding yes. And Aslan reminds us Jesus’ answer is not just that the people belong to God but also the land. He could easily have quoted our passage from Isaiah – speaking of another occupier Cyrus the Babylonian – “I will go before you and level the mountains, I will give you the treasures” – ie the treasure that Cyrus has stolen – I will restore the land to the people, and throw out the occupier. The people of Israel were drenched in the prophets who promised the return of the land; so when Jesus of Nazareth comes preaching hope and creating havoc, the ruling classes nervously ask him – are you another revolutionary zealot? And Jesus answers yes but in a way they can’t quite grasp – but it leads to his death anyway. Aslan says “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities. That singular fact should color everything we read in the gospels about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.”
This question about the temple taxes is super political and super religious. The two were never divided in Jesus’ time. The question challenges us too – to whom do we belong? To what or whom do we dedicate our lives? How do we mark out our priorities in the way we spend our money as individuals and as a faith community? Questions to wonder about individually as we begin the lead up to Christmas and as we think about our community life for the years ahead.