15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew, listening to the parables that Jesus speaks to the religious temple leaders in Jerusalem. Remember he’s torn the temple apart and confronted them with these parables that criticize and judge them for the ways in which they either ignore or hold hostage the kingdom of God.
Well, they’ve started to figure things out. That Jesus is speaking about them and threatening their temple business practices. And we can see their reaction in the very first line of our gospel reading for today: Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.
Jesus has gathered quite a following of people – a mob of protestors if you will – and the rich and powerful don’t like mobs of protestors because they threaten the status quo. So the Pharisees are going to try and trick Jesus into saying something that will turn everyone – this mob – against him. So they send their disciples to Jesus. The Pharisees have disciples just as Jesus does. And that was their first move – sending in people would seem less threatening to Jesus. It’s just the disciples of the Pharisees, the students…they don’t carry any real power or threat.
And then it says they brought the Herodians as well. Well, who are the Herodians? Now a little background will be helpful to us. Remember that at this time, Israel – both the land and the people – are under the control of the Roman Empire. Rome rules all. Now, how do you think the Israelites feel about that? Not good! In fact, it is like they are enslaved again in Egypt. But the Roman Empire has appointed King Herod to be King of the Jews. Which means King Herod is not so opposed to Rome – in fact, he and his supporters (the Herodians) support Rome occupying Israel.
And so, every year, the Israelites have to pay a tax to Rome which helped pay Rome to continue to have power over Israel. So, imagine that China takes control of the U.S. and then every year, you have to pay a tax to China – which continues to keep them in power over you. Few people would want to pay that tax. But, if China appointed you as the President of the U.S….well, you might not be so opposed to China.
So, the Herodian Jews and the Pharisee Jews don’t like each other. But the one thing they could agree on – their distaste for this man named Jesus. So the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians come to Jesus to ask him a question. But first, they sort of butter him up a bit. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
You ever have someone try to butter you up a bit before setting a trap for you? And you can smell it right away, can’t you? Suddenly, your enemy is really nice to you and you know they just want something from you. “Mom, you know I love you, right? And you’re the best mom in the whole world, right?”
So they ask Jesus a question about this tax: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
And now the trap is set. Jesus can’t win this one, because if he says, “Yes, it is lawful to pay the taxes to Rome” then the Pharisees and likely Jesus’ own followers will turn against him. Because they hate this tax and how could it be lawful to pay taxes to those who have control over you. But if Jesus says, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor,” then he would offend the Herodians and have the entire weight of the Roman Empire come down on him as treasonous political agitator.
I mean, it would be like if Angie Jensen and Jan Nelson, both presidents of our congregations, came up to me and ask, “Which church do you like better? Aurora or Trinity?” It’s a lose/lose situation, right?
So, what’s a guy to do? Jesus is stuck. Well…there is this saying out there. Sometimes you can find it on a bumper sticker. “When given only two options, choose the third.”
Jesus asks them for a coin used to pay the tax – notice Jesus doesn’t have a coin. And so they show him a denarius (worth about a day’s wage) and he asks, “Whose head and what title are on the coin?”
And they say, “The Emperor’s.” So Jesus responds, “Therefore, give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s.” The coins has his face on them, then just give him back his little coins. And then Jesus adds, “And give to God what is God’s.” And then they were amazed and they went away.
Now, what are we to do with this? What does this mean for us? Here and now?
Some of us will hear this and say, “Ah yes, separation of church and state. Give to the Emperor (the government) what is the Emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s and don’t let them cross. When you are at dinner don’t talk about religion and politics. Don’t bring up Jesus when you are talking about policy and laws and don’t bring up policy and laws when you are worshipping Jesus.”
I recently met a new friend and he was sharing with me why he doesn’t go to church. He said, “Because I just don’t want politics in with my religion. I grew up with too much of that and they should be separate. Politics and religion are two separate things and they need to stay separate.”
Other might say that it means it doesn’t matter how you spend your money or who you give it to, as long as you have Jesus in your heart. Don’t talk about money in the church, because money belongs in the other part of my life, not my faith life. 
But you know I don’t think that is what this text is trying to say. Because here is the thing: Jesus makes a point that everyone in that time would have picked up on and yet it is easy for us to miss since we did not grow up in Jesus’ time. And it centers on that coin. On this particular Roman coin, it has the head of the Roman Emperor – Tiberius. Not unusual. We have head of Presidents on our money. But what’s the title on there? On this particular coin are the words, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.” Tiberius, son of the divine. You see, Roman Emperors had a special title: son of God.
As a Jew, you are not to have any other gods, and you certainly are not to carry around any graven images of such gods. And here, they are the ones carrying around coins with the Emperor’s image on it. Not Jesus. They are the ones who are breaking two of the commandments. They are the hypocrites. You see Jesus has turned the tables on them. They try to trap Jesus but Jesus traps them.
And then Jesus says to them, ‘Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s”. If the emperor’s head is stamped on that coin, then it belong to him.” But then Jesus adds, ” and give to God what is God’s”. Immediately, they would have made the connection. The Emperor’s image is stamped on this coin…but where is God’s image stamped?
On them. On you. On the human beings. When God first made humanity, God made humankind in God’s image. You were made in the image of God. Did you know that? Did you know that you are what God kind of looks like? When you look in a mirror you are getting a glimpse at what God looks like. When a child asks you, “What does God look like?”, you can truthfully say to them, “Well, God looks a little like you.” The image of God has been stamped on you. You are made in the image of God.
And so when Jesus says, “Give to God what is God’s”, what he is saying is give your entire life to God.
Which means that no matter where you go, you are always carrying the image of God with you. I was just talking with a woman the other day who works for a Christian school and she said that she has to be careful about the kind of events that she participates in and attends, because as the school says, “Wherever you go, you represent us.” And sometimes, you’ll hear businesses say that – you represent the face of this business so be on your best behavior. But has anyone ever told you that wherever you go, you represent the face of God? That you bring the image of God with you. So when you go to work, you bring the image of God. When you go to school, you carry the image of God with you. When you go to the grocery store, when you go to the coffee shop, when you walk in the voting booth – you bring the image of God with you. Which isn’t to say, “Watch out! You better behave!” But rather it is to say, “this is who you are. All the time. You are one who carries the image of God with them. So let you life reflect that.”
So, I don’t think Jesus is saying keep faith and politics separate. I don’t think Jesus is saying keep faith and money separate. I don’t think you can keep them separate. I think Jesus is saying you can’t separate faith from anything, because our faith matters in every single thing we do. Why? Because you carry the image of God with you into every thing that you do.
Think of all the labels that we give people in our everyday life – think of all the words we use to identify people, even if it is in our own heads. In school, it might be words like: nerd, preppy, band geeks, jocks, hipsters, druggies. At work it might be: lazy, suck up, know-it-all. Or maybe even more painful words: stupid, ugly, fat, arrogant, selfish. Well, today, you all at the end of worship, get a reminder of the original label that was first stamped on to you. A label that God gave you. A label that says you are made in the image of God. And so, I invite you to take the sticker that you will receive, and when you get home, place it on the mirror in your bathroom. So that every time you look at yourself, you can be reminded of this promise from God. And then, go and live your life this week, knowing that you and every single person you meet carry with them that very same label: Made in the Image of God. And may that guide all the parts of your life. Amen.