October 22, 2023

Hail, Caesar

Matthew 22: 15-22

Rev. David Germer


Our second reading is from Matthew’s gospel – Chapter 22, verses 15-22.

Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Jerusalem; he’s cleansed the temple, cursed the fig tree, and told some parables, including, in the passage immediately before this one, the parable of the wedding banquet – the expected invited guests did not show up, so the king throwing the wedding party for his son has his servants go bring in a rag tag group of grateful attendees off the street. It ends with Jesus’ words: many are called, but few are chosen.

Then, Matthew writes this. Listen for God’s Word:

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed, and they left him and went away.”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

In the 2016 comedy film by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, “Hail, Caesar!,” Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) is “Head of Physical Production” for Capitol Pictures, a fictional Hollywood movie studio in 1951. Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney) is the lead actor in a Capitol Pictures film in production – Hail Caesar, a Story of the Christ – a Ben-Hur-like Bible epic. Whitlock is not playing Christ, but rather a Roman soldier present at the crucifixion. (Out of curiosity, who has seen this movie?  Hmmm. I thought that’d be the case.)

Near the beginning of the movie, producer Mannix is watching dailies: footage shot from that day, hastily thrown together in sequence to at least hint at the idea of what the finished product might look and feel like.

We see what Mannix is seeing, on the screen he is watching:

  • First Whitlock leading an army, pontificating on the glory of Rome, taking in a countryside scene (picture George Clooney’s face).
  • Then a cut to something happening elsewhere – a shot of Saul on the Damascus road, a flash of light, Saul dramatically turning to look, and then a cut not to what he sees, but to a black screen with these words: “Divine Presence to be shot.” (Let that sink in.)

It’s the kind of subtle and quick quip with which the Coen brothers pepper their films, with no more attention drawn to its cleverness in the following seconds or in the rest of the film. The Coens know a lot of their audience will get and appreciate the double entendre… but just in case you missed it, I’ll do the thing comedians, and film directors, and pastors are all taught to never do: explain a joke.

“Divine presence to be shot.”

They don’t have that footage. The shot of the divine presence, Jesus appearing to Saul (in the moment of his becoming Paul), has yet to be filmed – it is “to be shot.”

AND… it sounds as though there is a ‘hit’ being put out, or called for, on God’s life. Divine presence to be shot. [finger gun]

It’s not just that I wanted an excuse to talk about the subtle genius of the Coen brothers this morning. It IS that. But it’s not just that.

This scene, and this movie, bring us into some of the key aspects of our passage today.

For the Herodians and the Pharisees (and their disciples), a hit has been put out on Jesus’ life… though they don’t think he IS the divine presence… that’s part of the issue of why they’re plotting to entrap (to ultimately kill) Jesus. He’s a marked man.

Now the alliance between the Herodians and Pharisees (or their second-string disciples) is as unlikely as the group that producer Mannix calls together to help Capitol Pictures to be historically credible and theologically inoffensive in their Christ story. He’s gathered: an Orthodox priest, an Evangelical minister, a Roman Catholic father, and a Jewish rabbi, and they all instantly have lots of opinions about the filmmaking and casting. But Mannix wants to know: “As for the religious aspect – does the depiction of Jesus the Christ cut the mustard?” They agree about very little… other than that when it comes down to it, the portrayal of Jesus… could be a lot worse. The Herodians and Pharisees similarly agree about almost nothing… but this guy talking about the riffraff taking the place of the invited guests at the great banquet has to be stopped.

Divine presence to be shot – because he’s got to be stopped; and because… well, is it even possible to see, to capture, to visibly depict the divine presence?

The seeming absence of the divine presence… and how people order their own lives and allegiances in the face of that apparent absence – is the subject of “Hail Caesar”, the Coen’s movie. Eddie Mannix himself is a practicing Catholic, faithfully attending to confession daily, guilt-ridden over small lies and his smoking habit, but his life is compartmentalized.

The only thinking about God he does at work is what actor to cast as Jesus to fill the most theater seats and what lighting best suggests his divinity; meanwhile he’s being wooed to take a high level job for the weapons manufacturer, Lockhead Martin… and he has trouble seeing the downside, beyond that he’d miss being on movie sets.

His faith is here; his marriage and finances here; his work difficulties here.

[Each different areas]  Which part does God care about?

Our passage seems to ask: when and about what is it appropriate for us to get in line with the world around us, proclaiming, “Hail Caesar!” and when and about what are we called to shout or testify with a different message?

A typical reading of our Matthew passage is to see it as about Christians’ relationship with the government – the ruling authority in a democratic state. Should we pay taxes, serve in the military, vote… and for whom? Isn’t Jesus’ blessing a sort of removed, secondary loyalty as civic duty here?

I don’t think so. I think such a reading misses the point.

It’s not a simple, straightforward endorsement of always paying government taxes in all situations, no questions asked. We could have a good conversation about our responsibility as citizens, to the government, and faithful Christians could disagree about how far the commitment must or should extend, informed by the teaching of Scripture, and I’m not sure this passage would move the needle much one way or another.

It isn’t that the Bible has no guidance, or nothing to say, about Christians’ relationship to the government… it’s just that this passage can hardly serve as a definitive ruling on the subject.

This passage also isn’t merely or primarily an example of Jesus’ as a cunning evader of entrapment, answering questions with questions in a manner that leaves his opponents amazed and confused. That is what happens… but Jesus’ refusal to give them a simple yes or no to their tax question isn’t just Jesus’ perceptiveness and avoidance of something that will get him arrested or killed. He knew that was coming, at some point. And he was in what seemed to be a lose-lose situation with their question. An answer of “No, don’t pay taxes to Caesar” would have gotten him arrested by the Roman government. An answer of “By all means,” would have cast a shadow over his religious authority and credibility as a subversive prophet who just might be the Messiah himself.

But his response is not a side-stepping non-answer.

He’s up to something bigger – making a theological statement about authority.

Namely: Who has it? And over what?

When Jesus asks for a coin… his statement is already made – they just don’t see it yet. “You are the ones who have literally bought into this oppressive system, not me; and you are supposed to be the religious leaders of our people.” He asks, “Whose eikon (the Greek word) is this?” That word means head, or face, or likeness, or image. It’s where we get the word… icon. “This coin bears whose image?” Jesus is asking.

That little piece of engraved metal – probably bronze or copper – Jesus says: I’m not all that concerned about it.

But the imago dei – image of God… God’s image isn’t confined to a coin. It is within every human being – each fashioned and made with attention and care, with infinitely more meaning and value than all the metal coins that Caesar can tax or make. Give to God the things that belong to God – you, your very lives, your neighbors, those whom you mercilessly tax and cheat at the temple.

It’s not that Jesus is saying “Money and possessions are Caesar’s things – the realm of the government, so by all means pay whatever taxes are asked or demanded…” and “God’s realm is spiritual – the human soul – so that is what God really cares about.”

No. Jesus’ statement removes all categories and distinctions. Our loyalty and allegiance, in every sphere of life,  is to God.

A week ago I was wrapping up 7 days at Mo Ranch in the TX Hill Country, which objectively is no match in beauty to the mountains of western North Carolina… but subjectively, having grown up shaped by those hills… I’m convinced is a foretaste of the new heaven and new earth.

I was there for CREDO, a pastors’ renewal initiative of the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions that is not quite retreat (because it’s educational and very scheduled, and community and relationship-oriented), and not quite conference (because it’s not primarily about education or even those connections), but seeks to attend to the holistic well-being of pastors as they serve the church.

CREDO gives roughly equal time to exploring the meaning of well-being – and practices that help foster it – in areas of spirituality, physical and emotional health, vocational calling, and finances. They do this by teaching, creating space for conversation and time for discernment – around core values, and each of those areas of well-being, and ultimately by inviting us to craft a rule of life – practices that will help us partner with God as God attends to the things God cares about in our lives… which is: everything.

Our passage could be the CREDO theme passage. Give to God what is God’s. Your whole self.

Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper famously put it this way: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

And so what is our cry when it comes to our allegiances – our finances, our civic life, our duty to our neighbors? Is it “Hail, Caesar?” (To “hail” means to cheer or salute, to greet or welcome, to acclaim or approve enthusiastically.)

If by “Hail, Caesar,” we mean: give honor to elected officials and celebrate appropriate and thoughtful service to one’s country; commend servant-leadership, and the politics that help us organize our lives and provide community care and services, and remind us of what it means and looks like to care for our neighbors, then we can say, proudly: “Hail, Caesar;” “Hail to the chief.”

But when our money, or our military, or our leaders and the branches of our government intended for those good purposes fall short or are used to dehumanize (as we’ve seen this week), to blindly prevent or hamper our recognition of the divine image in ourselves, and in one another, especially in those who’ve historically been oppressed and marginalized… that must not be our call or cry.

And in either scenario – at all times, Jesus, in this story, reminds us that our true allegiance: the priority that is always number one in all aspects of our lives – spiritual, emotional, physical, financial, vocational; in every expression of our stewardship – time, talent, treasure; in our relationships and thoughts and decisions – we have this revolutionary call.

You belong to God. All (each) of you. All (the fullness)… of you. I belong to God. Our neighbors belong to God… and bear God’s image.

Let’s live lives that celebrate and shout out that truth. “Hail Messiah Jesus! Hail Almighty God! Hail to the Spirit at work within us! Our allegiance is to God alone. Every person you encounter – on your pew (take a moment to look to your left and your right – see God’s image)… on your block; at Haywood Street Congregation this afternoon, or the folks you might meet on street corners, at school and work; in your mirror… bears the image of God and belongs to God. Give to God what is God’s, with wonder, joy, awe, and delight.


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