The Worship of Happiness
[Jesus] said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They 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.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The Pharisees and Herodians make an unlikely coalition. The Pharisees defend the Torah, the law of God, with a radical fervor that makes it uncomfortable for them to live under the rule of the Roman government. A dictatorship is bad enough, but when a dictator mints coins with his image imprinted on it and the inscription, “The Divine Emperor,” every good Pharisee squirms a bit having to use such a coin – You shall have no other gods before me and you shall not make any graven images are, after all, number one and number two of the big ten of the Torah. Just handling a coin like that presents the faithful Pharisee with a big problem, much less using it to pay taxes to support that dictator who claims to be a god.
The Herodians, on the other hand, support Herod, the puppet ruler of the Jewish people placed there by the Roman emperor. Their idol, however, is not so much Herod or Caesar; their god is the status quo. If they wrote a couple of new proverbs in the margins of their scrolls, they would be “Don’t rock the boat,” and “Peace at all costs.”
This unlikely coalition unites over their opposition to Jesus.
They present him with an either/or question intending to expose him as the worst of themselves: either he will say, “sure, go ahead and pay the tax to the emperor,” and be exposed as an idolater, or he will say, “no, it is not lawful to pay the tax” and be exposed as an insurrectionist. Either way, with this “gotcha” question, they will get him. They will either turn popular opinion of the faithful Jews against him, or they will unleash the violence of the emperor’s muscle against him.
The question is not just a curious inquiry: it is life and death.
Jesus takes that difficult political question, the relationship between God’s people and civil authority, and transforms it into a theological question.
First, he exposes their hypocrisy.
“Somebody show me the coin used to pay the tax,” he asks, and before you can say “heads or tails,” somebody has placed a denarius in his hand.
That’s the first laugh line in the story. Funny how it never gets so much as a chuckle these days. While I hate to ruin a joke by explaining it, I’ll just point out that this conversation happens as they are standing in the temple. In other words, right there on the temple grounds, it takes these radical defenders of Torah about two seconds to produce a graven image.
In response to the “gotcha” question, Jesus says, “gotcha” right back.
After exposing their hypocrisy, Jesus pulls out the theological language. “Who’s head or image is on the coin?” he asks, and the Greek word is eikon, from which we get “icon” in English. Suddenly, Jesus has changed the subject from political expediency to theological integrity. It’s no longer, “are we allowed to pay the tax in order to avoid getting jailed or killed by Roman soldiers?” but “how do we stay faithful in a world that surrounds us with idols?”
“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesars,” Jesus says. Caesar’s image is imprinted on the coin; its value is derived from the power of the realm, the full faith and credit of a dictatorship held together by violence against those who threaten it. Jesus says, it’s the emperor’s idolatry. It does not have to be yours and mine.
It doesn’t have to be, as long as we give to God all the things that have God’s image imprinted on it. That is, ourselves. That’s what I’ve been thinking about in regard to this passage: what does it look like to give ourselves to God and why should we do that when there are so many things we can give ourselves over to that are much more fun?
I cannot remember, before this year, ever reading a celebrity biography. This year, for whatever reason, I have read two – one by Keith Richards, guitarist and songwriter for the Rolling Stones, and the other by Sugar Ray Leonard, the world champion boxer in several different weight classes.
Richards and Leonard are two very different men, one British, one American, one white and one black.
The similarities in their stories is that both of them amassed fame and a tremendous fortune at a very young age by doing something they love to do; both of them had some disastrous relationships with women; both of them developed a drug and alcohol problem; and both of them went through periods of deep and dark unhappiness.
I don’t mean they suffered from the illness of depression; I mean they were very unhappy. They had everything, and by that I mean every thing they wanted to buy, houses, cars, boats, food and drink, drugs, designer clothes.
What they didn’t have was trust in the people around them.
Whether it was the drug use that fueled their paranoia or their situation of being the richest man in a family that grew up poor, they could never trust that the people around them were not using them.
Keith Richards tells of a party at his house where he was surrounded by friends, but as he looked around, he realized that every single person there was on his payroll in one way or another. He wondered whether they really wanted to be with Keith, the man from a working-class town in England who loved to play blues guitar, or Keith Richards, the superstar, a man that only existed as an image created to sell records and tickets. He felt all alone with fifty people in the house.
Sugar Ray Leonard tells the story of the disintegration of his first marriage and his relationship with his children in a horrific tale that ended with his wife packing up his children in the middle of the night after an alcohol-fueled argument. His wife was bleeding and his three year old son yelled “I hate you, I hate you,” as they pulled away in the car.
He stood there in the dark, in a fabulous house with the finest sports cars in the world in the garage and millions of dollars in the bank, and, he said, he had never felt so alone in all his life.
The idols of mammon and material goods are easy enough for a preacher to slam, but I think what Jesus was getting at was something even more dangerous, the worship of happiness.
As we do our best to give to God what belongs to God, few of us face the situation of having everything money can buy and still being unhappy. And yet, perhaps we can find the truth in their experience – happiness is a cruel goddess. She lives to be worshiped and pursued, but cannot offer, ever, a place of blessed rest.
Jesus pulled the rug out from under the idols of first century Jerusalem, especially the false promise of happiness, peace, and security through trust in the emperor. The gospel begs the question then, who or what in our own time would lure us into believing we can be happy and secure if only we bow down and serve?
Is there a certain amount of money that would relieve us of all anxiety? Is there a person who, if only he or she would do as we wish, could grant us peace? Is there some goal that, if only we could reach it, would make us happy for the rest of our lives?
The persistent message of the Gospel is that we’re fooling ourselves if we think the pursuit of happiness will protect us from all harm.
In the movie, Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a recovering alcoholic country music star who, through struggle and the help of a good woman, manages to put his life back together. Shortly after renewing his relationship with his daughter, however, Mac learns that his daughter has died in a car wreck.
Sledge chops weeds in the garden with a hoe as he complains to God and then confronts his wife with the hardest theological questions: “Why was it her? I drove myself drunk into an accident, turned the truck over four times and walked away with hardly a scratch. I deserved to die and didn’t. She was just a girl, hadn’t lived long enough to deserve death, but she’s dead.”
“I’ll tell you this. I don’t trust happiness. Never have, never will.”
His wife, who is the angel of grace throughout the movie, stands by silently, letting him rant.
In the final scene of the movie, however, we see Mac Sledge with his young stepson passing around the football. It is a moment of grace, connection, and happiness.
The tender mercies in this story come, not because they are pursued, but because they are given. Happiness is no longer an idol. Happiness is a byproduct of the pursuit of integrity.
That, finally, is where Jesus is going with his call to give to God what belongs to God. I know the annual stewardship drive can easily become an exercise in the preacher and the stewardship committee trying to talk the rest of the congregation into supporting the church budget.
The stewardship question from Jesus, however, is much deeper, much broader. It is the invitation to pursue integrity; that is, to integrate what we believe with what we do. It is a call to find not just moments of happiness, but lives full of joy and meaning as those who are made in the image of God give, not just a portion of our earnings, but our whole lives to the one who made us.
We always face important questions about the institution of the church, how we allocate scarce resources; what we will pay money to have other people do and what we will give time and energy to do ourselves; how much of our mission is right here in Grayson county, and how much is to the ends of the earth.
Those institutional questions, however, can only be answered faithfully after we have answered the spiritual questions that Jesus puts before us: How do we shape our lives as those who carry the image, the imprint, of God upon us? Instead of creating from scratch our very own mission in life, we can put our energy into discerning God’s mission in the world and discerning our part in it.
So, what is God doing in the world? What is our part in it? That’s the stewardship conversation I would like to start today.
Thanks be to God. Amen.