By Rev. J.C. Austin
In 2017, while I was still serving at a seminary, I went to Uganda to explore creating a new leadership development program for local Christians who were working to support and protect LGBTQ Ugandans and help them resist the persecution they were experiencing from both the government and from churches that were often being supported and encouraged in anti-LGBTQ activity by U.S. Christians. When I got to Uganda, I went to a change bureau and tried to exchange a couple hundred U.S. dollars into local currency. I handed about fifteen 20-dollar bills to the teller. He took them, arranged them so they were all facing the same way, and began to sort slowly through them, holding each one up to the light, then carefully looking over both sides of the bill before putting it down on the counter. As he did so, he began to make two piles of bills.
That’s when I remembered: in east Africa, they will only accept U.S. dollars that are unmarked, unwrinkled, and unfolded. Counterfeiting, especially of U.S. currency, is a common problem in the region, so they want bills that look as new and clean as possible; any bill with marks or blemishes gets rejected. By the time he finished, only seven of my bills passed the test. “I’m sorry, I can’t accept these,” he said, handing the rest back to me. “Do you have others?” I dug into my money belt and pulled out about ten more $20s. Sorting quickly through them, I withheld four that would clearly not pass the wrinkle test myself, then handed the others to him. He repeated his careful ritual of examination, and rejected two more, handing them back to me.
I looked at them: they were unmarked, and crisp to the point that it seemed like someone had starched them. “What’s wrong with these?” I asked, genuinely confused. He pointed: “Do you see the top corner?” he asked. I looked at it: it seemed like a vision of monetary perfection to me. “What about it?” He pointed again: “No, the other one. See the corner? It is marked.” I looked again. At the very edge of the corner, there was a slight discoloration there, but so subtle that I thought this guy could probably get hired by Crayola to come up with new infinitesimally different shades of green for their next crayon box. I looked up at him again, and he smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry,” he said; “but if it is not perfect, it is worthless. Those are the rules.”
If it is not perfect, it is worthless; those are the rules. That wouldn’t be a bad tag-line for these Pharisees challenging Jesus. Now, the Pharisees as a religious group were very concerned about purity and perfection. They believed that strict adherence to the religious Law would bring purity of mind, body, heart, and spirit to those who followed it perfectly. Therefore, those who fell short of following the Law were, by definition, imperfect; and those who taught indifference to the Law or any aspect of it were, quite literally for them, setting themselves in opposition to God’s will. I want to say right up-front, though, that the problem here is not the Pharisees’ focus on the Law.
That’s important to say, because Christians have often fallen into that trap through the centuries, and it has fueled some of the Church’s own worst sins and theological heresies, from sidelining the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures to the virulence of anti-Semitism. In fact, the Reformed theological tradition, of which Presbyterians are a part, have historically had a particularly strong emphasis on the enduring goodness and redemptive guidance of the Law. During the Reformation, John Calvin argued that the Law has three eternal uses: 1) a bridle to restrain evil (such as “thou shalt not kill”); 2) a mirror to show us our human failings and our inability to save ourselves; and 3) a lantern to light our way as we strive to live faithfully according to God’s will. That third use is particular to Calvin and the Reformed tradition; it argues that the Law helps us show our gratitude for God’s saving grace. It’s why Presbyterians have traditionally had a very high regard for the Hebrew Scriptures. So the problem here is not the Law itself nor our following of it.
No, the problem is when we corrupt the gift of the Law into thinking that anything that is not perfect is worthless, because those are the rules. That’s where these particular Pharisees who are confronting Jesus are going wrong. They are outraged because Jesus is going around teaching and feeding and healing and serving those whom the Pharisees believe are far, far from perfect. And they are outraged because Jesus not only does that, but says that God reaches out to both the perfect and the imperfect; the difference is, it’s often those who think they are “perfect” who ignore or even reject God. In fact, just before this passage, Jesus has told them a parable about how the kingdom of heaven is like a king giving a great banquet.
The king invites a great number of people, presumably the kind of people that generally get invited to great banquets by kings: the nobles and the wealthy, the pious and the great, the powerful and the privileged. But they all blow off the invitation to attend to their riches and their power, their lands and their offices, and some even attack and kill the servants of the king. Furious, the king retaliates by attacking those who killed those servants, then orders others to go out into the streets and get whoever they can find to come back to the banquet; “the good and the bad,” Jesus says, without explaining exactly who is which. And that is how the banquet fills up in the kingdom of heaven.
By saying that the kingdom of God is filled with both the good and the bad, the perfect and the imperfect, the pure and the impure, Jesus is not just saying that God cares for the perfect and the pure as well as the worthless; Jesus is effectively saying that perfection and purity themselves are worthless if the reason you want them is for transactional power, because they don’t “get” you anything special beyond being a reward in themselves: you can’t use them for special access, or special treatment, or special power, or special identity. And if the worthless are allowed to claim or receive the same kind of blessings as the worthy, then the worthy, the perfect, and the pure are no better than the worthless. And that is an outrage if you are committed to sorting the perfect from the imperfect, the worthy from the worthless, and rejecting anything that is less than perfect.
It is not adherence to an ethic of law that leads to such a sense of outrage; it is adherence to an ethic of hate, of contempt for anything that is “other.” It is the same kind of outrage that has driven the horrifying exponential increase in organized white supremacy in recent years. When hordes of white men marched through the streets of Charlottesville, a literal angry mob carrying torches, they chanted “Jews will not replace us! You will not replace us!” And by “you,” they meant everyone else besides Jews that they had deemed unworthy or worthless, everyone who in their mind was falsely claiming equality to them and therefore trying to replace them as the only ones worthy of power and authority in U.S. society.
White supremacy, by definition, is the belief that white people should have more power, more privilege, and more worth than people of any other race. So, by definition, human equality is anathema to the values of white supremacy. Now, the word “anathema” is an ancient theological term: it means the total rejection of a heretical person and/or doctrine. But that is fitting, because as much as anything else, white supremacy is a theological problem, and in particular, a white Christian theological problem. Most white supremacist hate groups claim to be devoutly Christian, from the KKK to the Christian Identity movements to the Neo-Nazis. And all of them justify their beliefs and actions through the conviction that God has specially chosen white Christians to dominate others, that they are inherently more pure, more worthy, than other races.
That idea is one which all theologically orthodox Christians must declare as anathema, as sin and heresy. Why? Because Jesus said so. In fact, he says it right here in this passage. The Pharisees, trying to trap Jesus, set him up with this question about paying imperial taxes. It’s a pretty good trap. If he says yes, pay the tax to the emperor, he is violating Jewish Law, because the coin depicts Caesar with claims to his divinity. If he says no, then he is violating Roman Law, by encouraging political sedition. But Jesus, as usual, finds a way to reframe the problem. Show me the coin to pay for the tax, Jesus says. They comply. “Whose image[i] is this, and whose title?” he asks. “The emperor’s,” they reply, probably sensing a trap themselves but not able to see it yet. Then Jesus springs it: “then give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor, and give to God the things that belong to God.” And the astonished Pharisees wander away, wondering how they failed to get him on that one.
But what exactly was Jesus’ point? If the coin belongs to the emperor because it bears the image of the emperor, then what belongs to God? Well, what bears the image of God? Human beings. And only human beings; while all of creation may reveal God’s fingerprints, human beings alone bear the very image of God: “God created humanity in God’s image; in the image of God, God created them,” it says in Genesis. That’s why the Second Commandment prohibits the creation of any image of God for worship: nothing that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. No loopholes there, because God has already provided an image of God: human beings themselves. Every human being bears the image of God. There are endless theological debates about what that precisely means, but there is no disagreement about its uniqueness or universality: only human beings bear the image of God, and all human beings bear the image of God. So to harm or denigrate or devalue a human being is to desecrate the very image of God.
That is why white supremacy is a heresy that must be rejected: because its theological convictions about humanity are fundamentally flawed and irreconcilable with the Gospel of Christ, because it rejects the full equality and infinite worth of each and every human being that is divinely given, because each and every one bears the very image of God, as Jesus says here. And I’m confident that all of us worshipping here agree with that. But if we stop there, we fall well short of the full truth and power of what Jesus is saying as he examines this coin. Because however much work we all have to do on our understandings about race and racism, I am sure we can all agree that the idea of a “master race” to which all others are subservient is both evil and ludicrous. But Jesus is saying much more than that.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Sure, give the emperor the shiny trinkets he put his image on, he’s saying; they belong to him, after all. But give God what has God’s image on it, too: human beings themselves, each and every one of them. They belong to God, after all. Jesus is saying that we belong to God no matter how shiny or how dirty we are, how pristine or bent we may be, but simply because regardless of anything else, we are stamped from the beginning first and fully by the image of God.
And that means that we have infinite worth in God’s eyes, and that God will never lose us or change us in or throw us away. And the same goes for everyone else, which means there is always hope for anyone else, anyone else, because even when we cannot see the outline of God’s image in someone else, God still can. Which is why Jesus doesn’t simply say, “remember that everyone is a child of God.” He says, “give to God the things that are God’s.” It’s not ultimately about what we see or don’t see in others, but how we respond to the gift of God’s image in and through our own life; by giving our life to God as God’s own. And when we struggle most to see God’s image in others, perhaps that is the best time to give ourselves to God all the more: for in remembering that we belong to God and not the other way around, we may be surprised to discover what else, and who else, we can see among the beloved children of God that we had overlooked before.
[i] The NRSV translates the word here as “head” rather than “image” or “likeness,” which is an astonishingly bad choice. The Greek word is “icon,” which is an image or likeness that is understood to convey the power and worth of the likeness that is depicted. “Head” has none of those connotations, which are crucially important to understanding the power of the question.