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What's In A Word? Ultimate Value

Do any of you like word plays? You know, puns or stories that work because a word has more than one meaning? Well, I have a few words that have more than one meaning that I want you to think about:

  • First, what do you think when I say “lawful”?

  • Do you think of the strictly legal sense of that word? – having to do with what the law requires or prohibits.

  • Or – do you think more in terms of right and wrong – having to do with God’s laws.

  • Both are valid.

  • Second, what do you think when I say “image”?

  • Since I was just talking about it in the children’s sermon, maybe you think of being made in God’s image.

  • Or – do you think of a mirror image? – something that looks exactly the same.

  • Or - maybe a drawn or stamped image, like the images on a coin? - they represent the person, but not like a photograph.

  • Or – do you think of what the Old Testament talks about as “graven images”? – physical symbols of idolatry.

  • Third, what do you think when I say the word “ownership”?

  • Does your mind go to private property? – the foundation of our economic system that assumes mostly exclusive ownership of material objects and real estate.

  • Or, do you think about an attitude of responsibility? – taking ownership of a project, or owning the consequences of our decisions.

  • Or, do you think of the oppression/liberation side of ownership? The reality that people’s bodies are sometimes treated like they don’t belong to themselves – through slavery, or objectification, or violence?

Words can have different meanings in different contexts – that’s why word plays work. And that’s what the Pharisees and Herodians are counting on in today’s gospel story in their effort to entrap Jesus.

Maybe I should back-up for a moment to clarify who it is who is setting this trap.

The Pharisees are pretty familiar characters this far into Matthew’s gospel. They are the religious leaders of the people – the experts in God’s law, who have constructed elaborate systems for teaching the people how to live so that they do not violate this law.

The Herodians are less familiar. There are very few references to them, so all we really know is that they are named after King Herod – the same ego-driven, power-hungry king we talked about last week. Given this name, we can assume that their focus is on political power, with the accompanying accommodation to the Roman Empire and the Roman cult of Emperor-worship.

Pharisees and Herodians together is a bizarre combination! But, there is nothing that unites human beings like a common enemy (played here by Jesus). And this odd pairing is actually part of what sets their trap for Jesus – because “lawful” (our first multiple-meaning word) means different things to these two groups.

For the Herodians, who are aligned with the political power structure, the question of lawfulness is about the governmental law. The Jews are a conquered people, and are thus subject to the laws of the Empire, including the payment of the poll tax.

If Jesus were to say that people should NOT pay the tax, the Herodians could come after him, because he would be open to a charge of TREASON.

For the Pharisees, however, the question of lawfulness is about God’s law. The coin used to pay the tax is a Roman coin, a denarius. And, as we hear in the story, it bears the image and title of the Emperor. Not only does the law of Moses forbid the use of “graven images”- making this coin problematic for faithful Jews – the “title” in question identifies Caesar as the son of God.

So, if Jesus were to say that people SHOULD pay the tax, he would be not only affirming the power of the Roman Empire, which is hated by the populous, he would also be tacitly affirming the claims of Caesar’s divinity. The Pharisees could charge him with BLASPHEMY.

In their very identity, these two groups of schemers represent to two jaws of the trap: TREASON and BLASPEMY, and there does not seem to be any way for Jesus to squirm out.

But Jesus knows how to play with words too.

He calls for them to produce a denarius (which, by the way, they should NOT have had inside the Temple Court because of the prohibitions against graven images. As Jesus said – they are hypocrites). But that’s not even his point.

The translation we read is not really clear here, but Jesus asks about the “image” on the coin, not in the way that sets up the Pharisee’s side of the trap – he doesn’t use the word for “image” the evokes the idea of idolatry. INSTEAD, he uses the same word that is used in the first Genesis creation narrative, which describes humanity being made in the image of God.[1]

This question shifts the focus from one of allegiance and idolatry, to one of identity:

“Give … to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” - the structure of money and power is a reality. The emperor’s identity is that of being on the money. He has the position of power. People have to deal with it. Jesus is not here to start a political revolution.

BUT “(give) to God the things that are God’s” - and that means YOU. All of you. If the money belongs to the emperor because his image is on it; then every single human being belongs to God, because we are made in God’s image.

So far so good – Jesus won the word play game! His would-be trappers were amazed and went away. Our guy is smarter. Go Jesus!

But why does this matter for OUR LIVES? The answer to the initial question about which law to obey is ambiguous. Both earthly AND divine authority are affirmed. So, if this story is not about choosing between the two kinds of law (earthly or divine), then how is it supposed to change our lives? How is this gospel?

And how, especially, do we hear this as good news in light of the different meanings of “ownership” that we talked about a few minutes ago? Because Jesus is not ONLY saying that the core issue is one of identity. Jesus is also saying this is an issue of ownership:

Give the emperor, and give God, what BELONGS to them.

I have to admit, I have been totally comfortable with that reading until THIS week. But this week, I have been absorbing, and re-living, story after story of brave women, and some brave men, who have been made to feel like their own bodies do not belong to them. The #MeToo campaign has been shining a harsh, florescent light on the realities of sexual harassment and assault in our culture. Realities that go so very far beyond one power-abusing movie executive.

And in this context, we are confronting, as a culture and as the church, the vital importance of affirming that people own their own bodies. That no one’s body exists to be violated, or touched, or ogled, or commented on in an objectifying and dehumanizing way by others.

As the church we need to be standing up and speaking out against sexism and rape culture and social rules that normalize treating other people’s bodies like objects, made to gratify the desires of others.

So, in this context, its suddenly hard to hear “you are made in God’s image, and thus you belong to God” as good news. All too often women, in particular, have been told that this divine “ownership” requires our submission to men (as God-ordained leaders).

From our social statement conversations this summer, I know that women in THIS congregation have been subjected to that destructive theology at times in their lives. And that theology has done great harm – to individual people and to the church.

But nevertheless, there is ESSENTIAL good news in our gospel today – especially for those of us who have been subjected to harassment and assault by others who thought they had a right to claim ownership of our bodies.

Because Jesus’s reminder to give to God the things that are God’s is not an individual proclamation – it is universal. It doesn’t just mean that we need to recognize that we ourselves belong to God. We must also recognize that every other human being on this planet belongs to God.

So, if our words, or our actions, or our inactions harm another person – by violating them, or dehumanizing them, or discounting them – we are doing that to a person who belongs to God! No human life can be unimportant to us – and they certainly can’t be less important than political or financial priorities.

Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, sure, but give to God what belongs to God.

This reminder of who we ALL belong to puts all of our political power-struggles into context. They give us perspective on our “do we pay this tax” arguments, and our efforts to trap our opponents with words, and every other distraction from the reality that EVERY SINGLE HUMAN LIFE is a precious possession of God’s.

That is the ultimate reality; the ultimate identity.

And when we are grappling with the complicated political and social dynamics that are exposing all the ugly secrets of our society – that belonging is the ultimate touch-point for our questions about what we are to do: We are to treat every human being like God’s property – made in the image of God and ultimately valuable.

You are ultimately valuable. Every other person is ultimately valuable too.

Thanks be to God.

[1] See Genesis 1:27. The Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, uses the same word (εἰκών; eikṓn) that Jesus uses in Matthew 22:20.

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