As I pondered our scriptures for today I was struck by how different, how utterly foreign, one might most accurately use the word “alien,” the social landscape of the bible is from our own. We, children of a post-Enlightenment Constitution which makes a clear delineation, almost a compartmentalization, between the civic and the religious, simply cannot quickly envision the extent to which those areas of human existence were entangled and intertwined for those who wrote and whose lives are described in both the Old and New Testaments. I tried to think of an easy metaphor to help illustrate the difference between our worldview and that of either the ancient wandering Hebrews represented by Moses in the lesson from Exodus or of the first Century Palestinians and Romans characterized by Jesus, the temple authorities, and Paul.
The best I could come up with was this. First, as a representation of our viewpoint, consider a mixture of water and vegetable oil which, as I’m sure you know, is no mixture at all. The oil will float on the water and no amount of mixing, shaking, or stirring will make them blend; the oil may disperse in small globules throughout the water, it may even emulsify temporarily, but eventually (without the aid of a stabilizer) the oil will separate from the water. In our constitutional society, religious institutions and political entities are supposed to be like that; just as there is a surface tension barrier between the two liquids, the Constitution (in Mr. Jefferson’s memorable phrase) erects a “wall of separation between church and state.”1
Now, imagine that instead of mixing water and oil we try mixing water and alcohol. The two blend together. They don’t chemically bond; rather, they form a solution. The alcohol technically dissolves into the water, the alcohol molecules taking up the space between water molecules. This is why when you mix equal amounts, say one cup of each liquid, the result is less than double that amount, usually by about 5% so you get 1.9 cups instead of two cups. The resulting liquid behaves somewhat differently from either water or alcohol, and it takes a good deal of effort to separate the constituent liquids. This represents, to a greater or lesser extent, the way in which political and religious institutions were enmeshed and worked together in biblical societies.
In today’s epistle lesson, we have the introductory greeting of Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica, in which he praises the congregation for their reputation as converts saying how well known it was that they “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.”2 Thessalonica was an important city; it was the capital of Macedonia and located on the important trade route called the Via Egnatia, a six-foot wide stone-paved road running almost 670 miles from the eastern capital of Byzantium west to the Adriatic Sea. As such, it was a center for the Roman imperial cult which included the worship of the goddess Roma, the embodiment of the ideals of the empire, and the veneration of the emperor. It was from these “idols” that Paul’s readers had turned, and it is this cult which is represented by the coin Jesus requests from his questioners in our gospel lesson.
The Roman imperial cult envisioned the ordering of human affairs as the highest expression of divine will, with the city of Rome as the earthly home to the gods and the center of civic order. Religious and state offices were intertwined with the same persons serving as senior priests as well as senior magistrates. Roman public religion thus easily incorporated the local and regional cults of conquered peoples; as the empire expanded, gods and cults of both allies and the conquered were incorporated. This simultaneous preservation and subordination of others’ religions aided imperial unity and fostered mutual religious and ethnic tolerance within the empire. In Rome’s religious, social and political life, the highest magistrates had access to the most powerful gods, the chief of these being the emperor who had the title Pontifex Maximus, meaning “high priest.”
The coin which Jesus requests of the Pharisees and the Herodians, if it was of current minting, would have evidenced the imperial cult. It was much more than simply a medium of exchange; it was a religious object. It would have had on the obverse or “heads” side the image of the Emperor Tiberius surrounded by the inscription TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AUGUSTVS (“Tiberius, Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus”). On the reverse or “tails” side of the coin it showed the goddess Roma seated on a plain chair holding an olive branch in her left hand and a scepter in her right, and the inscription of the emperor’s priestly title PONTIF MAXIM (“Pontifex Maximus”).3
For the Romans, the imperial cult was res publica (“public business”), a coming together of people united for the common good which both served and was served by the res divinae (“divine matters” or religious ritual) and the res humanae (“human affairs” or civil law), all administered through the state represented by the emperor. Jews, however, held a special place within the empire because their god and their religion were not subsumed into the imperial cult; they were given a dispensation, if you will, to be different from other conquered peoples.
For the Jews, the mixture of religion and civil authority was reversed. In place of an imperial state administering both, it was the religious authority which had the ascendance. Unlike the Romans (or the Greeks from whom they inherited many ideas), Jews had no particular reverence for individual liberty and they had no tradition of public assembly or popular vote. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in his work Against Apion described the “unique pattern of political organization of the ancient Hebrews” as a God-inspired rejection of “all known political systems, such as monarchy or democracy” in which “all sovereignty and authority [is placed] in the hands of God.”4 This is why Moses pleads with God in our Exodus lesson, “How shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”5 And this is why Jews sought, and were given, relief from making the sacrifices demanded by the Roman imperial cult. The Romans accepted the Jewish self-understanding and allowed them to be exempt from the civic religious obligations that were imposed on other conquered peoples.
From the Old Testament Jewish point of view religious law was paramount and dictated civil conduct, whereas to the Roman of New Testament times civil law was paramount and was served by religious ritual. In terms of our mixtures-of-liquids metaphor, the Hebrew system might be a little more alcohol and a little less water while the Roman system might be heavier on the water than the alcohol, but they were much more similar to one another than either would be to our oil-and-water separation of church and state.
In terms of the participants in today’s gospel drama, the Herodians represent the Roman point of view; the Pharisees, the Old Testament understanding. The two groups are unlikely allies; they agree on almost nothing. What they do agree on is that they don’t like Jesus. Together they set a trap for Jesus, hoping he will answer their question (“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”6) in such a way to either lose favor with the public (this is the Pharisees’ goal), or get in trouble with the Roman authorities (this is the Herodians’ hope).
Although they are the Jewish temple authorities, the Herodians enjoy their position by virtue of Roman patronage and they are really fine with the imperial tax. If Jesus answers in opposition to the tax, they will take news of that seditious talk back to the Roman authorities and that will be the end of the pesky Galilean. If he answers that the taxes are lawful, Jesus will offend the crowds who hate the empire and find the tax overly burdensome; this would enhance the Pharisees’ position. So, answering either way, Jesus would lose.
But Jesus does neither. He takes the coin with Tiberius’ face and titles stamped upon it and says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”7 In doing so, he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, endorsing our peculiar American separation of the religious and the secular. Instead, he is challenging both the Jewish and the Roman worldviews in neither of which can such a separation be made; indeed, he is challenging any system, political or religious or mixed, including our own, which might seek to impose institutional uniformity upon the actions of individuals. He is suggesting another alternative, which neither the state nor any religious institution may dictate, that of individual conscience before God.
The challenge for us in this text is quite different from that which Jesus’ answer may have presented the Herodians and the Pharisees: How do we, as 21st Century Christians and as Americans for whom there is a separation of church and state, learn to interact with secular governing authorities in a way which honors whatever our civic obligations may be without violating our identity and calling as those who follow Jesus Christ as our Lord?
That is not a question which I can answer for you, nor which you can answer for me. It is a question we can explore together as community, but which we must answer as individuals. What is essential is that while we each listen for God’s guidance, we realize that others may hear it differently than we do. For some of us, the answer may resemble the Roman point of view: our government’s demands and our conscience may line up pretty closely. For some of us, the answer may resemble the view of Jews living within the Roman empire: we may find government demands to be at odds with our conscience. What none of us is permitted to do is condemn others for arriving at an answer different from our own.
We must be like Moses and Aaron and Samuel who called upon God and received God’s answer, we must each keep God’s testimonies as we hear them and honor the decrees that God gives us, and then together we can confess God’s Name, which is great and awesome. He is the Holy One! Amen.8
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 22, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service, RCL Proper 24A [Track 1], are Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; and St. Matthew 22:15-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
 1 Thessalonians 1:9 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 Strousma, Guy G., The Making of Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity, Oxford University, Oxford:2015 (Return to text)
 Exodus 33:16 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 Matthew 22:17 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 Matthew 22:21 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 Psalm 99:6 & 3 (BCP Version) (Return to text)
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.