Sermon for November 17th, 2019

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Mark 12:13–17 (NT p.49)

13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Coins: Render Unto Caesar

When I was in high school, my favorite type of exam was the kind with True or False questions. Even if you didn't study, you still had a 50% chance of getting those questions right. So in that spirit, I've decided to give you a "pop quiz" this morning...true or false style. If you think the answer to a question is "True" I want you to give me the thumbs up sign. If you think the anwer is "False," give me the thumbs down sign. Oh, and the subject of the exam So it should be easy, right? Actually, the questions get progressively harder as we go. Let's begin.

True or False: Breakfast is your favorite meal of the day. True or False: You are an easy person to get along with. True or False: You would rather freeze to death than burn to death. True or False: Your answer to this question will be false. True or False: You regret your decision to cheat on your income taxes. True or False: You are no longer in the habit of locking innocent strangers in your basement for torture.

As you can see, the problem with True/False questions is that sometimes neither answer is acceptable, or even true. When faced with an impossible question like that, most of you chose simply not to answer. But sometimes, that's not a possibility, either. Sometimes you have to add a third option, one that wasn't included in the question.

In today's scripture passage, Jesus is faced with a similar impossible question, and he uses a coin to demonstrate his "third option."

First, though, to help us really understand the impossible question and Jesus' answer, let's set the stage. Israel during the time of Jesus is an occupied country, a nation defeated and conquered by the Roman Empire. In the wake of this defeat, two factions had emerged. The Pharisees were a nationalistic resistance movement. They opposed the Roman Empire, although not overtly. The Herodians (named after Herod, the puppet King installed by the Romans) were Roman sympathizers who advocated acceptance of Israel's status as a conquered nation, but also a member of the Roman Empire, with all the benefits that came with that.

In Mark 12:13, we read that "they" sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians. We are not told (in this passage, at least) who the "they" represents, but clearly it's a group that is hostile to Jesus. It's interesting to me that these two groups--Pharisees and Herodians--seem able to come together despite their differences in order to challenge Jesus. I guess it would be like Republicans and Democrats uniting in order to target someone they both perceived to be a threat. This would have raised eyebrows among Jesus' followers, to be sure.

The Pharisees and Herodians begin by flattering Jesus, establishing him as a neutral party: "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth." We know you're a registered independent, and you make decisions based on facts and data, not party affiliation.

So...should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?

Incidentally, this story isn't really about taxes. Jewish people had been paying taxes to their own government for centuries before this and didn't have a problem with taxes. The real question at stake is "Who do you side with, Jesus?" With your own people, or with the Romans?

If Jesus says "yes, it's right to pay taxes" then he couldn't possibly be the Messiah, the one whom the Jews believed would come to defeat the Romans and liberate them. And if Jesus says, "No, you shouldn't pay taxes" then the Herodians will report him to the Romans, and he'll be arrested for inciting treason.

It's a trick question. So Jesus does a coin trick.

Show me a coin, he says. But not just any coin--a Denarius. This is a fascinating coin, with a great history. Incidentally, the Spanish word for money (Dinero) is descended from Denarius. But originally it was minted by the Roman Empire not so much as currency, but as a ceremonial coin, a commemorative coin celebrating Roman victories, and paying tribute to Roman heroes. It was a coin designed to celebrate, praise...or worship...someone. In this case, Caesar. Inscribed on every Denarius (along with an image of Caesar) were the words "Tiberivs Caesar Divi Avgvsti Filivs, Pontifex Maxiumus" -- Tiberius Caesar, Highest Priest and Son of God (lit. "divine Augustus").

he separation of church and state, or whether or not we should obey governmental entities, whether or not we should pay taxes. But that's just the surface level question. The real question is this: Who do you side with, Jesus? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? What do you think about abortion, Jesus? What do you think about same-sex marriage? What do you think about climate change, health care reform,

  • In a chapter about the word battle between Jesus and the religious leaders
  • Stories of entrapment, but Jesus always finds a clever way out.
  • Who are you in this story? A Pharisee (religious fundamentalist)? A Herodian (Roman sympathizers)? The "they" who sent the leaders? Jesus? The Emperor?
  • Relevance to my life
  • watch out for people who begin with flattery.
  • Tertullian, in De Idololatria, interprets Jesus as saying to render "the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on man, to God; so as to render to Caesar indeed money, to God yourself. Otherwise, what will be God's, if all things are Caesar's?"
  • Henry David Thoreau: "Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God those things which are God's" – leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.
  • Ghandi - "Jesus evaded the direct question put to him because it was a trap. He was in no way bound to answer it. He therefore asked to see the coin for taxes. And then said with withering scorn, "How can you who traffic in Caesar's coins and thus receive what to you are benefits of Caesar's rule refuse to pay taxes?" Jesus' whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes.
  • Render...does it mean "give" or "give BACK"?
  • Indebtedness. You are already in debt to Caesar (clearly you have his coin). Are you also in debt to God?
  • Story, Statistics, Next Steps
  • What's the most important thing to you? Give to that. Or....look at where you spend your money, and that's the most important thing to you.