Render Unto God

Render Unto God 

Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Baltimore MD 21201

October 18, 2020


Gospel Matthew 22:15-22

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?“ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.


It’s a familiar scene in Matthew, a group of Pharisees questioning Jesus. But the alerts will be going off extra crazy today because the Pharisees have enlisted the Herodians, their erstwhile enemy, in this plot to trap Jesus. Edgy. Very edgy. We’re most familiar with the Pharisees. They were a theologically conservative party. The Herodians are not so familiar. This was a group that supported King Herod, their namesake. They were Jewish but they held a far more favorable view of Rome than the Pharisees. In most instances, these two parties would be on opposing sides of a debate. But here, they’re partners in a shared objective to get Jesus in trouble and his followers with him. My enemy’s enemy is my friend . . . something like that.

They begin their questioning by praising Jesus. We can almost hear what they’re really thinking: “We know that you’re sincere [except you’re nothing but fake news]; we affirm everything you say [except for what you say and how you say it]; we know that you treat everyone equally [except that you ought to be more deferential to us]” (Adapted from Audrey West, “Sundays Coming: Jesus Reframes the Question” in The Christian Century (12 October 2020).

It’s lip service. They aim to set a trap to catch Jesus in his words.

To do this, they take up the issue of taxes. Sound familiar? As in, How much did you pay in 2016? Taxes are as controversial now as then. The Pharisees opposed paying taxes to Rome. The Pharisees resented the Roman emperor’s idea that he was god, which was an idea inscribed into the coin used to pay the taxes. Paying taxes meant in practice agreeing to the offensive statement that the emperor was a god. The Herodians were okay with taxes. There were advantages to working with the emperor. But both parties, Pharisees and Herodians, knew that Rome would send in the troops to quell social unrest, especially if it interfered with the tax.

So this is their question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to God to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

Yes or no, please.

Taxation is a complicated issue and they know it. If Jesus says, yes, it is lawful, he ends up taking sides with the oppressor and endorsing the sin of idolatry; if he says unlawful, he risks an early death. But instead of answering them, Jesus calls them out: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”

Hypocrisy suggests a character flaw, but Matthew’s usage here may actually be closer to its etymological roots. The word hypocrites has rootage in theater, where people on a stage wear masks as they perform a particular character. On the surface, they represent one thing, but underneath, their true identity is to be found.

To get at their true identity, Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” I’ve read this text so many times, I don’t think this is odd in the least, the way Jesus asks for a coin. But maybe we ask the obvious question, “Why doesn’t Jesus just pull a coin out of his own pocket?” The answer might be that as a pious Jew, Jesus would not carry a graven image into the temple, not even an imperial coin.

By contrast, the Pharisees and Herodians have such graven images handy. So right away, Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, asks, “If they truly trust God, why then do they have on their very person, in God’s temple, an idolatrous image?”

Once Jesus has the coin in sight — Jesus doesn’t take it into his hands — he asks, “Whose image is that in this temple, God’s temple? And what is its inscription?”

“The emperor’s image,” they say.

They don’t answer the second question, “what is the inscription?” — why? Because the title beneath the image of the emperor was, “The son of God.” Of course, everybody knew this, so by not saying it, their dodge was all the more brazen.

And, as Jesus always does, he nails it: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to render unto God the things that are God’s.”

Basically, that’s the end of the story for now. What does it mean? For a lot of us, this formulates what we know as the separation of church and state, the idea that there are two domains, the religious and the secular. In the religious world, we pay our debt to God and in the secular world, we pay our dues to Uncle Sam.

There’s value to that reading but it may be too simplistic. For one, all things belong to God. So in a sense, if you give what belongs to God, you won’t have anything left to give to the emperor. Of course, you won’t have any public schools either. That too could be too simplistic.

But maybe Jesus is asking a more fundamental question: what do we render unto God? And whose image do we carry in our hearts? If it is God’s image that adds light to our eyes, what might we see?

Think again about how they heaped flattery on Jesus in the temple. In Matthew’s theology, Jesus is the image of the living God. And yet when they praised Jesus — wise, knowing, impartial, and so on — it came from a place of deep distrust.

Were they functional atheists? Are we? A functional atheist is not a person who says, I don’t believe in God. A functional atheist actually knows god-talk but engages in the kind of dualism that we heard in the beginning of the text.

Parker Palmer, who writes about Christian spirituality, defines functional atheism this way: “Functional atheism is the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests on us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen — a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God” (Parker J. Palmer, Let Your life Speak (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 88).

Maybe Jesus asks us to examine our hearts: “What or whose image is in your heart?”

Here’s another possibility generated by our encounter with Christ in this text. For Matthew, Christ is the image of God, but the Herodians couldn’t see that and the Pharisees certainly didn’t see that. But we have an unfair advantage; we see Christ’s image in a bigger way. Jesus’ opponents saw him as an obstacle or perhaps as an asset. They saw Jesus through the filter of their needs, their sense of emergency.

But they didn’t see Jesus, the image of God. We all carry within us the image of God. It’s often difficult for us to see, either in ourselves and or in others. Theologians say this is the result of sin. When we look at human life, the image of God may seem milky and opaque.

But occasionally, we get glimpses of the image of God. Not long ago, a picture of George Floyd as an infant was published. He’s sleeping the way babies do, on his mother’s chest, after they’ve been nursed. His young mother is smiling at the camera.

Maybe all of us carry not only the contests and conflicts of the hour but also and decisively, the gifts of life itself. It’s hard. It’s hard for us to see that image, that breadth of life. Even when our relatives say, “Hmmm, I think I got it wrong in 2016” — we’re like, yeah, what were you on?

We see a partisan in every person rather than a person who may be, in this hour, somewhat partisan. What does it mean to see the image of God in our neighbor or in someone with whom we vehemently disagree?

There’s an illustration of this idea. Two people are in a crisis but neither sees the full context of what the other is dealing with. They only see the narrow crisis they know. One person is on top of a cliff and the other person is dangling over the cliff. They’ve clasped their hands together. The one who is dangling over the edge of the cliff wants to be pulled out of danger. Danger of falling. That’s the crisis they recognize together. But the big picture shows that the person on top of the cliff is being crushed by a huge boulder. She can’t see that he’s doing good just to hold on. And he can’t see what she sees — that there is a snake coiled up in a crevice of the cliff and it’s looking like it’s about to strike. He can’t see the source of her anxiety, the poisonous snake, and she doesn’t understand why he isn’t getting her out of trouble more quickly.

But as viewers, outside the immediate crisis, we actually see the whole situation. When we’re able to do that, there’s a chance we’ll be able to see with a different perspective.

Maybe seeing the image of God in our neighbors is code for seeing the big picture. The image of God in each of us is sometimes hard to grasp, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. God is there. And God is in us and with us, in our complicated hearts, and God has saved, God is saving us, and God will save us.

It’s not easy to get the big picture. I still don’t get why people don’t mask up. I don’t. I’m working on that one. Haven’t got there yet. When I see that people are sloppy about that, I want to shake my head. I want to say, “Who do you think you are? Why are you endangering my life and the lives of others? How dare you!”

Maybe it’s a valid public health concern. And I’d like some leadership on that front and certainly consideration from my neighbors. But maybe it’s also a theological question, as in, “How can you possibly carry the image of God in your life?”

There’s a saying out there: If you want to know how much you love God, think of the person you love least. And with that measure, you know precisely how much you love God.

When I put it that way, I am challenged to think through my feelings or at least curb them. I’m not saying that we can’t disagree with one another. Or we need to bless everything we see in the name of Jesus. What’s not okay is the kind of behavior or thinking that turns someone else into a monster, beyond God’s saving love. That’s not okay.

Dorothy Day shares how difficult this is . . . and how important. In a home dedicated to living peaceably and in community, they had taken in a particularly abrasive person. He was racially abusive. And he was dying. Maybe that was the best thing about him!

But on his death bed, with only a few minutes left of life, this abusive racist asked someone to fetch his walking stick to give to the person whom he had abused for as long as they’d known him. They thought maybe he’s going to do something nice and kind. But then he said, “I want my stick so I can wrap it around this guy’s head!” And then he died.

One of the members community said, “You know, for a house committed to peace there’s not a lot of peace here.”

But for Dorothy Day that was precisely why he was there, or why God placed him there, to initiate what she called a revolution of the heart. We want a heart stamped with the title of success. We want a story with a happy ending. But maybe God gives us a story that ends with what seems like a failure in order to initiate a revolution in our hearts (from Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes).

Is the cross failure? To the emperor’s way of looking at things, the answer would be, yes. Looking at the cross, an emperor might ask, What was in it for Jesus? Just some loser, a sucker. But in Matthew, it’s a Roman soldier, one who had sworn an oath to the emperor, who saw Jesus as he died on the cross, and said, perhaps to his own astonishment, “Surely this is the Son of God!”

Whose image is in the heart of our neighbor? I mean, we see the red MAGA hats or the protesters and maybe it’s difficult to see anything else. But is there more to them, more to us than we know?

Distance education for small children poses real hardships, too many to count, but even these contexts are not without their moments of light-hearted humor and maybe some wisdom along the way.

Iris’ second-grade teacher posed this question to her class: Why is Love Important? Her teacher deserves credit for asking the big questions! In truth, it’s a good question for any of us to think about. But then, as the teacher tried to mimic the physical classroom, she used the “breakout” function on Zoom. This function drops participants into smaller groups at random, so they can have a small-group experience. That’s the idea.

So it was that our daughter, Iris, found herself face-to-face with another little boy in her class. Just the two of them. The girl stared blankly at the boy while the boy stared blankly at the girl. The question, “Why is love important?” seemed to vanish into irrelevance as these two 7-year-olds eyed each other warily on their respective screens. The medium seemed to complicate the question beyond recognition. Nothing was happening. So, Iris’ mum, sitting nearby, encouraged her to say, “Hi” but Iris refused to take herself off mute. Minutes passed. Mum asks, “Well, Iris do you think you could wave?” She consented to wave. About ten seconds later, the little boy waved back.