The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
All literature, sacred or not, is created within the context of culture and history. Some types of writing — like wisdom literature — endure, while other types fade with time. The setting for this morning’s text is, of course first-century Judea, a region under Roman occupation for a little less than a century, and it would be another 30 years or so until the Jews rose in revolt and about 35 years until the Romans would defeat the Jews and demolish the Second Temple. The people Jesus is speaking to are living under the boot of the Roman Empire. Think of occupied France during World War II and you’ll get the picture: people living under military occupation, religious oppression, economic oppression, and a growing hatred of the occupier.
Both Jesus and his inquisitive friends, the Pharisees, were anti-Roman, but the Pharisees had a leg up as members of the religious establishment. So, when they send their students, their disciples, over to Jesus to pose a question, they are trying to get Jesus into a double-bind, either by admitting that it was legitimate to pay the occupiers or whether a tax revolt was more appropriate.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t play into their hands, he does some rhetorical jujitsu, asking them to pull out a denarius. It’s the type of Roman coin that would have been in circulation when Jesus told the Pharisee, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And when Jesus says, “Whose head is this and whose title,” I always just assumed, it’s a picture of Caesar and it says that he is the emperor…but there is more to the story.
After doing a Google search for an image of an early first-century denarius, I found the two sides of the coin you see on your screen. On one side you see a profile of the emperor Tiberius (who was the emperor at the time Jesus told this story) and o;/the reverse side there is a seated image of Livia, the mother of Tiberius. So those are the people pictured, but Jesus also asks “whose title?” Well, I expected it to say that Tiberius was the emperor. But that’s not exactly what it says. Around the edge of the “heads” side of the coin, starting under Tiberius’s chin and reading counter-clockwise, it says, “TI” for Tiberius, “CAESAR” (which you can translate yourself!) “DIVI AUG F,” which in abbreviated form means “son the God Augustus,” and also inscribed is Tiberius’s own title “AUGUSTUS” which is a politico-religious term that means “venerable, worthy of worship.” And on the “tails” side of the coin you can read Tiberius’s other title, “PONTIFEX MAXIMUS” or highest priest. So, the titles aren’t just political, but go to the heart of Roman imperial cultic religion.
A good, pious Roman would think that paying taxes to Caesar WAS giving to God, or in Tiberius’s case, the son of a god. But, of course, every Jew in the ancient world, including Jesus himself, knew that Augustus was not divine. That’s what the Pharisees are getting at…but Jesus turns their question on its head, challenging the hearer to question and distinguish what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar.
They are vying for the hearts and minds of the people: Caesar on one hand and God on the other…the Roman Empire on one side, the kingdom of God on the other. And when you live in a tiny country under occupation by Roman legionaries, it may be easier to see the force of empire than to see the immediate reality of God.
When new members joined our congregation earlier in the summer, they offered the same words of covenant that all who join this congregation say. And perhaps we don’t think of those phrases as being countercultural, but they are. When we say, “I give myself unreservedly to God’s service,” we are pledging our lives and our allegiance not to Caesar, but to God.
For me, that means that our primary loyalty is to the kingdom of God, rather than the empire of Caesar – or whatever petty empire has taken Rome’s place at the center of our lives. In our covenant, we are making a statement not simply about whom we will serve, but about the way we orient and prioritize our lives. So, what does that mean to you? What does it mean to YOU to give yourself without reservation to God’s service?
We all know people who serve other gods, in fact, each of us serves them on occasion, and more than occasionally if we aren’t vigilant. We serve these other gods when our primary attention and focus is on something else. Some serve the god of personal comfort, while others serve the god of the stock market, others serve the god of white supremacy, and still others the god of power and influence. Like the old Bob Dylan song says, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody…well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but your gonna have to serve somebody.” And as Jesus says in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and Mammon [sometimes personified as the demon of wealth].” And the point Jesus is making with the denarius is that you cannot serve both God and Caesar.
What does Jesus mean to imply when he says, “Give to God what is God’s?” Jesus undoubtedly knew Psalm 24 by heart, and I intentionally included it as our Call to Worship this morning. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” So that little denarius, even with the picture of the emperor stamped into it, belongs to God.
Some of what belongs to God is entrusted to you for your good use. I see what some of you do with the gifts and graces and dollars God has put in your hands. I see the work you do with Habitat, with La Foret and the wider UCC. This week, I see Plymouth folks and other ecumenical partners using our North Wing to collect clothing and supplies for immigrant children who arrived in this country as unaccompanied minors, and I’ve seen you outside (and inside!) our senator’s office calling for an end to gun violence. And I see what you do to keep this church not just plugging along, but vital. I see our Council working hard to make tough decisions and guide us toward a future that will be different after the pandemic is through. I see our deacons and my staff colleagues finding creative ways to reach out to you during this tumultuous time. And it requires you taking part of what God has entrusted to you and investing it in the mission and ministry of your church. And if you ever get confused about who we are meant to serve, just pull a quarter our of your pocket to read the reminder under George Washington’s chin: In God We Trust.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.