He was the Son of God.
He was the Prince of Peace.
He was the Divine Caesar. And he ruled the world, at least the western world. Peace, though came at a price. The Romans were determined in their drive to enforce peace. Disturbers of that peace, even alleged disturbers were dealt with harshly. The Romans held no trials. They had no bill of rights. No rule against self incrimination. Punishment was swift and cruel. Crucifixion served many purposes. A warning to be sure. But crucifixion also erased the person from memory. One hung, sometimes for days, on a cross, slowly suffocating. When death came, the body remained for the vultures to pick at. Bones fell and turned to dust. No one came to lament the death. No one came to claim a body for burial. No one remembered the terrible death.
And taxes. Taxes were levied to support the soldiers who enforced the peace. Taxes were levied to support building projects. Taxes were levied to support a life style that Wall Street barons can only envy. And so, they lived under Roman rule. Some chafed under the harsh rule. The Zealots wanted an armed rebellion. The Herodians preached accommodation. There was no way to defeat the might of the Roman Empire. They counseled going along, getting along, making the best of a bad thing. The Pharisees believed they could change God’s mind if only they were good enough. And so they followed the holiness code imposed upon the priests. If the people were holy, God could be appeased and the Romans would go away somehow. The Pharisees were even concerned about carrying Roman money. It was a violation of the law. Roman coins bore the image of the Emperor, the son of God, the one who was a god. Jewish law was clear: there was no God but God and to carry an image of a god was a violation of the law.
So, the Pharisees gather and plot. They bring the Herodians into the plot. Neither the Pharisees or the Herodians as a group particularly liked Jesus. He threatened them both. He was a loose cannon. He, like the other putative Messiahs wandering around Galilee, could bring down Roman wrath on them. And so they ask him a question, one that can only trap him. If he answers one should pay taxes, he has played into the hands of the Pharisees. That will anger their followers and most of the people. If he says one should not pay taxes, he is immediately labeled an enemy of the Romans. It’s a no-win position, they think. I can imagine their laughter as they imagine their trap.
And so they ask: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor. They have him, they think. But Jesus outsmarts them. He is quicker than they are. He asks for a coin. And someone obliges him. First mistake. They have admitted that they violate the law. And Jesus asks, “whose image is on the coin?” The answer came quickly, Caesar's. And so Jesus says, "Give Caesar, that which is Caesar's." He adds, "and give to God that which is God's." And they go away.
For years, these words of Jesus have been used to justify a sort of two state world: the religious world, God's world, and the secular world, Caesar's world. We navigate between the two worlds, determining which is Caesar’s world and which is God’s world. And it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our Monday through Saturday world is the secular world. It is a world distinct from our Sunday world, God’s world. The two worlds might even never need to meet. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and we give to God, perhaps a little grudgingly the small part, an hour or two on Sunday, a bit of our income, a little more of our time for mission or bible study. God’s world becomes a narrow world of personal piety, of going to church on Sunday, of reading the Bible and praying.
Jesus and those who walked away from him, understood something much more profound in his words. They did not walk away because Jesus had beaten them at their game. They walked away because Jesus had said something really important that brought them up short.
Because they were steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, the word "image" would have popped out at them. Whose image is on the coin? It is a coin made by Caesar and bears Caesar's image. Jesus has said we should give what belongs to Caesar to Caesar. We know what belongs to Caesar because it bears Caesar's image on it. Jesus says we should give what belongs to God to God. We know what belongs to God because it bears God's image. They would have heard the word image and remembered Genesis, when God says let us make humans in our own image. It is humans that belong to God.
But Jesus really doesn't make it clear what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. He leaves it ambiguous. That's one reason they wander away. They are thinking. What is Caesar's and what is God's. What does it mean that we are made in God's image?
We still struggle with that question today. We are made in God’s image. We belong to God. We are God’s. What does that mean? What difference does it make in our lives? It is so easy to get trapped in the world. We are afraid. We seek security in money. We seek security in power. One need only look around and see how fleeting those things are. Our entire financial system is being brought down by those who believed that more and more and more and more money would bring them security. And people are so scared they will lose everything, they are exacerbating the meltdown by drawing money out of the market. We think we can find security in power. We are or we were the most powerful nation in the world. And yet we are frightened of a man who sits half a world away, who even after seven years lives in a cave somewhere and has not been brought to justice. We see our might sneered at. We see other countries come to power.
It is no accident that Christians identified Jesus as the Son of God and the Prince of Peace. Those titles were consciously used to contrast Jesus with Caesar. They claimed a ruler who was radically different from Caesar. They claimed a ruler who had no money, no power; a ruler who came as a servant. They knew what it meant to be made in the image of God. They knew it meant to live as one in the image of God.
I worked for five years for Habitat for Humanity and volunteered with them many years before that. The founder, Millard Fuller, was a man who found what it meant to live as one in the image of God. Not perfectly, for none of us is perfect, but in the image of God. I don’t know if you know Millard’s and his wife, Linda’s story. Millard was a young lawyer, a partner of Morris Dees down in Mississippi. They made more money continuing the business they had started when they were in school. They sold cook books as FHA fund raisers and hats and tractor seats as FFA fund raisers. Both were millionaires before they were 30. Now, this was more than forty years ago when a million dollars was a million dollars. But, Millard spent most of his time working. He was devoted to Linda and showed it by the things he gave her: a huge house on a lake, a big Cadillac, everything she wanted. Everything but one thing: his presence. He was so busy working, he never had time for her or his family. Linda was miserable. She had been young when she married Millard and not particularly well to do, but the wealth didn’t make up for his absence. So, she went to New York City to meet with a religious mentor. Millard followed her there. Together they made a decision that would change their lives and the lives of over a million people. They decided to follow what it said in the Bible, sell all they had, give it to the poor and follow Jesus. Can you imagine? Millard had put his faith in Caesar, in money. And he reaped the broken relationships that happen when we worship the wrong god, when we give to idols what belongs to God. They spent some time with Clarence Jordan, who deserves several sermons of his own, in Americus Georgia, at Koininea Farms. There Linda and Millard began to work with folks who were living in shacks, to build decent houses. Then they began to pray about this work they were doing. They thought maybe, just maybe, God was calling them to work overseas in helping poor people in other countries have decent houses. So they moved their family to Africa and built houses there. It worked. And they began their organization: Habitat for Humanity. They envisioned an organization that would work overseas. God had other plans. The idea caught on in the US. People began local Habitats. God does amazing things when we remember that we are made in God’s image. God does amazing things when we remember that every person who is on this planet is made in God’s image. Every one of them. Every one of us.
We are called to live as if we bear God’s likeness in our hearts and on our faces. Because we do. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, shows us how we can reflect God’s love in our lives. The dilemma is not what part of our lives belong to Caesar and what part belongs to God. Our entire lives, hearts, minds and souls belong to God. The challenge is how do we live out our lives, belonging to God, finding our security in God and not in this world. Amen.