October 19, 2014
Grace to you this morning in abundance; grace and peace.
The gospel lesson this morning from the 22nd chapter of Matthew describes an encounter between Jesus and some of the “good citizens of the community.” We are told at the beginning that this was a trap by the Pharisees in response to Jesus teaching a more inclusive view of the kingdom of God than those self-righteous church leaders approved of. So the Pharisees sent their own disciples, and they tried to set Jesus up. They started with some insincere flattery, “ O sincere teacher of God’s Truth, we know you are impartial & fair…” then they ask what seems to us to be a simple question about the law. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Now, really, in the history of human governments, has there ever been any administration from any political ideology that said paying their taxes is illegal? But this was not about our democratically-elected officials negotiating a reasonable funding mechanism to provide public services. Jesus is talking to people living under the rule of an empire that had taken over their homeland. By the time Matthew is recounting this story, Nero had become the emperor, the Roman Legions had crushed a revolt by the Zealots, and this question about paying taxes for Rome’s priorities went to the heart of their identity as People of the Covenant. One did not pay taxes to Rome with a credit card nor by giving your checking account number, the only way to pay was by using Roman coins, which were also pieces of Roman propaganda. The coins were inscribed with a picture of Caesar’s head, along with words describing the emperor as being a god, or the son of a god. Graven images and polytheism were blasphemous heresy! Thus possession of the money used in paying the tax implies that the person using the money accepts the theology on the coin. In the story, it appears that Jesus does not carry any coins like these. Jesus first asks the hypocrites to show him one of the Roman coins, which they are able to do, then asks them about the image inscribed on the coin.
It is often a little difficult for us to understand all the subtle references & implications of the parables & stories of Jesus, because we live in a different culture. What would it be like for our politically-divided country to have coins with current or recent leaders’ names & descriptions on them? Something like, “George W. Bush, son of George H. W. Bush, the smartest & most wonderful man on the planet”, or “William Jefferson Clinton, husband of Hillary, friend of all women”! It may well be significant that our mint only prints money featuring dead guys, and our coins often do not even include their names! But for people living under the Roman Empire, every time they used Roman money, they were reminded about who was in control of their land, and that he was making himself out to be another god, so the Jewish people would have seen this as a violation of the Ten Commandments.
However, in the gospel story for today, Jesus does not go along with the hypocrites’ attempt to trap him. He frames the entire issue in a new perspective. Jesus ends the discussion by telling them what their priorities should really reflect by saying, “Give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that belong to God.” The focus now shifts to what that last line means; if the things that belong to Caesar have his image on them, how do we know what or who belongs to God? In the creation story in Genesis, God creates humankind in the image of God. We are called to give ourselves, our whole selves, our minds, our passion, all of our energy and productivity to God. Everything we are, everything we stand for, everything we do belongs to God, and should be appropriate for being part of God’s Kingdom, reflecting God’s priorities.
We generally recognize that we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation, but we are also part of God’s creation. Properly managing our financial resources does mean that some of what we produce should go to fund the public priorities that are implemented by our taxes: police, fire, roads, education, & care for the elderly and infirm are examples that our culture has embraced over the last century or more. We have adjusted the formula for who pays how much of what financial resources, and we continue to debate budgets and economic theories, which probably means we still have room for improvement. So, struggling to get the right balance for how we give the government what belongs to the government, and how we give God what belongs to God, … this is a perplexing issue! What questions should churches ask about the relationship of congregations and their parishioners with the state? What kind of gods or ultimate priorities does our state worship & promote? Should congregations pay local taxes that go for things like fire protection, or police, or roads? OK, if that sounds like too easy of a question, how about: should each of us be giving our church at least as much as we pay to the various levels of government in our taxes? After all, what do we recognize as having power over our lives? If God’s authority over us is greater than the state’s authority over our lives, how does that affect our choices, our lives, and our relationships?
I’ve heard that Benjamin Franklin claimed back in the 1700’s that nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes. Each of these phenomena can help us clarify our perspectives on the choices we make to become the people we want to be. Every time we attend a funeral, our thoughts may turn to some reflections about the person who died, and what our own lives are all about. We have had quite a few funerals just this past year, and we also know of other people who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer or are in the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease; recognizing the reality of our own mortality does sharpen our sense of what opportunities God is offering us to do during the time we have in this life. Even though the subjects of death & taxes may make us uncomfortable, I think they do have the ability to help us clarify what our priorities are. How do each of us figure out what it means for us to really give ourselves to God & know what is most important?
This is the time of year that we hear about supporting public radio, and in a couple weeks you may be receiving an invitation to support the MSU Capital Fund Drive. Our church also asks for each of us to reflect upon what our participation in this community of faith means. How are we to balance competing priorities? Are we willing to invest some of our limited personal financial resources to support our church’s mission? Our ability to understand how we are called to live our faith does shape who we are as God’s people. And I would also say that giving God of our whole selves means that we need to seriously reflect about what else our Lord is calling each of us to do. How do we focus on making healthy choices that lead to vibrant spiritual maturity? The Prophet Micah summarized what it means to give God what belongs to God by saying, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”