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Whose Head Is This?

Date: March 18, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Ancient Roman Coins

Mark 12:13-17

Lately I’ve been watching a British archaeology show called Time Team. The show ended in 2014 after a 20-year run, but all the episodes and specials they produced during that time are on YouTube.

Great Britain has a very long archaeological record, going all the way back to the end of the last Ice Age, when people moved freely between Britain and the European continent via a landmass known as Doggerland, which is now submerged under the North Sea. [1] But I think the majority of sites in Britain where archaeologists can understand a significant amount about what they find are from the Roman period.

When archaeologists try to figure out when a site was built or populated, as well as when it was destroyed or stopped being used, they look for dating evidence. That’s oftentimes pottery, but in the Roman period it also includes coins, like the one on the cover of our bulletin today. Experts in Roman archaeology can look at a coin that has been pulled out of the ground in much worse shape than the one on our bulletin and tell us exactly which emperor’s head is on the coin, and because each emperor struck coins with his head on them during his reign, we can pretty well know exactly when a coin was made. And by its condition, how worn it is, whether little bits have been cut out of it here and there to melt down for other uses, and such, we can actually get an idea of when it was dropped or placed in the ground, or a body of water, which were often sacred sites in Roman times.

A basic rule of archaeology is stratification, which means that stuff on top of other stuff is almost always more recent; so if a building’s foundation has a Roman coin under it, we can safely assume that the building was built after that coin was in use.

The Roman Empire occupied a vast amount of territory—all the way from the Middle East and North Africa to Southern, Central, and Western Europe, to Great Britain well up into what is now Scotland—and its coins found their way into every corner of that territory.

If we were to draw a picture of today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, it might depict Jesus holding a Roman coin in his hand. Many of his people, including the Pharisees who challenged him with the question about taxes, would have found these coins to be idolatrous. They could not be used for offerings at the Temple, because of the images on them. This meant that a person coming to the Temple would probably have to change their Roman coins into something more acceptable before they could make their offerings—and if you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country, you know that the exchange rates are never 1:1.

34 years ago when I traveled to Ireland, the exchange rate was usually around $1.40 in American money to £1 in Irish. The rate wasn’t always the same in every place; we were warned before we even got on the plane in New York never to exchange money in the airport, because we’d never get as much for it as we would if we waited till we could go to a bank.

At the Temple in Jerusalem, when people showed up to worship and make their offerings, they had to change their money there; the accepted coin was only available at the Temple itself—and that meant that the money-changers were the only game in town and could charge whatever they wanted. This is partly what Jesus was so upset about in the familiar “cleansing of the temple” story—which the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke say was the final straw that got Jesus crucified.

It’s sort of odd to have Pharisees and Herodians joining together to question Jesus; as a general rule they wouldn’t have had much to do with one another. Some of the commentaries I read this week said they were probably both put up to it by the priests, scribes, and elders of the people, who had been looking for a way to get rid of Jesus for quite awhile by this point.

They would both have had very valid reasons for wanting to know the answer to the question they put to Jesus, reasons which were exploited by Jesus’ enemies to get them to challenge him. The Pharisees had no particular love for the Roman occupation; their main concern was how to follow the Jewish Law when they were subject to an empire that oppressed them. The Herodians wanted to make sure their people’s security was maintained by any means necessary, including compromising to get along with the imperial power and doing away with any Jew whose actions might bring the wrath of Rome down on the whole nation.

They’re not cartoon characters, props put in the story to move it along and give Jesus something to play off of. It was an important question to each group; the answer mattered to them, which is probably why the priests, scribes, and elders put them up to asking.

Those folks, the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes, thought they had put Jesus in a position where he’d give the wrong answer no matter what he said. If he said, yes, we have to pay the tax, the Pharisees would proclaim him a sinner, unfit to be a teacher of the people, and he’d be discredited among the people who gathered to hear him teach. If he said no, the Herodians would have grounds to tell the Roman authorities he was trying to foment rebellion, as Judas the Galilean did when the tribute tax was first imposed on the Jews in 6 ce, which would guarantee his swift crucifixion.

It never occurred to anybody, apparently, that Jesus would easily see through the trap they were setting. And he calls them on it.

“Show me the coin that is used to pay the tax,” he says to them. So they show him the coin, and acknowledge it has Caesar’s image on it.

Then he says, “Okay, then give Caesar what belongs to him.”

He’s managed to get out of the trap, frustrating yet again these powerful folks’ attempt to put a stop to his ministry. He could have let it go at that. But Jesus is never content with saving his own neck. Even this trap is a chance for him to get across his main message—the announcement of the kingdom of God. So he adds something else to his answer, something neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians expected. “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar” – what has his picture on it – “and give God what belongs to God.”

Jesus has gotten himself out of the dilemma, but in doing it he raises a question that Christians ever since have been trying to answer. What does he mean by “Give the emperor (or the government, or the state) what belongs to the emperor, and give God what belongs to God”?

Jesus seems to prefer to give cryptic answers, enigmatic instructions. He never gives us an easy, hard-and-fast, clear guideline to follow, but makes statements that we have to think about, figure out for ourselves. But through the centuries, Christians have tried to make this saying into an easy, hard-and-fast, clear guideline. And they’ve actually, at various times, come out on completely opposite sides of the issue. Some people have said, “Jesus is saying that Christians should stay completely out of politics, completely out of government, completely out of service to our country.” Some have said, “He’s saying that the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world have nothing to do with one another; politics has nothing to do with faith.” Others have said, “Jesus is telling us to stand up as Christians against those things our government does that are counter to what we believe,” and that leads to lots of disputes about what those might be—with sincere folks coming up with plenty of different opinions. Still others have said, “Jesus is saying that the governments of our world have legitimate claims on us, and we therefore are to do whatever they ask, just as we’d do whatever God asks.”

Well, when it comes right down to it, when we teach that this saying is about the relationship of Christians to their government, we’re thinking too small. Yes, this saying does call us to think about that relationship, but there’s a lot more here than just that.

Remember how Jesus got the Pharisees and Herodians to recognize that the coin belonged to the emperor and therefore should be given back to the emperor? He asked them whose image was on it. What he was saying was that those things that have Caesar’s image on them belong to Caesar—and those things that have God’s image on them belong to God.

When he said that, the Pharisees, who knew their Bible, were going to have a couple of things leap into their minds. First, they would think of the first chapter of Genesis: “So God created humankind in his image…” [2]

What bears the image of God? We do. We belong to God.

Then they might remember the defiant words that begin the 24th Psalm: The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it; the world and everyone who lives in it. We belong to God; Caesar belongs to God; Caesar’s money belongs to God—if you take the logic that one step further.

So many people have used this text to preach political sermons. There are certain times that might be ripe for a sermon that calls us to think about how our faith relates to politics. It certainly does—as Christians we hold dual citizenship, both in the United States of America and in the Kingdom of God—and when it comes down to a disagreement between the two, our allegiance to God’s Kingdom has to come first. But that’s all I’m going to say about that, because I believe there is room for sincere, prayerful Christians to have honest disagreements about what that means.

It’s up to each one of us, with fear and trembling, to figure out what it means to live as dual citizens in these times. We can discuss it together, we can even argue about it, but ultimately we need to remember that all of us belong to God, whatever our political leanings might be.

The more I have studied this passage, though, the more I have recognized that this isn’t a political text as much as it is a stewardship text. When all is said and done, Jesus was saying that true faithfulness has nothing to do with whether or not we pay our taxes, and everything to do with recognizing that all we are and have belongs to God.

The whole idea of stewardship has to do with how someone takes care of what someone else has entrusted to them. If you go away on vacation and get a house-sitter, someone to stay at your house, live in it, make sure everything in it is safe, care for your pets if you have them, water your plants, what you’re doing is hiring a steward. A house-sitter is a steward who is entrusted with your home and everything that’s in it for a time. When you get back from your vacation, you’ll expect that person to have taken good care of your home, your furnishings, your pets, your plants—and when you’re back, they give it all back to you.

If everything we are and have belongs to God, then we can assume that God has some say in what we do with our time, our gifts and abilities, our money, even our relationships with others. But, again, Jesus doesn’t give us the easy answer. Nowhere does he provide a list of the things God wants us to do to be good stewards of what God has entrusted us with.

So much has changed in our world since the days of Jesus: he couldn’t have said anything in the Gospels about computers, or smartphones, or what we watch on TV or in the movies. He didn’t say anything about living in a democracy like the United States of America. There was no such place in his time.

That doesn’t mean what he did say has no bearing on how we use our modern technology, or how we live as Christians in this country. Far from it. But what it does mean is that every generation of Christians has to figure out, individually and as congregations, what it means to give to God what is God’s.

If our time belongs to God, how will we use it? If our abilities belong to God, how will we use them? If God is present in our relationships with others, how will we treat those others, whether they’re family, friends, strangers, or enemies? If our money belongs to God, how will we spend it? If our allegiance belongs first to God and God’s Kingdom, how will we live out our allegiance to our country?

Jesus was telling us that we belong to God all the time, not just when we’re at church. If we belong to God, how then shall we live?

[1] One of Time Team’s specials was about Doggerland, and there are numerous other programs and articles available online that explain why it existed, how it ended, and what happened to the people who lived there—not to mention how we know all this about a piece of land that is now under the sea.

[2] Genesis 1:27