In today’s passage Jesus’s enemies want to catch him out. They ask him whether it’s lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor. They hope he will say no so that he gets in trouble with the Romans.
And maybe, they also hope Jesus will say yes. Then he’ll lose popular support among those followers who want him to be a freedom fighter for Israel against the Roman Empire.
Whether Jesus says yes or no, it looks like it’s win win for his enemies. They must have thought they were being very clever.
But Jesus is too sharp for them. He doesn’t answer the question they asked. He changes the angle of the conversation – something God is rather good at doing if you talk to him regularly enough to let that happen.
Jesus asks for a coin, points to the picture of the Emperor on it, and says give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and give to God what is God’s.
That’s God for you. Always there with a fresh and unexpected way of looking at things. Always surprising.
Many people think the coin was a Tribute penny. On one side it had a picture of Livia, the Emperor’s mother, dressed up to represent Peace. On the other side it had a picture of the Emperor Tiberius, with the words “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”
You can’t get much further from Jewish belief than that coin. It had images on it, which weren’t allowed in Judaism. It had words on it saying the Emperor Tiberius was the son of a god, that Emperor Augustus was that god.
And all this imperial pomposity, this silly human vanity was held in the hand of the real Son of God. When Jesus looked at the way Roman religion made gods out of human beings, did he ever feel he was watching children playing at dressing up?
Jesus lived surrounded by Romans. Maybe he saw temples dedicated to the Emperor Augustus. And even though Tiberius didn’t have divine status, maybe Jesus knew that there were temples and statues and priests dedicated to him too.
Augustus’s fame and glory was spread across a vast empire. It was part of the elite establishment culture.
The life of Jesus and his helpers was so different.
They were poor, misunderstood, outside the elite, and local. They weren’t celebrated from Britannia in the North down to Egypt in the South. Although of course one day they would be. And that’s God for you, always turning things around in unexpected ways.
The world expected the divine message to come through a person with the pomp and magnificence of an Emperor. It came through poverty and humility. It came through people who lived at the bottom of society, far away from worldly power. Eventually it came to ordinary people everywhere, through the Holy Spirit.
At this time the Roman Empire could be called the villain of the story, but it’s because of its security and stability that the early church is able to spread.
And after years of persecuting Christians, the Romans eventually adopt Christianity, enabling it to spread everywhere.
I’ve no doubt we’re in this church today because of the Roman Empire. In time God used them for his own purposes, as he can use anybody and anything. God is always surprising and unexpected.
So, back to Jesus and the coin.
When we read this story we can’t tell from it what tone of voice Jesus used or what his body language was. Was he casual, contemptuous, laughing, dismissive?
It’s frustrating that we don’t know, but also unexpectedly useful.
When you get home, read the story, close your eyes and imagine how Jesus is in this story. Do you see him as angry, brusque, sarcastic, gentle or laughing? Why is that?
Be aware that how you imagine Jesus’s body language and tone, says a lot more about how you imagine God than what God is really like. God is always unexpected.
In my imagination Jesus is gently good humoured in this coin conversation. He has a secure and certain faith in God’s love. He’s not threatened by the Roman religion. He isn’t going to be sidetracked by their pomposity.
He’s got his eye on what’s important, and that’s why he says give to God what is God’s. This is bigger stuff than some vainglorious emperor’s portrait on a coin. That’s just a nothing. Away with it, let us think no more about it.
That’s how the story plays out in my imagination. And to be honest, it speaks to me. As I’m sure is the case for many Christians, the attention I give to the positive love-based mission of God is far too easily sidetracked by petty side squabbles and disputes.
And when you go home and imagine the story of the coin in your own way, look to see if your imagination speaks to you too. Imagining Gospel stories is an ancient form of prayer, and helps each one of us to learn things that are unique to us.
The life of faith is complicated because God is always surprising. None of us should ever think we’ve reached an end to what there is to learn. God danced an unexpected dance with the Romans, and he dances a very unexpected dance with us.