The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 22nd Chapter
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
There are at least two places to mess this one up. The first is to see this as a story about Jesus making politicians look like idiots. That one’s VERY tempting. The second is more serious… and that’s to see this as a story telling us there is part of the world where God works and another, different part of the world, where God does not.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” At first glance it might look like Jesus is saying there are two circles of influence in the world. One here. One over here. One controlled by Caesar. The other controlled by God. A political circle and a spiritual circle… both completely separate. But really, what Jesus did here is to remind us that Caesar’s political circle is completely inside God’s circle which surrounds ALL of creation. On the surface, Jesus asked “whose face is on that coin”, but the REAL question Jesus asked was “who do you think gave the emperor that face!?”
EVERYTHING… the good AND the bad… people, war, peace, disease, sickness, health, food, water, disasters, triumphs, love, death, flags, anthems, presidents, emperors… EVERYTHING… EVERY-THING belongs to God. If I was Bishop Curry, this is where I’d probably start singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands!” The BIG temptation of this story is to read it the way the Pharisees and the Herodians HEARD it, and miss the way Jesus TOLD it.
BOTH the Pharisees and the Herodians believed there were places in the world the other couldn’t touch. Two separate circles. Over here… political, business, and worldly things that “belong to Caesar”… apart from God. Over there… the religious, church, and spiritual things that “belong to God” apart from Caesar and n’er the twain shall meet. God’s laws, the prophets warnings and Jesus’s teachings are all fine and dandy inside church walls or in our hearts, but out there… those shouldn’t mix with how we do government, address violence, or think about poverty, hunger, healthcare and justice.
What Jesus was SAYING… not what the Herodians and Pharisees HEARD now, but what Jesus was SAYING… is that God not only has something to SAY about every aspect of every single moment of our lives, but that God has every aspect of every moment of our lives... every face in all of creation, wrapped up in the infinite, unconditional, loving, ever-transforming and redeeming circle of God’s embrace!
The faith stuff isn’t at all separate from the world stuff. Because ALL the stuff is God’s STUFF. All those crazy notions Jesus held up, like unconditional and sacrificial love, looking out for the LEAST, LAST and LOST before you look out for yourself… ALL that stuff… stuff like real justice, radical forgiveness, unhindered generosity, perpetual peace and uncompromising compassion… ALL of it… it’s not just how Sunday morning’s supposed to work. THAT’S the way God is transforming the WHOLE WORLD to work and that’s what all the fruit talk’s been about the last few weeks. WE’RE supposed to bear fruit! As Christians, WE’RE called to be part of God’s transformational work!
Now, you know why all this fruit talk sounds so hard, don’t you? It’s because it’s hard! But this gospel makes it harder! Because as we go out there and do that hard work, Jesus wants us to remember that it is God’s hand that formed every face we encounter along the way. In this story, Jesus told them, God made every Jewish face… AND every Roman face. Every face. God made Caesar’s face and God’s hand still forms EVERY face. Now, think about that… EVERY face. Then and now… EVERY… FACE… I’ll give you a second to let that sink in… EVERY…FACE… Yup, even THAT face! You see where this is going, don’t you? That means God made the faces on both sides of the aisle, both sides of the gun, both sides of the prison bars, both sides of the ocean. God’s hand formed the faces that endure the hate and the faces that spew it. God’s hand formed faces that kneel and faces that stand. God’s hand formed every face, and along with the faces, the hearts and souls of all of creation!
You see where this is going, don’t you? As we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God… as we work in the vineyard for racial justice, an end to violence, and for enough, good, food and clean water for all… What this means is that as we do that work we need to look for God’s fingerprints in EVERY face we encounter along the way. EVERY FACE. In the hurting faces AND in the faces of those who do the hurting. It’s so much easier to divide and conquer though, isnt’ it? Divide the world into: us OR them, in OR out, good OR bad, up OR down, heaven OR hell.
But that’s not the Jesus way… because it isn’t the truth and doesn’t lead to life. The truth is in that song: “He’s got the whole world in his hands!” So, when we work for justice, kindness, inclusivity, peace, and compassion… not just in church on Sunday, but in every part of our lives… As we do that work, Jesus challenges us to see God’s fingerprints in EVERY face. That person who’s working against love, compassion and justice… THAT broken, hurting, person trying to get rid of their pain by passing it on to someone else… That person… THAT person, hides behind a face which also bears the fingerprints of God.
Now, that doesn’t mean we give up the fight and let that face roll over the world. We MUST continue to work toward the transformation of the world. Remember, God has a clear opinion about how the world should work… There ARE the blessed ARE's after all... the peacemakers, the meek, the ones who hunger and thirst for what is right… But as we strive, little by little to do God’s work, we must always remember that God’s fingerprints are everywhere and on every face. On the faces of those easiest to love and on the faces of those who make loving them nearly impossible... and even on the face where God’s fingerprints are sometimes the very, very hardest for us to see… God’s fingerprints are even on the face we see in our mirror. Amen.