Little Caesar, Ginormous God

A sermon based on Matthew 2:15-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 22, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Today’s reading often appears to Americans to be about the separation of church and state. But it’s not about that. That’s a pretty modern concept in Western Civilization that did not get put into play until 240 years or so ago. The idea, the policy of keeping religion and government separate, wasn’t around in Jesus’ time and place. Governments were infused with religion. We can hear echos of that in the story Brian just read. The Herodians are supporters of the religious leader Herod who ruled over Galilee the geographic region where Jesus was born and did much of his ministry. Herod was a Roman backed religious ruler and his duties included what we would call both secular and religious obligations. And Rome’s government was also infused with religion, indeed the coin – the denarius– we hear Jesus asking for, and looking at, and discussing not only typically had the head of Caesar on it but also references to the divine nature of Caesar, and on some versions the coin even named him as the son of God. Caesar was considered a divine ruler in the Roman culture.

The Pharisees are different and were not as a group a part of the governing bodies. At the time Matthew was written there were one of only two remaining Jewish sects after the fall of the Temple in 70 A.D., One was the Pharisees that continued on as Judaism and the other was the Jesus Following that later splits away to become Christianity. We tend forget that Christianity began as a Jewish movement. Historically it is likely that some Pharisees opposed Jesus, but we also have reports of Pharisees supporting Jesus– we have Gospel accounts of both occurring.

Paul was a Pharisee and there are even some who think Jesus might have been a Pharisee because of his arguing points of law and his give and take on debates with Pharisees is Pharisaic. Nonetheless Christianity has a sordid history of falsely asserting Pharisees were all bad and all opposed Jesus. That is not true, even though it may appear that way in some Bible stories. So it is unfair and unjust – and dangerous– to label and understand Pharisees and Pharasaic Judaism as opponents of Jesus and therefore God. That is slippery slope that historically has led to abuse and oppression and horrific treatment of Jews– which continues to this day.

Sadly Matthew pretty much seems to claim Pharisees all opposed Jesus and were hypocrites. And I want it clear that Matthew does so not as an historic truth, but because Matthew wrote after Jesus’s death and the fall of the Temple and at a time when the Jesus Following’s chief rivals were the Pharisees as they vied for followers in Judaism. So while we need to hear the particular gathered “Pharisees” as rivals to Jesus in the story, we also need to be careful as we do so, keeping in mind that Pharisees –Jewish people– as a group were never Jesus rivals in his lifetime (HE WAS JEWISH! Indeed he was a rabbi).

So while Pharisees later become Matthew’s community’s rivals for Jewish followers they were not – and are not– somehow evil or sinful or lesser people–and certainly not responsible for Rome’s abuse, oppression and execution of Jesus scores of years before Matthew put pen to papyrus (so to speak). Matthews point is best understood as laying out that Jesus inquisitors were religious elite and religious rivals and the elite men who were there challenging him had ulterior motives. They want Jesus out of the picture one way or another.

Now Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story as occurring during Holy Week. And as we often discuss around Easter Jesus clashes with authority during Holy Week. At it’s simplest the clash is between justice and injustice, loving and non-loving ways of being.

Theologically we can hear the clashes are between religious elite theologies backing earthly power structures and Jesus’ theology backing heavenly power structures. The two theologies are clashing in our lesson today.

And for those of you who are wondering how I got on this latest jag with sermons about clashes with religious elites, the Matthean texts that the Lectionary has been presenting are nearing the end of Jesus’ ministry when the clashes are held up, magnified and driving the Gospel narrative. The text has Jesus “facing off” with religious elites and opponents who challenge him on matters of theology, but they do not challenge Rome on the critical theological matters of love, justice or kindness. These religious leaders accept Rome’s rule above God’s rule either expressly with words and action (like the Herodians) or implicitly with no words and inaction (like the particular Pharisees in our story). They give Caesar more than what is due, an allegiance to his unloving, unjust and unkind way even if only by ganging up on Jesus to hurt him, even if they think Jesus is a misguided opponent – that is undue, unjust, unkind and unloving. They give Jesus’ way less than what is due other human beings, love and justice and kindness. And they give God less than what is due God, an allegiance to God’s humble way of love and justice and kindness.

The religious elite are out to get Jesus. The tax question they ask is packed – it is a loaded question. The text even points this out, telling us it’s meant to entrap Jesus. The question the religious opponents have colluded together to ask pre-supposes only two answers, either one will cause trouble for Jesus. They are opposite answers. Two . . . Opposite . . Answers. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The elite, Herodians and the particular Pharisees want a “Yes” or “No” answer from Jesus.

Why? Because the Herodians are among Rome’s religious stooges. They back King Herod who was appointed by Rome and who, among other things oversee the collection of Rome’s detested census tax. THAT very tax led to the revolt and war that ended with the Temple being destroyed and many dead 1. The Gospel of Matthew is written not long after that devastating war and it and the tax still stung greatly. The tax hung in the air, it was a painfully high tribute all Jews had to pay to Rome to finance Rome’s hostile and very brutal occupation of their homeland. If Jesus chooses the answer the Herodians want – “Yes, pay the tax”– Jesus supports Rome and the hated tax like the Herodians do. And as these Pharisees who oppose Jesus see it, that answer supports heresy and will greatly diminish Jesus’ reputation, and he and his following’s esteem.

The Pharisees who oppose Jesus are not so much protesting the tax itself, but they oppose the requirement they must pay it with Roman coins that bear a highly offensive graven image, the idol of Caesar. All idols are a heresy and this one is particularly offensive, it’s oppressive Caesar with actual claims he’s a god on it.

So if Jesus chooses the answer the Pharisees opposing Jesus in the story want – to not pay the tax– then in the eyes of the Herodians who represent Rome Jesus supports sedition and insurrection. He can be arrested which gets rid of him. The trap is that the answers offered in the question “Yes” or “No” are a lose-lose proposition for Jesus. He can’t win . . . His opponents think. But Jesus is a very bright man and provides a brilliant response. First he smartly asks them to show the coin. And Jesus’ inquisitors fall for it. They pull one out in the Temple proving to all those watching and listening that these supposedly devout men have dared bring into the very holy ground of the Temple a graven image, an idol, a sacrilege. The coin they possess bears an idol on their person – in the Temple– of Caesar. The coin has blasphemous claims that he, Caesar a Gentile enemy of the people, and of Yahweh, is a god himself. That is astonishing!

Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.

And the coin they gave to him is small. It’s about the size of a dime.

Jesus does not have them just produce the graven image in the Temple he cleverly leads them to describe it for all to hear in case folks can’t see it– though most would know what it is, yet most being illiterate might not know what it says. The small idol is held up and Jesus “said to them,‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered,‘The emperor’s.’” Jesus’ request for the coin, his question to the religious elite, reverses the trap they tried to catch him in. That trap springs on the inquisitors and they are caught with the hypocritical, knowing possession, of an idol on their person in the Temple.

Only after trapping the inquisitors in their own hypocrisy does Jesus answer their trick question. And actually he does not answer it, but outsmarts them with a win win response. “[H]e said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”

Bible historians are as sure as they can be that Jesus actually said something close to those words. What historians are much less sure of is the context. Matthew has Herodians and some Pharisees as opponents. Luke on the other hand has scribes and chief priests as the opponents. (Luke 20:25). And Thomas merely refers to the opponents as a nondescript “They” (Thomas 100). We do not know the precise historical context, but in our lesson Jesus goes out of his way to point out the image of Caesar is on a small manmade coin. It’s a coin made by Caesar.

The words and the images by men have a small “g” god’s image stamped by men on them. A small coin with small image of a small manmade god. To those familiar with Torah, the first five books of the Bible, this image of a “god” stuff ought to bring to mind a Scriptural reference to another God’s image – Yahweh, the One True God. It ought to bring to mind the Bible’s claim upon whom God’s image is stamped. Here’s the Bible verse: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

In Jewish and Christian tradition God’s image is not just stamped on the outside of our visage, but we are actually made IN God’s image? So see, in this Holy Week discussion in the lesson there is this clash between theologies. Jesus’ opponents back, or do not outright oppose, earthly power structures based on a teeny tiny image of a teeny tiny man on a teeny tiny scape of metal with teeny tiny words.

Jesus’ theology backs a heavenly power structure based on a “ginormous” God whose image we are in and whose image is in us. The God whose mere Words create universes and who words are not locked in time on a small manmade object, but are still being spoken. As one UCC motto puts it, “God is still speaking.”

Jesus’ answer can actually be heard as him advising the opponents, as well as all who were listening, and of course his followers then and now, to– as the modern Jesus Scholars put it– “learn to tell the difference between claims of God and the claims of the emperor.” 2 In other words, when the emperor claims taxes, you can give him what is due. But the emperor is not God. Don’t let him claim you . . .

The little coin may be made in the image of the petty violent unloving acting little man, but we, we are made in the image of an enormous – literally bigger than life– always loving everyone, God, Yahweh. And, like Jesus, we believe, and know, and experience Yahweh as claiming all of us and creation through and through.

That is why I try to make sure that we hear here all the time the Gospel Truth that we are loved and we matter much. Today’s lesson is this, our obligation to earthly power is to give it what is owed, what is due. And our obligation to God, is to give to God all of our self, and what is due God. And despite what any government or religious elite or religious opponent may claim, the prophet Micah long ago told us in no uncertain terms what is due God. I have mentioned them a lot lately. They are set out on the beautiful quilts on the wall up here.Micah 6:8 instructs that all that God requires is that we seek justice, and love kindness and walk humbly with God.

May we try to do so always . . . all the time.


1. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol VIII, p. 420
2. Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Scholars,The Five Gospels, p. 379