18 October 2020

‘Give … to the emperor the things
that are the emperor’s, and to
God the things that are God’s’

Christ Pantocrator … a fragment from a 13th century mural in a museum in Crete … where do we see the face of Christ? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 October 2020

The 19th Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIX); Saint Luke the Evangelist

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Castletown Church, Kilcornan

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer (Morning Prayer 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale

The Readings: Exodus 33: 12-23; Psalm 99; Matthew 22: 15-22.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The denarius with the image of Caesar represented a day’s labour … Roman coins in a private collection in Callan, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

This morning’s readings challenge us to ask where we see the face of God. In the Gospel story, when Christ asks whose face is on the coin presented to him, he may also be challenging us to consider where we too see the face of God.

In the first reading, Moses asks to see the glory of God (Exodus 33: 18), but is told ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live’ (Exodus 33: 20). The Psalmist urges us to tremble and bow down before God (Psalm 99). In the epistle reading for today, Saint Paul reminds his readers they have turned away from idols to ‘serve a living and true God’ (I Thessalonians 1: 9).

The Gospel story is set in the Temple in Jerusalem in Holy Week, on the day after Christ has overturned the tables of the money-changers.

The money-changers were in the Temple because Roman coins had images, such as the image of Caesar, who called himself ‘lord’ and ‘divine’ when those titles truly belong to God alone, and ‘priest’ when that title challenges the ritual purity of the Temple. Images like those were forbidden in the Temple, and so coins had to be changed outside by the money-changers.

In the Temple, Christ is challenged by both the Pharisees and the Herodians, the people who supported Herod, the Roman puppet king.

The question they put to him was one of great debates at the time: should religious and pious Jews pay taxes to Rome?

Jewish opinion was divided on this question. But the question put to Christ is also loaded with presuppositions, with built-in fallacies and false dichotomies, like the sort of question all lawyers know not to ask in court: ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’

The question allows only one of two answers, Yes or No. But it is only a question about law. It does not ask, for example, whether it is moral to pay those taxes, or whether it is folly not to pay those taxes.

If Christ answers Yes, those who are hostile to Roman rule are going to turn against him. But if he says No, he risks arrest for inciting rebellion.

The coin they present is a denarius, a day’s pay for workers and Roman troops. This silver coin was the most common Roman coin of the time, and it is mentioned in the Bible more often than any other coin.

Having looked at the head on the denarius, Christ then looks at the inscription.

The obverse of the denarius of Tiberius carries an image of Tiberius with a laurel crown and lettering around it that proclaims ‘Tiberius Caesar, the Divine Augustus, Son of Augustus’ (Ti Caesar Divi Avg F Avgvstvs).

The reverse side depicts a seated woman as Pax. This was Livia Drusilia, the mother of Tiberius. She died in AD 29 and was later deified by her grandson Claudius with the title Diva Augusta. On the coin, she holds a palm branch and an inverted spear in her hands, and the inscription on this side refers to Tiberius as Pontif[ex] Maxim[us] or the ‘High Priest’ of Rome.

Christ does not even get around to flipping over the coin to read the inscription referring to Caesar as the High Priest. But both inscriptions are affronts to people who worship the one true God. This coin should never have been in the hands of anyone in the Temple.

Yet, when Christ asks his inquisitors to produce a denarius in the Temple, they do so immediately. In other words, they themselves have already carried an image of Caesar and Diva Augusta, with those blasphemous inscriptions, into the Temple.

It is the Passover, and Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims who have arrived to remember and celebrate God’s liberation of their ancestors from slavery under foreign rulers.

At Passover, parallels might have been drawn between Tiberius and Pharaoh. Tiberius was a tyrant in his own right. He was Roman Emperor from AD 14 to AD 37, and spent most of the latter years of his reign in the Villa Jovis on the island of Capri.

While he was in Capri, rumours abounded about his lifestyle. There were lurid tales and graphic depictions of sexual perversion, capricious cruelty, and most of all his paranoia. Those who challenged his power or divinity were often thrown off the cliffs at the Villa Jovis onto the rocks below and into the sea.

If Christ says paying taxes to Caesar is wrong, he risks provoking immediate arrest by the Romans. If he says paying taxes to Rome is right, those who question him are ready to accuse him of betraying their faith and beliefs as the people recall their liberation from slavery and oppression.

But Christ trips up those who question him by showing that they are bearing proclamations of Caesar’s lordship and high priesthood into the very Temple of the very God they claim to be serving with ritual purity.

The obvious questions here are not about what is lawful, or even what is moral or wise, but: who is the divine son, and who is the great high priest?

Christ has won the argument. He has unmasked his critics; there is no need for any further argument, there is no need to say anything more; there is no need to answer the question.

Yet, he answers the question anyway: ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

So what in this world is God’s?

The psalm describes God as Lord of all peoples, of all the earth: ‘The Lord is king … he is high above all peoples’ (Psalm 99: 1-2) Everything belongs to God.

When it comes to any worldly power that demands to be our lord, whether it is a figurehead, or flag, the exclusive claims of some nation-state nationalism or some self-obsessed head of state demanding unquestioning loyalty, these are places reserved for the Lord God alone.

And if we seek to see the face of God, we should not be looking at the faces of the despots and rulers of the world who stir up fanaticism, or at ill-gotten accumulated wealth.

We simply need to look for the face of Christ. And we meet Christ face-to-face both in word and sacrament, and when we truly love God and love one another.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Beneath the Villa Jovis in Capri, where the Emperor Tiberius threw his enemies off the cliff-top into the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 22: 15-22 (NRSVA):

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21 They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

‘Study for the Calf of Saint Luke’ by Graham Sutherland in the recent ‘Consequence of War’ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year A).

The Collect of the Day (Trinity XIX):

O God, without you we are not able to please you;
Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect (Saint Luke):

Almighty God,
you called Luke the physician,
whose praise is in the gospel,
to be an evangelist and physician of the soul:
By the grace of the Spirit
and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel,
give your Church the same love and power to heal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer (Trinity XIX):

Holy and blessed God,
you feed us with the body and blood of your Son
and fill us with your Holy Spirit.
May we honour you,
not only with our lips but in lives dedicated
to the service of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer (Saint Luke):

Living God,
may we who have shared these holy mysteries
enjoy health of body and mind
and witness faithfully to your gospel,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Christ depicted in the dome of the Church of Panaghia Dexia in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


10, All my hope on God is founded
509, Your kingdom come, O God!

Saint Luke the Physician and Evangelist … a stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

This sermon was prepared for services in Castletown and Rathkeale on 18 October 2020, but due to Covid-19 restrictions was delivered at a celebration of the Eucharist in the Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick

The walls of the synagogue in Córdoba are decorated in Mudéjar style, with Biblical quotations, including verses from Psalm 99 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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