Sermon for TRINITY 19 – High Mass Sunday 22 October 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. Hebrews 1.1-3
The opening of Hebrews offers a perfect link between our Old Testament reading and Gospel. With the words ‘bearing the very stamp of his nature’ the writer of Hebrews uses the image of a coin or seal to describe Jesus as a three-dimensional image of God for us. You can see God in him as you can see the emperor represented on his currency. Jesus is the currency of God: so, as a result of the incarnation, we all have the capacity to show forth the image of God which comes from our createdness.
Questions about images and their relation to reality were more sharply focussed in the ancient world than they are for us. At the time of Jesus, lacking photographs or lifelike painted portraits, the most striking representations were colourful statues: not the pale white marble that has survived to our time with the paint worn off. And there were coins and seals, with raised and lifelike portrait heads, that you could touch. These images, depicting only the rich and powerful, usually only rulers, were impressive and striking in a way that the Queen’s image on a coin no longer is.
Add to this the fraught relationship of the Jewish people with images of gods: their refusal to depict or even name Yahweh, the one true God, and the intrusion even into the Temple of statues and coin-images of Roman Emperors (who claim to be gods, or on the way to divinity). This is one reason why you had to change money to pay the temple-tax: you couldn’t do that with an image of the Roman Emperor, a self-appointed deity. So, in today’s encounter, the Pharisees and Herodians thought they’d found a killer question, turning Jesus’ own method of questioning back on him.
Before we consider his answer it is worth reverting to our first reading, from Isaiah 45. There we heard a remarkable treatment of the Persian emperor Cyrus. Although a pagan king, he is saluted as ‘the anointed’ of Yahweh, his servant raised up to conquer Babylon and restore God’s people to their homeland:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, …
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me. 45.1 & 4
Note that opening address, ‘anointed’: that’s our word ‘Messiah’, a quite remarkable title to give a pagan king who remained, presumably, ignorant of the God of Israel and the divine task that Isaiah ascribes to him (but one who makes no claim to divinity).
This prophecy inaugurated a line of Jewish teaching about God and the state, including the pagan state, that culminates in Jesus’ pronouncement about the payment of tribute money (today’s gospel) and Paul’s teaching about the Roman state under the emperor as the servant and minister of God – even though the Emperor Nero, like Cyrus, did not acknowledge the Christian God and, worse than Cyrus, persecuted his followers.
To return to the image, the payment of tax and giving God his due. The first thing to note is already implied in my last sentence. The Pharisees and Herodians ask about ‘paying the census’; Jesus replies by speaking of ‘giving back’ (the literal meaning of the verb) what belongs to Caesar, ‘his’ coin (with his image on it, announcing his claim to be a rival deity) and giving back to God what is his: ourselves, our souls and bodies, in Cranmer’s phrase, for we are made in his image. This is about worship.
We have examples of the Roman coin which Jesus asks for, this particular denarius. The denarii in currency at the time in Palestine were minted in Gaul in what is now Lyons and bore the legend Tiberius Caesar son of the Divine Augustus, together with his portrait and that of his wife Livia. You appreciate the relevance of the claim to divine parentage.
Jesus was not just avoiding a question or winning an argument. He was talking about how to manage our allegiances: he was claiming us as citizens of heaven first, as St Paul would later say. We may pay any tax and obey any state to the extent that it does not compromise our allegiance to God. But that does not mean we belong to such a state: the only image we bear is that of God; national and racial allegiances are temporary and accidental; the whole of humanity bears the single imprint of God, as Jesus came to show us.
More importantly, this passage does not make God and Caesar to be rivals and therefore, potentially, equals; nor does it make them symbolic of separate realms (as some arguments about church and state imply). If that were so one could conclude that the emperor has his realm, in which ultimate allegiance can be demanded, and God would be relegated to another, purely spiritual, realm. Splitting is well-known as the source of psychological disorder; the ideal is personal integration and wholeness: the meaning of integrity. Here the stakes are yet higher: such splitting of allegiances is characteristic of religion which is ultimately subservient to the state, like the ‘throne and altar’ ideology adapted by Nazism from Catholic monarchists and rightly opposed by Bonhoeffer and the ‘confessing Church’. The gospel tells us that humans bear God’s image: wherever we live and operate, as good citizens in the social, economic, political or religious realm, we belong to God. Our primary loyalties do not switch when we move out of church.
In other words Jesus doesn’t intend to solve a question about our obligations to the government – taxation, say, or military conscription – but he places one allegiance, to God, as more urgent and unavoidable than another. He neither condemns nor upholds the state in general, nor any particular form of government. But there is an implication which follows from every human being bearing the divine image and our acknowledgment, as Christians, of the divine creator: God, revealing his stamp or image in Jesus, does require us to question any state or government which denies that image in its citizens by persecution, torture, abuse, genocide, judicial murder or any law which denies or undermines human dignity.