“Why didn’t you make me win God? I’ve been praying to you about this all week!” A clearly distressed man prays to God after the results of the latest lottery draw have been announced. He had been praying constantly that he would win, telling God what he was going to do with the 50% of the prize draw which he didn’t need: how he was going to help the homeless and the poor, all the good things that he was going to give to his family and his friends. And of course the large amount that he was going to contribute to the church.
But now as he watches his television screen he has seen the announcer reveal another winner – it isn’t him. All that prayer and yet at the end of the day nothing. “Why didn’t you make me win God? I’ve been praying to you about this all week!” he says. And a voice from heaven comes in reply, “next time meet me half way – and at least buy a lottery ticket!”
Right at the heart of our lives, at the heart of our worries and concerns, whether we like it or not, is often the question of money. If we have a lot of it, we want to be sure that we will hang on to it; if we don’t have enough we want to try as hard as we can to get more. Things like Lotto play on some of our deepest desires, to be able (overnight) to buy a nicer house, a better car, more fashionable clothes, the opportunity to travel – and whilst none of these things are bad in themselves, they lead us to live our lives always looking ahead for something better, always being distracted by desire for more, rather than living in a state of thankfulness for all that we have already. The question of money is right at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning as well. The church remembers and records for us an encounter between Jesus and those who seek to trick him and to undermine his ministry. As we have just heard, these questioners come to Jesus and ask him, “is it lawful or not to pay taxes to the emperor?”
Now that might seem like a fairly innocent query, from people with a genuine desire to learn from him. But underneath their question these religious leaders who are in reality hostile to him, feel certain that they will cause Jesus to get into an enormous amount of trouble as he gives his response; because Jesus really only has two options with which to reply. Either he can say in the hearing of the crowd, “no it is not lawful for religious men and women to pay taxes to Caesar,” in which case the Romans will come to hear about it, and he will be taken away, and tried and sentenced for sedition; or the other alternative is that he can say, “yes it is lawful,” and thereby lose the credibility and the respect of the onlookers, because these are people who are living under foreign rulers who they despise, and who they don’t like paying taxes to. So Jesus is trapped, by a seemingly innocent question – it looks like the wisdom of God has been boxed into a corner by clever men.
So what does Jesus do? He does what we have seen him do so often before, he answers that clever question with a further question. Taking a coin – you notice that he doesn’t have one of his own – he examines it and asks the crowd whose head is depicted on it, whose title is given, and they say of course, “the emperor’s.” He looks at them as if to say well you have answered your own question, and then he makes his response clear, “Isn’t it obvious, don’t worry about these coins, give to the emperor the things which belong to the emperor.” But he hasn’t finished yet, because Jesus will transform this limited conversation about money, into a teaching about what it really means to give. “Give to the emperor the things which belong to the emperor,” he says, “and give to God the things which belong to God.”
The coin which Jesus held in his hand as he said these things, was probably a silver denarius, a days wages for an ordinary labourer. The actual version of that coin at the time of Jesus depicted the reigning emperor, Tiberius. The Latin inscription on the coin, according to those which have been excavated and are available to us today, reads “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the divine Augustus and Augustus.” Our coins here in Australia like those throughout the Commonwealth bear a similar image, because our coins are modelled on the coins of imperial Rome. They are not the image of an emperor, but the image of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II. And in the years before television those coins often provided the only depiction of the queen which most people ever saw. And that was true of the British kings and queens before her, and it was true of the emperor’s coins as well. They were not just legal currency, but an opportunity for people to look at an image of the king or the queen or the emperor. Whilst the coins in England (not our coins here but the coins of pounds and pence in the UK) include in the inscription of her titles that she is the Defender of Faith, [the title which has been passed down by British monarchs since Henry VIII]; the title which surrounded the picture of the Emperor Tiberius was Son of God – son of the Divine Augustus.
The Romans glorified in the deification, the godliness of their leaders, but the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking, who knew that there was only one God saw such titles and such images as an abomination. So much so, that when Jews went to worship in the Temple they swapped their ordinary money for religious money as they entered the Temple precincts, so that only holy money was given as an offering to God (remember Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers – that’s what those peoples jobs were); because the image of the emperor, who was considered by the Romans to be the heir of the divine could not be looked at by the Jewish people of Jesus’ day because to do so was idolatry. Which is why, in another translation of this story, Jesus actually asks the question, (not whose head but) whose image is on the coin, inferring that the people should give to the Emperor the things which bear his image, and to God the things which bear God’s image – which I think reaches right to the heart of the point which Jesus is making.
Those Jews who were listening to Jesus, like us who hear the story today, believe that we are created in the image of God. We didn’t just turn up by chance, we aren’t living out lives purely to gain all that we can for ourselves – we are made wonderfully and beautifully and lovingly in the image of God.
So when Jesus says, “Give to God the things which bear God’s image,” he is talking about more than us just paying some coins in tax to the authorities – he is calling us to give our lives to God. Just as that money bore the image of the emperor, and so belonged ultimately to the emperor, Jesus calls us to give ourselves, who bear the image of our creator God, back to God through our lives and our actions. That will include all that we have as well – but the greatest call is for us to give ourselves. I love that car bumper sticker, “born free – taxed to death!” but the point of what Jesus is saying is not about whether we should pay tax or not, he is talking about something much bigger than that. He is talking about us giving ourselves and our world back to God.
Now there will be a number of consequences for how we live out our lives if we are going (even with the first faltering steps) to do that – to give ourselves – and all that is created in the image of God – back to God. I want to give us four suggestions this morning, to help us to start to think about the consequences of what this might mean.
Firstly, our response will be to treasure and be grateful for the world which God has given us. I was at a Roman Catholic conference on mission here in Perth a couple of weeks ago, and the main speaker Fr Stephen Bevans spoke powerfully about our need to engage with environmental issues, and to be concerned as the church about the destruction of the world which God has created. If we are to give back to God the things which are God’s, then we need to be people who are the first to campaign for the environment, and not the ones who are left behind – because this is God’s world, and we therefore care for it on God’s behalf. First possible response: care for the world which bears God’s image.
Secondly, our response will be to give back to God all that we have received – and that will include our time and money and talents. John Wesley, the forerunner of the Methodist movement, famously lived on one tenth of his income and gave the other nine-tenths away for the work of God. Well, there are not many of us who could do that, and this isn’t just about money in any case. If we are to give back to God the things which are God’s, we need to be adventurous about how we use the gifts and skills and passions which God has given to us. That requires us to live in the here and now – not always hoping for more in the future – recognising all that God has given us, and giving back out of that abundance. Second Possible response: giving to God out of the abundance which God has given us.
Thirdly, our response will be to fight against poverty and injustice in our world, and particularly when it is needed, in our local area, (in our parish). Because those of us who are aware that we live privileged lives here in Australia in comparison to the poorest countries of the world, have the responsibility – like the Old Testament prophets – to call for justice and change and equality for all. If we are to give back to God the things which are God’s we will use our enthusiasm and energy and voices to speak for those who are voiceless in our world. We will speak against those situations where the image of God is marred by suffering, poverty and injustice. Third possible response: seek out God’s image in everyone and work for change as a mission of the Gospel.
Fourthly, and finally, our response will be to begin the journey which will lead us to being happy and comfortable living as who we are, in our bodies, for example –which have been created by God; which is a difficult thing to do when we are constantly bombarded by programmes such as “Australian Idol” and “Super Model,” in a world in which we are told to be thinner, taller, more glamorous, faster, brighter… you know the kind of things. For some of us this will be a lifetimes work. Putting all of those other views aside, (however dominant they are in our culture) when we give ourselves to God, we give our bodies and our minds to God in thankfulness for being created just as we are – just as God wanted us to be. You and me, created beautiful in the image of God. Fourth possible response: remember who we are in God’s eyes and be thankful.
So from a question about paying tax, Jesus raises for us this morning a challenge about how open we are to giving ourselves to God. In each of these responses (I’ve just given us four to start us thinking) the question which will be in our minds is, “Am I giving myself back to God?” That agenda is far larger than we can hope to achieve on our own. Which is why the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God is here with us this morning to stir us up and to lead us out. At this Mass as a symbol of all that we seek to give back to God, we bring forward our gifts of bread and wine and money, as reminders of all that God has given to us, so that they like we, may be transformed. – Do you want God to continue the work of transformation in you today? I ask that seriously because that is what Jesus offers to each one of us. And they key is not getting more but giving more.
So don’t worry about the future, it is in God’s hands – even the hairs of your head have been counted. But give yourself to God, who has wonderfully created you in his image, and yet more wonderfully will love and sustain you today. Jesus says, “Give to the Emperor the things made in the image of the Emperor. But give to God the things which are made in the image of God.”