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- How do you think Jesus can unite us, despite our differences?
- What fears do you struggle with? How is it that the fear of the LORD can help us not be afraid?
- How do you stay focused on your calling even with all the distractions of our time?
- What does it mean to you that you are made in the image of God?
- Is there any thing you are holding back from God? Why?
- When have you most clearly sensed the voice of the Lord at baptism, “my son/daughter whom I love”?
This week’s theme:
- Watermarks on $20 and $100 bills
- Dollar bill – I am a piece of paper and I own your soul\
- Signature, image
- Baptism as our watermark
After a series of disturbing stories by Jesus in which he puts the religious leaders (and all of us who think of ourselves as “good”) on the hot seat, they attempt to turn the tables on him. They attempt to skewer him with a question, one of those questions that has no right answer.
Don’t miss the political context of the story: Caesar is the emperor of Rome, and Rome has conquered and occupied Palestine. Yes, Jews can still worship God freely. But only as long as they are “good.” It isn’t that many years after Jesus dies that Jews revolt, the rebellion is crushed, and the Temple is destroyed. Roman soldiers can force you to carry their packs. And your taxes actually fund the occupation! Who wants to pay that?
“You don’t care what anyone thinks, Teacher. Tell us exactly how you feel. Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus says “Yes” then the people will reject him. If Jesus says “No” then Rome may arrest him. Problem solved! (That is, if you want Jesus out of the way.)
Instead, Jesus finds a response that is absolutely brilliant. Just when you thought he had been painted into a corner … “Whose image? Whose signature?” “Give Caesar Caesar’s and give God God’s.” And everyone is astonished.
Often these days, the passage is preached as a way to think creatively about our different roles as citizen of our nation and citizen of the kingdom of God. Both our nation and God’s kingdom have their own politics, so how do we navigate our way through a world of competing claims? Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6.33). That is really demanding when the world says, “Caesar is Lord.” To say, “Jesus is Lord” is not just blasphemy to the religion of the empire. It is also treason to the power of the empire. And both are punishable by death. One of the many gifts of our nation for which I am thankful is the so-called “separation of church and state.” For followers of Jesus in any era, whether Israel approaching exile, or the primitive church under Roman rule, or you and I today, the Scripture offers us important insight for our political life, that is, our life as a citizen of our particular nations.
On division: Jesus’ twelve apostles included two guys on opposite sides of the politics of their time. Matthew had been a tax collector. That is, he had collaborated with Roman power and grown rich by funding the Roman occupation. Another apostle was Simon “the Zealot” (not Simon Peter). The Zealots were a Jewish revolutionary party, advocating a violent rebellion. Zealots killed tax collectors. Both these men become followers of Jesus and hear him say things like, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5.9) and “They will know you are my disciples by your love” (John 13.35).
On fear: Isaiah the prophet declares to Israel, “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread” (8.12). He wasn’t just saying that not everything we label “conspiracy” is actually conspiracy. We all know that. He was saying that we do not need to live in fear, even of actual conspiracy. Because God is greater. The LORD is the one we are to fear, not that we should live in terror of God, but we have no need to live in terror of anything or anyone else, no matter how bad we think it may be.
On our calling: Jesus appointed the twelve to be with him, to preach, to cast out demons (or, do battle with evil) (Mark 3.14-15). We cannot let the politics of the moment distract us from the work of the gospel – from the deeply transforming work of being with Jesus, from proclaiming what Jesus called “good news to the poor and liberty to the captives” (Luke 4.18, Isaiah 61.1), from the struggle for the equality of the human race where “there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free” (Galatians 3.28).
On our prayers: Even under the thumb of empire, Paul calls us to pray for kings and authorities “first of all” (1 Timothy 2.1). It doesn’t matter who they are or whether we voted for them. We pray for them, whether the boss or the school board or the governor or the county manager or the president.
Now that I got you thinking… Now that I got you wondering how much trouble this trouble-making pastor was going to make today…
I’m going to pull the rug out on you just a little bit. Often enough, this passage is preached as a way to think creatively about our roles as citizen of our nation and citizen of the kingdom of God. I’ve done just that. But Jesus does more, MUCH more, with his remarks.
What is the surprise in what Jesus is saying? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. On the coin, he points out Caesar’s image, Caesar’s inscription/signature. But where is God’s image, God’s inscription/signature? … Only when we can point that out do we understand what it means to give that to God.
The answer is all in the language, familiar to Jews of his time, “image,” as in “image of God.” You and I are made in God’s image and we are called to give ourselves without reserve, without holding anything back, to God and God alone. Caesar can never have that. Empire can never claim us. That piece of paper we call a dollar bill does not get to own our souls. We are in God’s image. And the signature of God’s handiwork is all over us.
How do you identify the owner of a lost item? The pic, the signature … wallet, phone, datebook, luggage. What do you do with it once you find it? Return it to the owner. Where do you see God’s image and God’s inscription? Uniquely and specifically in you and me. Give it to God, holding nothing back.
Hold nothing back. Give yourself without reserve to God. Your career, your dreams, your emotions, your intellect. Your dysfunctions, your struggles, your failures. Your paycheck, your IRA, your car, your home. Your son, your daughter, your mother, your father. Everything that makes you youis marked with the image of God. “Give to God God’s.” With that one statement, Jesus lays claim to YOU.
God doesn’t claim you to ruin your life, though obedience involves change. God doesn’t claim you to inflict pain, though discipleship involves a cross. God’s claim on you is one of love. God’s claim on you is for your hope and future. God’s claim on you is epitomized by the watermark of baptism and the voice of the Lord upon the waters, “my son whom I love,” “my daughter whom I love.”