Sunday Week 29 Year A

I want everyone to take out a coin and have a look at it. Read it. Smell it. Feel it. And keep hold of it!
I don’t know how many of you have seen a British pound coin… They are about the size of a nickel, but maybe three times as thick, and they are a dull yellow colour. When they were first minted Margaret Thatcher was queen of England—or at least thought she was. At least queen—the more cynical members of her own party called her “the blessed Margaret” because of her pretensions to righteousness. And in her waning days the political cartoonists had her wild eyed and toga-ed as the mad emperor Nero fiddling while Britain burned.
Where was I? The pound coin! When it replaced the tatty old pound note, some wit decided that it ought to be named “the maggie” after Mrs. T. since, like her, it was bold, brassy and worth virtually nothing.
You can probably tell that she’s not my favourite person. But she’s been on my mind this week as I’ve thought over these readings. Another of her achievements was the Poll Tax—a census tax like the one causing so much trouble in the gospel. And for the same reasons—how far can the state go in demanding money in exchange for citizenship? for identity?
And identity is at stake. Money is never a purely economic thing. It’s always political too and it’s always religious. You can’t keep God off the coinage. God’s name is written in tiny letters on all American coins—”in god we trust”—but just in case there’s always the dollar. The denarius, the Roman coin used to pay the census tax, bore the head of Caesar and, in Jesus’ day, the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, great high priest.” So Mrs. Thatcher isn’t the only ruler with delusions of grandeur.
There’s a compact, a contract, a tacit agreement, embodied in every coin: you admit the power of the nation, the ruler, the flag—take your pick—and I’ll let you buy and sell and make a living. And it’s not as if we have any choice in the matter. Getting by without money isn’t an option. Even the militiamen of Idaho who want nothing to do with the state have to fence off their freedom with guns bought with the state’s money.
So here’s Jesus faced with a strange alliance: the supporters of Herod who relied on the Roman state for their own power and privilege and the Pharisees—for whom paying tribute to Rome was tantamount to blasphemy. They have made common cause because they both fear the religious impact of Jesus. All those parables upsetting the apple cart. Threatening to take away both the Herodian’s privilege and the Pharisees’ popular status.
And they say an interesting thing: we know Jesus that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion and do not regard a person’s status. And that phrase “a person’s status” is really a Greek word meaning originally the mask that an actor in Greek drama might wear. OK Jesus, they say, we know you don’t look at a person’s mask … so tell us …
And they are right … because Jesus understands immediately what is going on behind their masks, behind the face, and catches the mismatch, the hypocrisy. And he unveils it by asking for the coin and asking for the face that’s stamped there. And it’s a double whammy! The fact that a Pharisee can produce the coin with its head of Caesar shows that they have already bought into the power of Caesar. Their question is idle. But the second blow is hidden in the language and hits both Pharisees and Herodians … and us. They praise Jesus by talking about the face which is the mask, the public status. But Jesus responds by asking about the face which is the image, the likeness, the resemblance. Not how do you appear or what masks do you wear but who are you really. “Who do you resemble?” he’s asking his askers. Who’s face is stamped on you. Who has made an impression on your soul.
And there’s the challenge. Are you in fact more like God or more like the face upon your coins.
Because among our earliest traditions is that we are indeed made in the image and likeness of god. Somehow our truest identity is already that—we have the face of god stamped in our deepest selves. Me, you, the guy sitting next to you, your evil boss at work, the kid who bullies you at school, the faithless lover, the selfish colleague—yes and even Margaret Thatcher. Each and every one of us, alive with the image of God. The problem is the mask, the mask we wear to hide that image. And the fear that picks up the mask. And the habit that keeps it in place. And the crippled imagination which cannot see any other way to be with one another, any other way to spend our money, any other way to cast our vote, or make our laws.
Still got those coins? There is a price to being here today. There is a charge for coming forward for communion. But it is not paid in cash or credit. The cost is this: to put down the mask and stand side by side with others to meet god face to face and taste who you really are. And then to carry that image with you through the week, unmasked.