Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 for Pentecost +20A, October 22, 2017
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
A song I like, by the band Wilco, has a line in it that says, “Our love is all of God’s money.” When I first heard it, I was struck by how odd the thought was that God had money. Why would God have money? Of course, I get it, that it is a metaphor – but such an odd one that I never would have thought it up.
But, when you think about it, maybe it is apt. We use money to measure value. We humans have been using money since at least 3,000 BCE, as evidence from ancient Mesopotamia indicates. In the bible, we read of Abraham buying the cave of Machpelah from the Hittites as a tomb for his wife Sarah. That story is set around the year 2,000 BCE.
I have read that money started out to represent a measure of weight. The shekel, in Mesopotamia, represented a certain amount of barley. The convenience of using something standard, like a shekel, instead of bartering for an equivalent amount of chickens or goats, is obvious, and is probably why ancient societies from Africa to China all discovered its benefits.
I have heard economists say that the primary reason governments mint currency is for the purpose of taxation. This is also an ancient concept. I have read that the earliest record of taxation by a government goes back 6,000 years in a city which today is in Iraq.
The use of money for taxation was already an old, old idea by the time of the Roman Empire. They taxed their subjects to support the Roman empirical agenda using the funds for building lavish palaces and public monuments.
When we think of taxes today, we think of roads, bridges, water systems, school systems, health care, medicare and all kinds of benefits to our people. This was not how ancient empires used the revenue. They felt completely entitled to use tax dollars to aggrandize themselves. Predictably, their taxes were resented by the people they conquered.
Jesus and the Tax Trap
This is the situation in the background of the text we read. Rome conquered Judea in 63 BCE. The empire imposed a tax on all the people. This was in addition to the local temple taxes the people were obligated to pay. When Jesus was asked if he paid the temple tax, he said that he did (Matt. 17). But the tax to Rome was in a class by itself. The Roman tribute tax supported the empire. Paying it was acknowledging Roman occupation, which humiliated the Jews.
So, in the text we read, people come to Jesus with a question. Actually, it’s a trap. They ask:
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
It is a trap because if Jesus says, “Yes, pay it,” he is acknowledging Roman oppression. If he agrees that the Roman tax is legitimate, then the people suffering under Roman domination, who, so far, have been inspired by Jesus’ teaching about an alternative kingdom, would find someone else to follow. For them, to support Roman taxation would mean being a traitor to God.
But if he says “No, don’t pay it.” he is a traitor to Rome. The people would cheer, but Rome would arrest him, and then his fate would be sealed.
You may have noticed that the ones attempting to trap Jesus in this conundrum, Matthew tells us, are a coalition of people who normally hate each other – but who, for now, are united in their opposition to Jesus: the fiercely nationalist Pharisees, in league with the supporters of the Roman collaborator, king Herod, the Herodians. I guess they believe that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This is the only time we read of their alliance, all for the sake of entrapping Jesus.
But Jesus is neither duped by their hypocrisy nor vulnerable to their trap. He finds a third option.
“Show me the coin used for the tax” he said.
The Roman tax had to be paid with the Roman coin, so they produce a denarius.
The coin bears the image of Caesar, along with an inscription calling him divine. Jesus draws attention to both: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They know well. It is the face of the man whose empirical boot is on their necks. His inscription asserts that he has the right to his power because he is no mere mortal; he is the son of a god.
So, they have to admit: “The emperor’s.”
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
What is God’s?
Well, even if they are normally enemies of each other, the Pharisees and Herodians are both Jewish (or at least partly Jewish, as in the case of Herod’s family, but anyway, they ostensibly observed the Jewish law, or at minimum, knew what it said). In other words, they are people who know full well what the Psalms make explicit:
“The earth is the Lord’s”. (Psalm 24)
All the money in the world is already God’s money. Along with everything else. Including all the people in the world; Romans and Jews, Aristocrats and peasants:
“The earth is the Lord’s,
the world, and those who live in it.”
God as Source
What does it mean to confess that everything is God’s? It begins with the acknowledgement that God is the source of everything. From the energy of the Big Bang to the carbon molecules in the stars and in our bodies, God’s being is the source and ground of all being itself.
That means that everything we need and use and enjoy about life has its origin in God. All plants, all animals, birds, fish and land animals are from God. All of our capacities and senses, our enjoyment of colors and sounds, tastes and the joy of love are all from God. Everything, in other words, is gift.
Everything is Gift
Paul asked his Corinthian congregation, “What do yo have that you did not receive?”
The answer is, nothing. It is all gift. This is why the spiritual practice of gratitude is so fundamental. If everything I have is a gift, then what can I do but be grateful? A spiritually healthy person finds more and more reasons for gratitude throughout their lives.
We are Stewards
This is also why we view ourselves, not as owners, but as stewards of someone else’s possessions. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, so we are stewards, responsible for managing our master’s resources according to the master’ priorities.
Remember when we were children; before Christmas, our parents gave us money to buy gifts for the family. We thought we were so grown up, but really, we were spending their money. As stewards, we only ever spend God’s money.
We are Free
This is one of the ways in which we are mentally and spiritually free. We are not suffering under the illusion that money is everything, or that money is what matters most, or that money measures our personal worth. We do not have to live with a tight, clutching grip on our assets, but we can hold them in an open palm, thankfully and generously.
So what are the Master’s priorities? Of course we are supposed to support our own families, but really our families could be considered extensions of ourselves. As Christians, following our Jewish roots, we understand that God’s priorities include our neighbors also. We are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, which means immigrant. We are to notice the poor, sick Lazarus at our gate, and make his concerns ours.
We are responsible for supporting our faith community as well. In the days of ancient Israel, the tithe, meaning ten percent of ones income, was required to be brought to the temple.
This is not burdensome at all to people who understand that all of our income is a gift from God, and we are only returning a small portion of what God has allowed us to enjoy as stewards. As the hymn says, “We give thee but thine own.”
This church needs all of us to consider ourselves as stewards and to give willingly and proportionally, according to how God has blessed us. We know that there are people among us who are barely making ends meet. But most of us are not in that condition. Most of us are able to make a difference.
As we all know, our church is in a vulnerable condition right now. Now, more than ever we need all of us to consider what our giving level should be. Ten percent of income is a worthy goal. If you are a long way from that percentage, consider taking a step towards it this year, and another step next year. It is part of our spiritual growth to be willing to trust that God will meet our needs even when we give.
The reason we give to the church is because we believe that is what God wants us to do. We give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and we give to God the things that are God’s. We show by our giving that we believe the earth is the Lord’s and everything we have is a gift.
So, the reason we give is not because it feels good to give, but it is true, that it does. When we give, we have the satisfying feeling that we have done the right thing. When we give we know that we are not the kind of people who are free riders, but conscientious contributors, the kinds of people who are the real backbone of the church.
Celebrating our Roots
Next week we will have our dedication Sunday. We will bring our pledge cards here and dedicate them and ourselves to God for the coming year. Next Sunday we will also celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We trace our theological roots back, especially to the writings of John Calvin. So let us end with a quotation from him:
“Scripture…reminds us, that whatever we obtain from the Lord is granted on the condition of our employing it for the common good of the Church, and that, therefore, the legitimate use of all our gifts is a kind and liberal communication of them with others. There cannot be a surer rule, nor a stronger exhortation to the observance of it, than when we are taught that all the endowments which we possess are divine deposits entrusted to us for the very purpose of being distributed for the good of our neighbor.” (John Calvin, Institutes III.7.5)