Money, Politics and Religion: a sermon on Matthew 22

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

Money, politics and religion.

The three things we’re never supposed to talk about in public.

And here they are, all three in today’s gospel reading.

The reason we are reticent to talk about money, politics and religion, is because these are

three areas of people’s lives that people have strong feelings about.

There’s a lot on the line for us when we take up these subjects.

Which, while it might make for especially lively conversation at the dinner table, is also precisely why we should talk about these things today.

Because, if money, politics and religion are important to us in our everyday lives, then our relationship to those things are critically important for our lives of faith.

Money, politics, and religion, were just as fraught, and just as intertwined in Jesus’ day, as they are in ours.

In Jesus’ day, people were required to pay a lot of taxes: temple taxes, land taxes, customs taxes, to name just three.

But they were also asked to pay taxes each year to the Imperial government of Rome, which helped to support the Roman occupation of Palestine.

So yes, people had to pay a tax each year to support their own political oppression.

You can understand how, from a political standpoint, this might be a fraught issue.

Those who were appointed by the Roman government to administer the occupation, referred to in today’s gospel as the Herodians—

Were understandably in favor of Roman occupation because it directly benefited them.

Thus, they were in favor of the tax.

The vast majority of the public, however, hated the Roman occupation and hated the tax that paid for their oppression.

That’s the political drama.

The religious drama comes from the denarius coin itself.

The denarius had a picture of Emperor Caesar on it.

The inscription on the coin, translated reads as “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”

According to the Jewish religious authorities, represented in today’s gospel by the Pharisees, to possess such a coin, that declared the divinity of a being other than the God of Israel…

Was pure blasphemy.

In other words, to pay the tax meant not only denying your own people their political rights, but it also meant denying, in effigy and inscription, your God.

So, by all rights, both political and religious, the only thing the Herodians and the Pharisees hate more than each other, it seems, is Jesus.

Which is why they show up together, to entrap Jesus in a dangerous conversation about money, politics and religion.

If Jesus comes out in favor of the tax, he will disappoint the public and be accused of blasphemy by the Pharisees.

If Jesus comes out against the tax, Jesus will be in danger from the Herodians and the Roman authorities.

Either way, the Herodians and the Pharisees can get rid of this troublesome man Jesus.

Now we all know that Jesus is a wise person.

But, as we can see from today’s gospel reading, Jesus is also a genius.

Jesus turns the entire conversation on its head.

First, by asking the Pharisees to produce a coin and tell him whose image is on it, Jesus

basically traps the Pharisees into admitting that they too—

By possessing a coin and knowing whose image is inscribed there—

Have committed the sin of idolatry.

Jesus immediately levels the playing field.

Next, in one short statement, Jesus turns the tables:

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are Gods.”

Jesus has committed no political suicide, he’s committed no blasphemy.

What Jesus does is turn the conversation to one not about money, politics, and religion, but to a conversation about God.

Because the truth is, by that one statement, both the Herodians and the Pharisees and everyone within earshot know…

Everything, really, comes from God.

You can’t really distinguish between what is Caesar’s and what is Gods, because it is all God’s.

Everything we have, we have only by the grace of God.

Jesus invites the Herodians and the Pharisees to publicly declare their allegiance to God.

And Jesus invites us to do the same.

The question for us, is not really whose image is on the coin, but whose image is, in fact, on us.

Because it’s not just what we have that comes from God; it is who we are.

Jesus’ original audience would have heard in his words echoes of Genesis 1, where God declares the divine intent to make humankind in God’s image.

We are God’s, made in the image of God.

And that’s what always seems to get lost in our conversations about money, politics and religion.

While we may feel strongly about our political loyalties, before we were a Democrat, Republican or an Independent…we were, and always are, God’s people.

And while we may feel that how we spend our money is our business only, yet if we

forget in whose image we are made,

We may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the sum total of our possessions…

and that our bank accounts say more about our worth and value as human beings, than does who we are as people of God.

The truth is, and as Jesus says in today’s gospel, there are some parts of our life that do go to Caesar.

We need to pay our mortgages, be responsible citizens, vote, and abide by the law.

But who we are in our deepest selves, in whose very image we were made, is God’s.

That part of who we are will never change, and if we remember that, then the whole rest of our lives take on greater focus and meaning.

Now when I say that our deepest selves belong to God, I do not mean that in a punitive way

—Behave youself, God is watching!—

Instead, I mean it in a way that gives value to who we are and to our actions as human beings.

No matter where we go, or what happens to us, we are first and foremost and forever a

child of God.

And that identity will, in turn, shape our behavior and how we live and act in the world,

as we try to be the people God calls us to be.

Because, of course, if we are beloved people of God, then other people are too.

What gets the Pharisees and Herodians into trouble is not only that they’ve forgotten who they are as God’s beloved people, but they’ve also forgotten that all people fall into that category also.

Both the Pharisees and Herodians are ultimately more concerned with their own power and self-interest, than they are with the interest of others.

And in doing so, they’ve denied fundamentally who they are, and who those around them are also—beloved people of God.

Money, politics, and even religion, has become for the Pharisees and Herodians, an idol.

A tool for their own power, a trap that weds them to the oppression of others, at the cost of who they really are.

Jesus’ words to the Herodians and Pharisees actually have an even more nuanced translation.

A more accurate way of translating Jesus’ words would be, “Give back to Caesar what is Ceaser’s, and give to God all that is God’s”.

Releasing ourselves from the power of Empire actually frees us to be more truly the people God has called us to be.

To give back those things which do not belong to us, which are not a part of our inheritance from God.

And instead to claim fully, in all parts of our lives, who we are as God’s beloved people.