In Whose Image
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

October 22, 2017

Matthew 22:15-22

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

(Sung) Didn’t my God deliver Moses from king Pharaoh?
And didn’t he cool the fiery furnace for
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
– “He Never Failed Me Yet,” Robert Ray

You may know the rest of the song. But I needed to stop there. Because these are not the right names. We all know Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In fact, if you misspell one, Microsoft Word will underline it and give you the correct spelling. But these are not their names. They are from the book of Daniel, and it says:

The palace master gave them other names:
Daniel he called Belteshazzar,
Hananiah he called Shadrach,
Mishael he called Meshach,
and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:7)

They have Hebrew names, befitting Israelites, but now they are in captivity in Babylon. Their very names praise YHWH, their God. Hananiah means “YHWH is Gracious,” Mishael means “Who is like God?” and Azariah “YHWH has helped.”

But they are assigned new names by the Babylonians. And there is evidence that these new names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are similar to their Hebrew names, but they substitute the gods of Babylon as the ones being praised.

Even Microsoft Word does not recognize their real names, underlining each as a misspelling. These three are famous, but with the names given by the empire, not their names praising God.

Well, that’s fun Bible trivia, Pastor, but what does it have to do with this morning’s story? I’ll get there after a while.

When they try and trap Jesus, they ask him about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Lawful here is not the law of Rome. Of course the law of Rome says pay the taxes. Here it means lawful according to the Torah, lawful according to the laws of Moses, is it faithful in the eyes of God to do so?

It is a question of authority. It is a question about whether or not Jesus is a radical political subversive or just a pious preacher.

You may remember when they questioned Jesus about whether all he was saying or doing was really from God or was it some kind of human thing. He flipped the question on its head, asking them the same of John’s baptism. When they got caught in their own trap, they couldn’t answer.

Well, he does it again here. When asked about the tax, he asks for a coin. He does not question the tax. He knows taxes are how empires work. (And yes, this passage has been used to justify paying taxes and not paying taxes, so a little more careful reading is needed if that is the question we are asking.)

Jesus asks, Whose name is on this coin? Whose face is on this coin? What title is used on this coin?

The image is of Caesar. The title on it is “Julius Caesar, the divinized,” meaning the Senate voted Julius Caesar to be divine following his death. Or it was Augustus Caesar, with the title, “son of the divinized Julius Caesar,” literally “son of god.”

The coin belongs to Rome. They mined the metal in their provinces, they minted it with the face and title of the ruler of this world on it, and they used it to receive taxes from the people. It represents the empire and all of its ways.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.

And it says that the Pharisees marveled at Jesus’ answer. A better translation today might be “they were blown away.” They wanted to get into the details and trap Jesus. Jesus responds with a question about all of creation.

Give to the emperor that which belongs to the emperor. Which is nothing. Because the answer of the faith is that all of creation, all of humanity, all of the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, each one of us, and everyone we meet, belongs to God.

And this is what gets us back to our three friends of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are civil servants in the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar. That is how they survive their captivity. That is how they make it through. But Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are children of God whose very names praise the God of creation, the God of the Exodus, the God of Moses and the prophets.

In whose image are we stamped and minted? Whose name do we bear? To borrow the question asked in the baptism of children, “By what name are we to be called?”

Were life simpler, we could answer this once and be done. But like Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, we live double lives. One foot in the empire, with an eye on the stock market and our retirement and what will happen with insurance and taxes under new legislation; one foot in the kingdom where everything that ever was, all that is, and all that will ever be belongs to God and we are called to be God’s stewards.

Jesus did not give us a yes or no answer. It is hard to build policy on such an answer as his. But it raises questions about everything we do.

Does this belong to me, or to us, or to the empire, or to God?

What would God have us do with it?

In whose image are we made?
We are made in God’s image.
Whose name do we bear?
We bear the name of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.