*This week is the first week out of six, of focusing on discipleship at Lord of the Hills Lutheran Church in Centennial, CO. We are expanding our stewardship focus to recognize that generosity is a spiritual practice and part of being made in the image of God. We will be using alternate texts to the Revised Common Lectionary.
The Question about Paying Taxes
13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
On Friday evening I attended the annual New Beginnings ministry fundraiser dinner gala. New Beginnings is a congregation that worships inside the walls of the Women’s Denver Correctional Facility. I have attended worship there a couple of times and each time I am left speechless and in awe of these women who have, through many different paths and circumstances, have landed behind bars. They have made bad choices; they broke the law; they harmed others and themselves. Yet, as they walk into the cafeteria turned worship area, sit in plastic chairs and suddenly they are like any other congregation of God’s people gathered for worship. They are in desperate need of forgiveness, they are in desperate need of love, they are in desperate need of newness; they are in desperate need of Jesus.
These women had tried creating an identity for themselves on the outside that ultimately landed them on the inside. They wanted others to see them in a certain way; they wanted to see themselves a certain way. Image is important when it seems that’s all we have left. Maybe it was the image of being tough, hardened, daring or risky. Maybe they had been told that they were not good, that they couldn’t be anything other than broken, worthless, and lawless. I am always struck by how many of these women aren’t that different from you or me. Perhaps the biggest difference is simply luck, a bit more of a stable family or a few more resources available. These visits of worshiping with the women at New Beginnings, always humble me with all of the privileges and resources that I have that allowed me to make better decisions. We all make poor decisions from time to time, but we have to admit that it’s our context in which we have been immersed that boundaries us. Our view of ourselves partially dictates if our decisions have the potential to land us incarcerated or not. If we are in a context that says we have agency, choice, dignity and worth, we are less likely to take away someone else’s agency, choice, dignity or worth. To whom do we truly belong? A family, a gang, or no one? And what is our true identity?
The world wants us to have and to uphold a certain image: one of wealth, power, status, beauty. We are bombarded each and every day with what we should look like, act like, believe, do, and say. Some of those things are fine and can be life giving. Some of those concepts are ones that tug at our core, that mask who we really are, that deny the pieces of ourselves that hold to a different standard of beauty, power and status.
Just like we heard last week, the Pharisees, once again come to try and trap Jesus. What is it with people who won’t give up trying to get you to be who they want you to be or try and pick at you until every flaw is revealed? This time the Pharisees and Herod’s people were looking for Jesus to denounce the emperor. Now, in the Roman Empire the Emperor was also called Lord, as he was considered a god. To denounce Caesar is to denounce a deity and is punishable by death. Jesus knew this, of course, and also knew the reality of the image of him with the leadership: he was a rabble rouser, a controversial figure, a dissenting voice, but could they also get him to live into an image of a criminal needing punishment?
Jesus saw that the Pharisees, Herod’s people, the crowds, and even the disciples were already trapped; trapped by the world’s economy of keeping up with the Joneses, falling in line with what someone else told you, belonging to an empire, belonging to a system that dictates who you are and what you should try and be. Jesus astutely asks: “Whose head (or image in the Greek) is this?” Of course they answered, “The emperor’s image.” By using the word “image” Jesus is pointing back to Genesis 1-the creation story where humans are made in God’s image. Humans only belong to God, not to a political system, not to a certain economic system, not to a church system, not to any other organization-just God.
The difficulty comes in when we attempt to separate parts of our lives as religious and parts of our lives as secular. We don’t recognize that all people are created in God’s image and belong to God-Criminals, politicians, dictators, those in government, economics and other seemingly ungodly systems. We like to think that we can predict whom and what God loves. Author Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created a God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all of the same people that you do.” God creates us, not the other way around and we belong to God, and not the other way around. There is nothing that doesn’t belong to God in our lives. Nothing. God who created the whole earth and universe out of nothingness, declared it good, also declared that everything is part of the very life and heart of God. It’s difficult for us to remember that the people we dislike, the systems we dislike, the organizations that we dislike, also belong to God.
Jesus back and forth on what seems to be about paying taxes, what we do with our money, is really about reorienting the disciples and us to the fact that we cannot separate any part of our lives from God, not our daily lives, not our possessions, not our relationships, and not our money. Our worth to God is simply that we are God’s: not what we wear, not what we own, not what we do, not what we say. Whatever image of ourselves we are trying to project to the rest of the world that isn’t rooted in belonging to fully to God will ultimately lead us to confusion, sorrow and brokenness. I heard stories Friday night that drove that point home. It was only when the women at New Beginnings truly embraced that the only image that matters is that of being in God’s image was when healing, wholeness and clarity began to take root. God’s image included forgiveness, grace, love and most importantly hope.
Living as someone created in the image of love and belonging to the source of that love, God, is powerful. Being in God’s image reminds us that it is God who is worthy and so we and all people have ultimate worth to God. It transforms every relationship in our lives; from relationships with other people, to our relationship with how we share our time and passion for God, to our relationships with our material resources. It transforms our lives from segregation to wholeness where the promise of unconditional love, grace, and hope of Christ permeate each and every second of our lives. These promises from God that began when God blew Holy Spirit breathe into adamma, transform all of creation into the very life of God, where we participate in offering our whole selves, all aspects of our lives for the revealing of God’s kingdom.
In this transformation, we withhold nothing, as God has withheld nothing from us. We answer the invitation into a life of prayer, study, service, generosity, and worship not because it improves our image or gets us anything-what God gives God gives freely-but to invite everyone we come into contact with into the transformation of knowing that the only image that matters is one of being made in the image of God. Give to the world what is the world’s-give back the fear, anxiety, greed, scarcity and hopelessness and give to God what is God’s-joy, abundance, generosity, hope and your whole self. You are God’s precious child, now and forever. Amen.