Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
I’m sure you’ve all heard that saying before – and it’s known, of course, as Murphy’s Law. It’s named after the American aerospace engineer Edward Murphy who worked on safety-critical systems and who is believed to have first coined the phrase. We tend to think of Murphy’s Law as somewhat humorous, but it is quite serious in its application. When designing systems it is important to eliminate any possible areas where something might go wrong – because if it can go wrong, in the end it will.
There are a number of similar laws that have become famous and that most people will know even if you don’t know their origin or original intent. Parkinson’s Law, which was first used by Cyril Northcote Parkinson is another one that is well-known: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
The world of work is full of such laws. One which I’m sure applied in the bank that I used to work in in a previous existence more years ago than I care to remember, is the Dilbert Principle. This states that: Companies tend to systematically promote the least-competent employees to management (generally middle-management) in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing. Essentially all the real and productive work is done by people down at the bottom of the ladder. Given the recent history of the banking profession some might well think that law applies.
I mention banks not just because this morning our gospel reading is about coins and paying taxes, but also because one Law that is ingrained in my memory is one I learned when doing my banker’s examinations. It is called Gresham’s Law and states in its simplest form: Bad money drives out good. Taking its name from Sir Thomas Gresham, who was a financier at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the idea behind it is that if the coinage is made, for example, of 100% gold, and a government introduces coins that are only 50% gold as a way of saving money or trying to make its money go further, then people will simply hoard the good coinage and only use the bad coinage- the bad money drives out the good.
In today’s gospel reading we hear about a question and we hear an answer about coinage. And as we shall see we hear from Jesus an answer about a bad coinage and a good coinage – and we hear about what to do with them and which is more important. More of the answer Jesus gives in a moment.
But first, what about the question?
As journalists know only too well if you want a politician to dig a hole for themselves you ask them a question that they cannot possibly answer adequately if at all. So Theresa May, the Prime Minister, was asked in a radio interview a couple of weeks ago one of those questions – she was asked whether she would vote for Brexit in a second EU referendum. No doubt the interviewer was really pleased with himself for coming up with this question. If she said yes she would upset half the people and if she said no she’d upset the other half and if she refused to answer she could be made to look indecisive or lacking in honesty.
The Prime Minister was no doubt prepared for such a question, but I’ll leave you to judge how well she did – I don’t want to get immersed into politics – but such a technique is nothing new as a way of trying to embarrass important people, or put them in an impossible position, as we see in our gospel reading this morning. The chief priests and Pharisees have come up with a question that they think Jesus will be unable to answer.
The chief priests and Pharisees are fed up with Jesus talking about them and pointing out the error of their ways, so they decide that it’s time to sort him out once and for all. So they come up with a foolproof question – however he answers it he will dig a hole for himself. And the question is: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?
If Jesus says, “Yes, of course it is,” then he will anger the people. The people hate the Romans as the occupying force and they hate paying taxes to them. The last thing they want to hear is Jesus, this wonderful new teacher, saying that they should pay their taxes to the Romans. The chief priest and the Pharisees have worked out that this is an ideal way of getting Jesus to lose favour with the people.
On the other hand, if Jesus says, “No, it’s not lawful to pay the taxes,” then they can have the Romans arrest him as someone preaching dissent and rebellion. Either way, they think, they’ve got him. And if he refuses to answer, which they’ve already worked out is the only other option, both sides will angry.
But Jesus is aware of what’s going on and is prepared. So Jesus asks them for a coin that is used to pay the tax. They give him one and he says, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Just as our coins today show the head, the image, of the sovereign and the sovereign’s title, so the coins that were used to pay the Roman taxes showed the image of the Roman emperor and his title. And Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…”
A clever answer. He neatly finds a way out of the trap being set for him. But that isn’t the most important part of his response. He goes on to say, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” And it’s those words that I want you to think about this morning.
When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” what does he actually mean? What is it that he is expecting those to whom he was speaking, to give? What goes through your mind when you hear those words: give to God the things that are God’s?
It’s not immediately clear in our reading, but Jesus is making a direct connection with the things that are God’s and the coin that he has just been handling. He is contrasting what we might think of as bad coinage and good coinage. The coin bears the image of the emperor – it’s hated and despised by the people because of all that it represents. The thing is it doesn’t simply represent the occupying power. There’s more to it than that – the emperor claims to be divine, so it has an idolatrous image on it. Having to handle these coins was a real issue for a people who believed God was the only god and that images of other gods transgressed the commandments. Bad coinage.
But what is the good coinage I’m talking about? Well, think about this for a moment – the coin bears the image of the emperor, an earthly and temporal ruler. What is it that bears the image of the heavenly and eternal rule who is God? The answer is, of course, each and every one of us. Each and every person, each person who heard Jesus speak then, each of us here today, is made in the image of God and bears his image within us. We talk about being made in God’s image. Jesus is linking the idea of coins with an emperor’s image stamped upon them with the idea of people made in the image of God, with God’s image stamped upon them – a link that would not have been lost upon the chief priests and the Pharisees.
What Jesus is saying is that we should give ourselves to God – everything we are and have. The coin bears the emperor’s image, he says, so give it to the emperor. You bear God’s image so give yourself to God. And that is the emphasis of his teaching here. He neatly evades the trap set for him by the chief priests and the Pharisees and reminds them that what God wants is themselves – their worship, their obedience, their service, their love, and all that flows from that in love and service for the world and for one another.
For this is what God created us for. We’ve all heard the saying money makes the world go round. Not in God’s world it doesn’t. It’s people that make the world go round, people who have come to realise and understand that they are made in the image of God, who have accepted Jesus as their Saviour, and who in response to what he has done for us have given everything they are and everything they have to God to be used by him.
Give to God, says Jesus, to each and every one of us, the things that are God’s. Give to God your whole being, everything that you are, everything that you have, so that he can use you as he will.