People get in a fluster about coins. It is nothing new, currently people are worried that, despite there being about 500 million in circulation, the old round £1 coin is no longer legal tender. Such things are important. They are part of our lives – how we pay for things. Their size, shape and decoration matter too, otherwise those in power would not bother to design the coins we use. Our gospel this morning is all about a denarius, it is a small silver coin, about ¾ of an inch in diameter, the size of a modern 5p, or a penny. It was a day’s wage, the pay given to the labourers in the vineyard , or one thirtieth of the bribe given to Judas Iscariot, and the cost of the Roman poll tax, about £50 in today’s money.
Jesus and the Pharisees have something of a troubled relationship: they just do not seem to be able to understand what he is saying or why he is saying it. All they can do is to try and catch him out, to find a way to entrap him. In the gospel they must think that they have finally got him on the horns of a dilemma. They ask him the question, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ If he says, ‘no’ then he’s allied himself with zealots, religious extremists, he has made a provocative political statement for which he can be denounced. If he says, ‘yes’ then they can write him off as a collaborator, he is not one of us, he is not a real prophet, a true son of Israel. All the Pharisees are interested in is understanding what Jesus says in political terms. Their opening pleasantries ring hollow, they don’t mean what they say; they are just trying to butter him up with empty flattery.
Jesus turns the tables on them by asking them to show him a coin used to pay the tax, so that he can ask ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answer ‘Caesar’s’ allowing him to say, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’. Whereas the Pharisees come filled with malice, with a desire to catch him out, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to show them the proper order of things: pay your taxes but give God what is owed to him – a heart filled with love, love of God and of each other, a life which proclaims this love in the service of others and through the worship of Almighty God. This is where real power lies, this is the truly subversive aspect of Jesus’ teaching, which he proclaims in the Temple, in the heart of the religious establishment – to show people how to live, and live life to the full.
Jesus does not get drawn into the argument whether it is idolatrous to use Roman coins with pictures of pagan gods on them , and the inscription, ‘TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F. avgvstvs pontif. maxim.’ Paying a Roman tax with a Roman coin is fine, but what matters more is rendering to God the things that are God’s.
Jesus is asking us all a difficult question. What do you and I, all of us, render to God in our personal lives? If we claim to be disciples, then what does that actually mean in the way we speak and act?
We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We are to be generous, forgiving and kind, to the point of extravagance, because that is how God has been to us. It is a radically different way of living which shows that while we are in this world, we are not of it. Instead, we render to God the worship which is His by right, not just in church, but in all of our lives.
Thus as Christians we follow a differnt set of rules, we show that we can live lives of freedom. In the power of the Holy Spirit the Truth can be proclaimed, the truth which sets us free from the ways of the world, free to love and serve God. This freedom can be seen in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians to whom Paul writes. Rather than worshipping idols, they serve the living and true God, they are an example to Christians of how to live. Their lives proclaim the truth which they serve. This is the dark truth of which the prophet Isaiah speaks, these are the hidden riches.
As opposed to either the collaboration of the Herodians or the rigourist harshness of the Pharisees, Jesus proclaims the freedom and love of the Kingdom of God. It is a place of welcome – the image is that of the wedding feast to which all people are invited. People are too busy or preoccupied to come; others just don’t want to be invited: they mistreat the people who invite them. But this does not stop the invitation being offered to all, it still is. It is why we are here today, so that we can be nourished by Word and Sacrament, we can join in the wedding feast, so that we can be strengthened in love and in faith, to proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God, to be an example to others to draw them in to the loving embrace of God – to be healed and restored by Him.
We see this love and healing most fully in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the costly love in action which restores our relationship with God and each other. Thanks to this we are here today to be restored and renewed, to be built up in love together, it is a reality in our lives.
Let us come to him, to be healed and renewed, strengthened, built up in love, so that we may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever.