Should We Pay Them, or Should We Not?

Scripture can be found here...

I don’t like reading other people’s sermons while I’m preparing my own.

It’s not that there aren’t other messages to be heard, turns of phrase to be relished, and hidden treasures to be revealed in the writing and speaking of other preachers. There most definitely are, all those things. And that’s my problem. I believe it is a crucial part of my call to this ministry of teaching elder, word and sacrament, to know what I see and hear and read and feel in a passage before I set about preaching it. It is my responsibility to listen to where God is calling me, with regard to the words of scripture. If I get caught up in another person’s study, and logic, and writing, it can be hard to get back to that core place where I believe God is calling me. Now, on Sunday afternoons, on the other hand, I’m all about reading the sermons of my colleagues in ministry, to see the things I didn’t see, and hear the voices I didn’t hear, and to feel the emotions another person was able to raise up. The sermons I read on Sunday afternoon (and evening, and even Monday morning) are an important part of my own spiritual nurture. But while I’m in the studying and writing process? No. No reading sermons for me.

Except, this week. I did that. I went to the website of the Rev. Wil Gafney, a phenomenal scholar of the Hebrew scriptures, actually, to see whether she had ever written on this passage. I was looking for “Thoughts to Ponder,” and I was hoping she had something to offer. And, oh my, she did. A sermon called “An Unholy Empire,” which contained the list of questions you see at the top of your bulletin:

Sounds easy doesn’t it? But does Jesus mean that his ancient hearers should have given all of their money or even just all of the coins with the imperial image to Caesar? And he can’t mean that we, his contemporary hearers, should give all of our money back to the government that minted and printed it, can he? But then again, doesn’t everything belong to God?[i]

By now you have figured out that our sermon series, “Questioning Jesus,” cuts both ways. We are lifting up questions that were asked of Jesus, as well as questions that were asked by Jesus… and we’re throwing our own questions into the mix, too.

Our first question: Where is Jesus now, and what’s going on?

We have skipped over chapter 11, saving it for Palm Sunday, because it is an account of Jesus triumphantly entering Jerusalem. From now until Palm Sunday, all our readings are taking place during what we think of as Holy Week—the last week of Jesus’ life before he is crucified. As for the “where,” Jesus is teaching in the Temple—the spiritual home of the faith of his people. The central place of worship for Jews, and the only place appointed for sacrifices and offerings.

The gospels tell us: Jesus knew full well what awaited him in Jerusalem. This is the week in which Jesus will be crucified. And so these words of his are saturated with a depth of passion that we need to hear. Jesus’ message is urgent.

In the first part of our passage, Jesus “speaks to them in parables.”

Who are “they”?

 “They” are made up of three groups: the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. The priests bear the responsibility for the running of the temple, including offering the sacrifices. The scribes are legal scholars, religious lawyers and judges. The elders are community leaders and also judges. At the end of chapter 11, these three groups together challenged Jesus’ authority. This parable is Jesus’ response.

The parable is very hard. It seems to say—it seems to say—that those who reject God, and God’s son, are violent people. And they are liable to find themselves suffering the same kind of punishment they themselves inflict on their fellow human beings. It seems to portray—seems to portray—a God of vengeance, a God of anger. Surely, a heartbroken God, the same kind of heartbreak any of us would have at seeing our son or daughter savagely killed.

This week marked the fourth anniversary of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, whose death awakened so many Americans to exactly that kind of heartbreak, that 17 year old boy whose life was senselessly cut short.

This parable seems to say that those who beat and kill will be beaten and killed, and seems to portray a God who will exact vengeance on the killers. Although, as a preaching colleague pointed out this week, there is a rather big disconnect between the parable and our experience of God: God is not an absentee landlord.[ii] God does not push over the first domino and walk away, to watch all the divine creation unfold at a remove. God is very much with us, among us, in us—that is, after all, why God came in Jesus. And so the parable is baffling, and troubling. Is it a revelation of a wrathful God meant to make us shake in our sandals? Or is the parable reflective of the grief and terror of the man who prays in the garden, weeping, who will say, on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Can we live with the ambiguity of this parable?

The passage ends with the news that “they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd.”

So they send the folks who approach Jesus in the second part of our passage. Here, we have the very familiar story of a trick question and a coin. The folks who show up this time are the Pharisees, who are interested in ever greater purity of religious interpretation and practice, and the Herodians, supporters of the treacherous king Herod. This is kind of amusing. These two groups are what we might call “strange bedfellows.” They would more often be found arguing with one another, but they have found common cause in their mistrust of and opposition to, Jesus. In fact, all the civic and religious leaders are lining up against him.

But first, as another preaching professor puts it, they butter him up like a croissant.[iii] “Teacher,” they say, “we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.” And then they go in for the kill. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (Mark 12:14-15).

Here’s the problem with this question. Any answer Jesus gives is potentially deadly for him. If he says, “Yes, the taxes are legal,” Jesus “sides” with the hated Roman Empire, and loses the goodwill of the people. If he says “No, don’t pay the taxes,” Rome has the grounds for crucifixion: Jesus has engaged in an act of sedition.

Jesus calls for a coin, and asks a simple question, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Actually, in the Greek, we read, “Whose image—EIKON—and whose writing?”

The coin bears the image of the emperor, and his writing, too. So, give it to him, Jesus says.

And the most powerful thing here is the thing Jesus does not say directly, but which every single person within hearing, all the people standing around the temple, already have echoing in their hearts.

So God created humankind in his image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.  ~ Genesis 1:27

Whose image do we bear? We bear the image of God. To whom do we belong, in every way or, as the wonderful Wil Gafney says (in her sermon which I am so very glad I read), “Lock, stock—stocks and bonds—and barrel?”[iv]

Why, to God. We belong to God. And so, we give ourselves to God.

Which brings us back to Professor Gafney’s final question: 

But then again, doesn’t everything belong to God?  Yes. It does. We do.

And this is the crux of the problem between Jesus and everyone who is angry with him, from the religious establishment to the political one. To insist, unambiguously, that we belong to God is to tell us that there are some very deep and pressing claims upon us. These claims can bring us into conflict with both the faith communities we love and the country we are loyal to. We do not like this reality. And we strain and struggle to figure out how to live in it.

We have been created in the image and likeness of God. We bear God’s image. We are God’s.

What does this mean for our lives?

Our passage ends, “And they were utterly amazed at him.” What about Jesus’ words sent them away utterly amazed? When have the people been amazed before? I felt compelled to go back, and see.

They were amazed at the authority of Jesus, when he cast out unclean spirits (Mark 1:27, 5:42).

They were amazed when he said to a paralyzed man, “Stand up,” and the man did just that (2:12).

They were overcome with amazement when Jesus said to the little girl, “Talitha cumi,” and she who had been dead was alive again (5:42).

The people are amazed at Jesus’ ministry of healing and bringing people to life, fullness of life. And here in this passage, they are amazed at his reminder to them: You, too, are created in the image of God. You, too, are invited to be a part of something amazing, God’s bringing people to fullness of life—a ministry of healing, a service that helps to cast the demons out, a mission that helps those who have been paralyzed to move again.

Sure, Jesus tells us, give to Caesar what he needs to make sure we have police and roads and ambulances. Absolutely. And give yourself fully, wholly, lock, stock, and barrel, to the God who made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, and the dead to come to life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] The Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, “An Unholy Empire,” a sermon on Mark 12:13-17, October 16, 2011,

[ii] The Rev. Tony Metz, Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Quincy, IL.

[iii] N. Clayton Croy, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, OH.

[iv] Gafney, op. cit.