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What’s In Your Wallet?

Matthew 22: 15-22

Introduction to the reading

This morning’s reading ends with a well-known saying of Jesus: in the King James: render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Under Roman occupation, the Jews in 1st century Palestine had been forced to pay, in Roman currency, a tax to the Roman government. Some Jews rested easy with Roman rule and supported the tax, but most of the citizens of Judah reacted to the idea of paying money to the pagan emperor with utter distaste.

The tax was usually paid with the common denarius coin, which was minted with the image of the head of Caesar Tiberius and carried the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.” So, you can see why the whole Roman system was anathema to the Jews and why they recoiled at the idea of paying homage to a man who, for them, most certainly was not God.

The powerful Jewish leaders were trying to trap Jesus. He represented a threat to their entrenched religious system, which they were trying to protect. Their question is deceptively simple: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? If Jesus answers ‘No’, then the Roman government would move in on him as a dangerous political agitator. If he says ‘Yes’, Jesus would lose credibility with the people who were beginning to listen to him and to follow him.

Sermon

I think it’s the line from the ad for the Capital One Card: “What’s in your wallet?” Of course, they want it to be the Capital One Card.

So, what is in your wallet? And what’s in mine? Well, let’s see here.
[Take out a few items from personal wallet – credit cards mostly, paper money, driver’s license, library card, then coins from change purse]

But, now, what’s this? A cross? Yes, a cross. I’ve been carrying this cross in my wallet for about twenty years. It was given to me by the then youth pastor at Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church. He had them to hand out to the youth group and he had extras. Does it seem odd to you? A little sacrilegious perhaps, that I mix this cross in with money? Shouldn’t the symbol of the divine, the saving death of Jesus Christ, be kept apart, sacred?

Well, yes and no. For as much as God is not of this world, but above and beyond our daily living such that we can only catch glimpses of the holy, God is also present in the world. God became human, came into the world in the person of his Son Jesus.

There is no place where God is not. God is where I am. God is where you are. God is at large in the world. Seeing that cross in my wallet reminds me of that fact.

But some people prefer to compartmentalize their lives: spirituality and faith, religion and church over here and everything of real life over there. The trouble is, real life pretty much takes over; what we want to do, ought to do, need to do, what we feel pressured into doing, all have a way of sucking up our time and attention. There’s not much left for sleep and rest, let alone for reflection, contemplation, meditation, prayer, or service to one another.

I think this may be a point Jesus was trying to make with the Pharisees when he asked them about the image on the coin. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They had easily produced a denarius (from their “wallets”?) They are deeply invested in the Roman system; they move with ease within it. How much of their religious ardor have they compromised to get along, often for their own benefit, in a system that marginalizes and oppresses their people, God’s people? Have they so compartmentalized their lives that God has really only a small role to play, even though they are the keepers and interpreters and enforcers of God’s law?

But Jesus begs us to address those questions by considering the images in front of them. The coin bears the image of Caesar, but who bears the image of God? You know the answer. Genesis 1: 26: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over all the earth.

And then, what is it that we are to render to God because we are made in God’s image? Nothing short of the whole of our living. We belong, body, mind, heart and soul, to the ever-present living God, just as those Pharisees did.

We know full well, however, that there is always a tension between serving God and yielding to secular pressures. “Lead us not into temptation” we pray, “and deliver us from evil.”

Jesus does not, in this passage, offer any simple formula for how to do that; there is no neat scheme of division – God here, real life there. He just puts the situation in front of the Pharisees – in front of us - and essentially says: think about it, make up your mind.

Living righteously almost always involves decisions and choices that are terribly difficult and never final. Our relationship to and our support or opposition to the Caesars of 21st century life must be constantly reexamined and rethought.

As a congregation, you’re beginning to hear now some of the results of the survey taken in the spring. The Consistory asked you questions about strengths and weaknesses, changes you’d like to see, and about your participation in the life of the church. The first set of questions – Taking the Temperature of Things – included the question, What do you hope to gain by attending worship services? “Peace”, you said most often, and “renewal, refreshment, connection and closeness to God, a message of inspiration and a foundation for daily living.”

These responses suggest that you come here on a Sunday morning to find balance, confidence and hope; to find a way to make good choices, good decisions; to give you light in order to walk in the way of Jesus every day.

May God bless us all as we strive to live and love according to His image. Amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
October 22, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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