Coins of Whose Realm?

A sermon text, based on Matthew 22.15-22, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 18, 2020.

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Charles Dudley Warner,[1] essayist, novelist, and friend of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), among his manifold witticisms, was noted to have said “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” The expediency of self-interest has magnetic power, drawing together folk who otherwise stand apart. Indeed, who otherwise can’t stand each another.

The Pharisees are devoted to God’s Law. They detest the oppressive, occupying Roman Empire. The Herodians are the political party of King Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler of Judea supported by Rome. They are loyal to Caesar. These two strange bedfellows, at best, reluctantly, resentfully tolerate each another. But they agree on one thing. They despise Jesus. His proclamation of “repentance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”[2] poses a threat to their religious and political status quo.

They set a trap. Their opening gambit, deceitful flattery. “Oh, Jesus, you’re so sincere, truthful, and impartial.” Then the clincher. “Is it lawful to pay Caesar’s tax?”

Gotcha, Jesus! For if you say, “It’s lawful,” the people, who hate the Roman Empire and the tedious tax, will hate you. And if you say, “It’s unlawful,” you will be guilty of sedition against the empire. Gotcha, Jesus!

But Jesus, more than wiggling out of a well-laid trap, takes the matter, as he always does, to a higher level of meaning. But first he says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” Jesus’ pockets are empty. He doesn’t have a coin. The Pharisees and Herodians do. Thus, Jesus, by the fact of their possession of the coin for the tax, exposes their entanglement in the exploitative economics of the empire. Gotcha!

Regarding the higher level of meaning, I submit to you that it is not the separation of politics and religion…

I digress…

Through the ages of Christendom, countless have been the times, when the objection has been raised, “Never mix politics and religion.” Thus, when a preacher dared to apply biblical teachings and theological principles to the issues of the day, whether the economy and poverty, war and peace, civil rights and race, someone, somewhere would grumble, saying, in so many words, “You’ve gone past preaching into meddling!” This rejoinder, in my view, always indicates that the preacher has confronted the choices and challenged the consciences of the listeners.

Today, I make a case that it is impossible to separate politics and religion…

The word “politics” is derived from the Greek, polis, the city. Therefore, at its root, politics pertains to our relationships among people dwelling in an organized society.

The word “religion” is derived from the Latin, religare, to bind. Therefore, at its root, religion pertains to the cardinal values and principles to which we cling that give sense and shape to our lives; that hold our lives together.

Therefore, politics has within it an inherent religious element. And religion has within it an inherent political element.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Jesus, in his life and ministry in God’s Name, aroused the animus of religious and political powers. Therefore, it is no surprise that it was the conspiracy between religious and political powers that led to Jesus’ arrest and trial, conviction and crucifixion under the authority of the state of the Roman Empire.

Now, back to Jesus’ higher level of meaning. If it is not the separation of politics and religion, perhaps it is the importance of obedience to the government. I don’t believe it is, but, here, I think, we draw closer to Jesus. For the issue at stake, simply, profoundly is this: To what, to whom do we owe our greatest loyalty, our greatest love.

Jesus looked at the coin, which bore Caesar’s image, title, and an inscription claiming divinity.[3] Thus, it belonged to Caesar. To pay the tax was to return to Caesar what belonged to Caesar.

However, long before Caesar, at the dawn of creation, this was, is, always God’s intention: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”[4] Thus, we, in all that we are and all that we have, belong to God. Thus, we, in all of our living, are to return to God what belongs to God.

Yes, we, in our daily living, encounter countless competing, at times, conflicting loyalties. Yet Jesus calls us always to discern, to be clear – and to act accordingly – that our greatest loyalty, greatest love is to the One in whose image we are made. For we are coins of God’s Realm!

Illustration: The Tribute Money, James Tissot (1836-1902)


[1] Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900). The saying ostensibly was adapted from a line in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

[2] Matthew 4.17

[3] Caesar, Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus (Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest).

[4] Genesis 1.26

2 thoughts on “Coins of Whose Realm?

  1. Thank you Paul!!
    This sermon should be required reading for everyone right now!! So VERY appropriate for this time and election period! Religion and politics – two of the toughest topics in the world, and we’ve seen the ugliness that it’s caused of late!! Of course those two topics conflict, they are so emotionally-charged… LOYALTY is one of the best trait to have in my opinion ….. BUT we tend to have it in the wrong areas, or to the wrong people… As you pointed out, our loyalty should be to God – if more of us focused our loyalty not just on the things we LOVE, but on the “one in whose image we are made” this world would be a much better place.
    Much love!

    Like

  2. Loretta, amen! There is not a word I can add to all that you have written, save saying again: Amen!

    Love ya’!

    Like

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