The Pharisees have realized that they are going to have to do something about Jesus.  Even though Jesus has been speaking in parables, they see that Jesus is clearly pointing to their failure to be good vineyard workers.  He is pointing to the reality that they have declined God’s invitation to the Son’s wedding banquet.  In order to do something about Jesus the Pharisees send some of their disciples along with some Herodians to visit with Jesus.  This is an unlikely alliance.  Jewish folks in Jesus’ time are an occupied people.  They are occupied by Rome.  The Pharisees would not want associate directly with their occupiers.  It would ruin their credibility with their fellow Israelites.

The “Herodians,” on the other hand, are loyal to Herod, who was placed in power by the Romans.  The Herodians are likely to cooperate with Rome.  We would not assume, then, that the Pharisees would have much to do with Herodians.  Perhaps that is why the Pharisees send some of their disciples instead of going themselves.  Like so many who hold religious and political power, the Pharisees are willing to bend their convictions just a little bit in order to do something about Jesus.

The allied Pharisee disciples and Herodians approach Jesus and give him their best dose of flattery.  “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”  This is, of course, an accurate description of Jesus, even though it comes from the mouth of liars.  It will become clear that they do not really believe this.  After their attempt at buttering up Jesus, they get to their question.  “Tell us then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

What a good trap they have set!  On the one hand, if Jesus tells them not to pay taxes, it will out him as a rebel, a seditionist, someone not to be trusted by the government.  Such words by Jesus would certainly be grounds for an arrest as an enemy of the state.  On the other hand, if Jesus tells them to pay taxes, he will look like he is sympathetic for Rome.  To do this would be to lose all credibility with his fellow occupied Israelites.  What will he do?

Jesus doesn’t buy their flattery, and he makes sure they know he recognizes their hypocrisy.  Jesus asks for a denarius, which is the coin that was used for the tax to the emperor.  “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  Jesus asks. They answer, “The emperor’s.” Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Matthew tells us that the Pharisee disciples and the Herodians are “amazed” and they leave Jesus.  What has Jesus done here, exactly?  Why is this answer amazing to them?  Often, when we hear this answer, we don’t really consider it amazing.[1]  Is this because we are so familiar with the interpretation, or is it that we are inclined to interpret this passage in an unamazing way?  I would lean towards the latter.

Jesus’ response to his interlocutors is brilliant because he answers the question without falling into either of their traps.  In describing the coin’s appearance, he avoids losing credibility with his fellow Jews.  This denarius would have been a silver coin, “bearing on one side an image of the emperor, Tiberius, with an inscription ascribing divinity to him.”[2]  To have such an image, combined with the description of the emperor as divine would have been a clear violation of the first and second commandments barring the worship of any other gods and making idols.[3]

To carry the currency of Rome would have been to potentially commit idolatry.  This would have been a familiar problem to any of Jesus’ fellow Jews, and it would have made it clear that he was not in cahoots with Rome.  Additionally, by recommending that they be given back to Caesar, he is not showing the kind of open resistance to the occupying power that will get him immediately arrested.

Jesus’ answer is often interpreted to suggest that we live with a dual loyalty to God and the state.[4]  God gets what is God’s, and Caesar, which stands for the government, gets what rightly belongs to him.  The problem is that Caesar is not a neutral term here.  As we see from Jesus’ answer, this is not really about paying taxes.  This is not a simple discussion about divided loyalties.  This is not about acting publicly as a citizen and privately as a Christian.  Jesus knows no difference between these two realms.[5]  While Jesus doesn’t say anything to get himself arrested in this moment, we know that later he will be arrested, and that one of the charges against him will be that he is an enemy of the emperor.  To give those coins back to Caesar is to return those false idols to their source.[6]  Caesar’s coin bears his idolatrous image.  Therefore, those who ask Jesus this question and hold coins that bear the emperor’s image show themselves to be more faithful servants of the emperor than of God.[7]

How, then, does this translate into our own context?  We have no emperor, yet we are certain that there are times when our loyalty to God comes into conflict with our loyalty to the state.  We know that to be a good Christian is not always the same thing as to be a good citizen.  When we raise such concerns, we will likely hear that knee-jerk, “Well if you don’t like it here, you can find somewhere else to live!”  But this is to miss the point.  The conflict would exist no matter where we live.  We are fortunate to live in a place where we are allowed to consider this conflict openly.  However, our ability to consider it often dulls our sense of those times when there is truly a conflict.  As Stanley Hauerwas says,

To recognize that we have an insoluble problem is to begin to follow Jesus…Jesus’s response to the Pharisees and Herodians does create an insoluble problem, but that is what it is meant to do.  You know you have a problem, at least if you are a disciple of Jesus, when you do not have a problem. [8]

What Dr. Hauerwas means here is that to see the conflict is a sign that we are taking Jesus seriously.  The next question we run into is, “If we are to see this conflict more clearly, if we are not to come in danger of turning our state into an idol, how are we to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?”

Jesus names clearly that the idolatrous coins should be returned to Caesar because they bear his image.  If we are to give to God what is God’s, what bears God’s image? [9]  We bear God’s image.  We are created in God’s image.  Relationally, this means that we cannot turn others into objects or persons to exploit.  Instead, we treat them as ones in whom God’s image dwells, even when some folks don’t show that image very clearly.  As Christians, we are called to bear God’s image in such a way that those with whom we come into contact will encounter God’s love.  We are not left to this task alone.  If it were simply up to us to bear this image, we would be in deep trouble.  This image was badly damaged at the fall, and sin is still a disease from which we badly suffer.  As we saw last week, God’s grace is required for us even to recognize how sick we are.

We will see this morning the primary place in which we become the image bearers of God. It is the place where those who belong to God begin their return to God.  It is in Baptism.[10]  When we come to these waters, and the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is spoken, God claims us as God’s own.  It is in that moment where we most clearly recognize that we belong to God.  Give to God what is God’s.  In Baptism, we belong to God.

When we seal the baptism with an anointing and prayer to the Holy Spirit, the oil is placed on the forehead of the person being baptized, and we say, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit, you may live as a faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.”[11]  We are inscribed with God’s claim on us.  We belong to God.  God has claimed us.  The grace that we meet in the sacrament as the waters pass over us are the beginning of a grace that follows us entire lives.  At this font this morning, when Lani is baptized, this is the beginning of a grace that will follow her for her entire life.  Baptism is the place where our story is firmly situated with God’s story.  If we respond to this grace it will lead to recovery of God’s image in in us.   If we respond to this grace, we will grow in our understanding of the ways our story is part of God’s story.

Today is Laity Sunday.  The reason that we have a Laity Sunday is that laity are worth celebrating because much of the work of the church is done by the laity.  You might then wonder why I entitled this sermon “Abolishing the Laity!”  What I have just said about Baptism is the source of the claim that we need to abolish the laity.  There’s nothing wrong with being laity, except for when we start to think that lay folks aren’t called.

As a clergy person I can clearly articulate my calling.  I am ordained to Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.   My entire ministry is filtered through those lenses.  I hopefully can articulate my call story as a place where my story fits into God’s story.  But sometimes we think that is only an experience reserved for the clergy.  Clergy are the only people who are called.  It’s not true.  We are all bearers of the divine image.  We are all called.  When we are baptized, “we are incorporated in God’s mighty acts of salvation.”[12]

When we respond to that grace we meet in baptism, we discover who we are called to be in the world.  This font is where we meet our calling.  Before I was an ordained clergyperson, I was baptized.  Baptism is the ordination of the laity.  Each and every one of us here is ordained to be servants of God in the world.  We are all ordained.  There’s nothing wrong with being laity as long as it isn’t a way to suggest that we aren’t all ordained to something.

My baptism happened to lead me to ordination as a clergy person, to this font, this table, this pulpit and out into the world, but yours may call you somewhere else.  That is the beauty of following the baptismal grace we share as members of Christ’s body.  It is in the grace of baptism where we meet God’s claim on us, where we see that we bear the divine image.  Return to God what belongs to God.  It is our very lives, and all that we are.

[1]Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible:  Matthew, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), p. 190.

[2] Susan G. Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective, “ Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 191.

[3] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 190.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 191.

[9] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 190.

[10] Spalding, Feasting, p. 192

[11] “Baptismal Covenant I,” United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  UM Publishing House, 1989), p. 37.

[12] “Baptismal Covenant I,” UM Hymnal, p. 33.