“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 KJV)
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
So the translations we use today, like the New Revised Standard Version we use for our readings, are more accurate and easier to understand. But sometimes they lack a certain poetry. In a few weeks, once Advent has begun, Alice will start lamenting about once a week the replacement of “wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7 KJV) with the NRSV’s “wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7 NRSV). The King James’ text is one that’s become an almost proverbial classic, found everywhere from the highest-church Midnight Mass to the lowest-church children’s pageant.
“Render unto Caesar” is another one of the proverbial poetic phrases. It has a punch that “Give to the emperor” never will. I hear it most often, of course, used in a secular context, to argue for the separation of church and state. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” In other words, keep your Christian values out of my politics.
But as is so often the case with proof-texts—single verses that can be thrown down out of context to prove a certain point—I think it’s important to rewind a bit, to see what’s actually being said.
Because of the shape of our liturgical year, we haven’t actually been reading straight through Matthew’s gospel. If we had, a few weeks ago we would’ve had Palm Sunday. By our reading for today, Jesus has already ridden into Jerusalem for the last time on the back of a donkey. The people have shouted “Hosanna!” and proclaimed him their king. They’ve claimed for him some political authority. Then he’s entered into the Temple, driven out the money changers, and begun teaching with the parables we’ve read for the last few weeks. In other words, he’s claimed a certain religious authority.
So the powers that be are worried. The Pharisees and the Herodians wouldn’t normally get along. The Pharisees are a set of religious teachers who preach individual holiness, applying the purity laws of the Temple to all of life. They’re generally skeptical of Roman rule. The Herodians—supporters of the Herodian dynasty, the sons and relatives of King Herod—are a broadly pro-Roman party. To keep themselves in power, they must keep the flow of taxes going to Rome and keep the population subservient to the Empire.
So both groups are feeling threatened. A new king has been proclaimed, and now he’s teaching in the Temple. And so they come to him and plan to trap him with a question with religious and political overtones. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:17) If Jesus says it’s lawful to pay taxes to the oppressive Roman occupying regime—taxes that were extremely unpopular among the people—he’ll lose his popular support and political legitimacy, boosting the Pharisees. If he says it’s not lawful, the Herodians will turn him over to the Romans and accuse him of inciting rebellion. And if he refuses to answer the question—which is framed as a halakhic question, a basic question of interpreting Jewish law—he’ll appear to be a sham, a phony rabbi who won’t give you a straight answer. So they challenge his political and religious authority.
Jesus, unsurprisingly, turns the tables on them. He asks them to show the coin they use to pay the tax. Now, we have to remember that this isn’t 21st-century America, where a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. You can pay with almost anything: a Roman coin, sure, but also a Jewish coin minted by Herod, an old Greek coin, a chicken, a loaf of bread, some livestock...whatever you have. And yet they hand over a Roman coin, a denarius. He’s accused them of being hypocrites, and they are. Trying to force him to appear as a Roman collaborator by legitimizing taxes, they’ve demonstrated that they themselves participate in the Roman economy. And even worse, they’ve given him a coin with a human face on it, a graven image abhorrent to Jews of the time—whose own coins, minted by Herod, had no human face. And worse, they’ve shown this graven image within the bounds of the Temple itself. Their political idolatry, their worship of Roman-minted money and Roman-protected power, is also a literal idolatry.
But Jesus is not simply a master of debate, content with putting his opponents to shame. He goes a step further with a question that at first seems stupid: “Whose head is this?” (Matthew 22:20) Here our NRSV, in trying to be clear, misrepresents the text a bit. The Greek word is “εἰκὼν” (eikōn), “icon.” Whose icon is this?
I said earlier that Jesus is answering a halakhic question, a question of law. This would normally be answered by referring to the Torah. Jesus does this in other places: for example, when answering a question about marriage and divorce, he refers to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus doesn’t explicitly refer to or quote a verse of Torah; but his reference is clear.
In Genesis 1:26, in the Greek translation with which the New Testament authors were familiar and often quote, God says, “Let us make humankind according to our εἰκὼν, according to our icon.” Our English translations usually read “according to our image,” “image” simply being the Latin equivalent to the Greek “icon.” And indeed, both Genesis 1:26 and Matthew 22:20 in their Latin translation use “image.” On the one hand, “Let us make humankind according to our image”; on the other hand, “Whose image is this” on the coin. Okay, enough historical linguistics—what’s the point?
The point is that Caesar can stamp his image on as many coins as he wants; but God has stamped God’s image on humankind itself, on every human being. The point is that the next verse is “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NRSV). Go ahead, Jesus says. Give to Caesar the things a human being can create: money, power, status, soldiers, armies. Give to God your whole selves as human beings, as embodied human souls beloved of God.
There’s an inscription on Emerson Hall in the Yard; I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it. As you walk out of the back doors of Sever, through the Yard to Quincy St., and you look up to the right, there it is: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” This is a quotation from Psalm 8, in the King James Version:
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,Who are we, as human beings, compared to the mind-numbing vastness and beauty of the universe, that God should pay us any attention at all, should care for us so much, should love each one of? Psalm 8 is the psalm of all those who have ever lain on their backs in a field and looked up at the stars and felt a sense of awe.
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalms 8:3–4 KJV)
This wasn’t the inscription that was originally intended. Emerson Hall, as you might know, is the home of Harvard’s philosophy department. It’s named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great Harvard Unitarian and transcendentalist. And it was built at the turn of the century, as Harvard strived to finally shed its Puritan past and fully embrace the new rationalism, which taught that human beings, through their own logic, intellect, reason, and effort could create a new age of peace, prosperity, and progress. I would note that this was just ten or fifteen years before the outbreak of the Great War, when the technological brilliance of the age turned to the mass slaughter of human beings by the most efficient means possible: trench warfare, machine guns, and poison gas. But of course, this hadn’t yet happened. The illusion of unlimited reason and progress was still intact.
So perhaps it’s not surprising to hear that the original inscription that the philosophy faculty sought was not Psalm 8, but instead the great line of the Greek philosopher Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” Now what does it take to look up at the stars and say to yourself,
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,I can’t say. And I have to believe that inscribed in granite at the top of a monument to philosophy in the center of the bastion of the Boston Brahmin intellectual elite at the turn of the century, this means something more like, “The achievements of Man are the measure of all things.”
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
Man is the measure of all things?”
How often, I wonder, do we follow in the footsteps of our Harvard forebears? How often do we fool ourselves into believing that the things we can create—money, prestige, control, even others’ perceptions of ourselves—are more important than the things that God has created: human beings, our fellow animals, and our planet? How often do we too commit the idolatry of putting ourselves in the place of God as the ultimate arbiters of what is good?
On Friday our recently retired Bishop Tom Shaw died. Last year, after he had been diagnosed with brain cancer but while he was still well enough to work, Bishop Tom joined us at one of our Life Together trainings. During a time when we had the opportunity to ask questions, I asked him if he had any advice for those of us considering a life in ordained ministry. He took a moment to think, and answered, “Be open to the future.” As he continued to speak I realized he didn’t mean I should be open to my future—to remember during the long institutional process of discernment that I might not be called to priesthood—but to remember that we, as the church, should be open to our future—that it might look drastically different from our past.
Tom, of course, was a monk, not a parish priest, and he was a great supporter of less-conventional congregations and communities like Life Together, and like our college chaplaincies. He saw past the structures and titles we’d created to organize the church to the human beings who make up the Church.
As students and faculty at Harvard, we have shown ourselves to be good at navigating the application processes and career tracks we, as a society have created; structures and titles are sort of our specialty. Many of us here today are trying to figure out our next steps in life. So I can only pass along the advice I once got from a departed brother: Be open to the future. Grad school applications and on-campus interviews, clerkships and internships are things we have created. But we ourselves are made in God’s image.
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s;
and unto God the things that are God’s.”