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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taxes and Tithes, Traps and Tricks (Matthew 22:15-22)


15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19  Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

 

It’s said you can bring up the topics of religion or politics once at a fancy dinner party, but do it twice, and you won’t be invited back.

 

The Bible, however, is no slave to social norms, and our passage today is a complex web of politics, religion, and money – three things my grandmother taught me never to talk about in polite, public company.  The only thing missing from this conversation is sex – add that one to the mix, and we’ll have people running for the doors, or perhaps we’d have them running in, I’m not sure.

 

Why are these topics off limits?  Perhaps, they are too personal and private to be discussed among polite people.  Perhaps they are too inflammatory – opinions on such matters run deep – and we avoid these topics in the interest of “just getting along.”

 

Politics, religion, and money get center stage in today’s passage from the 22nd Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.  Here’s the backstory: An occupying army of Roman soldiers had invaded the country with much bloodshed and cultural upheaval.  Then taxes were collected, and used to fund the same occupying army.  The tax wasn’t popular, but refusing to pay meant imprisonment or death.  Taxes were not paid to demonstrate good citizenship so much as to stay alive.  Benjamin Franklin famously said “There is nothing certain in this life except death and taxes,” but for the people of 1st Century Judea, it was a matter of taxes or death.

 

Two groups who ordinarily have nothing to do with each other have joined forces in their quest to defeat Jesus.  The Herodians were those loyal to King Herod, who was seen within his own country of Israel as a sellout to the occupying Roman government – a puppet king whose loyalties lie in Rome, not to his own people.  The Pharisees – devout, religious, purists – detested Rome and anyone sympathetic to Rome.  It was insulting enough to pay the tax, but to have to use Roman currency to do it – engraved with an image of Caesar and proclaiming the divinity of Caesar – required them to regularly violate the first two of the ten commandments.

 

The Herodians have the lock on government power, the Pharisees the lock on religious power.  Along comes Jesus, an unlikely third party candidate, but lately he’s been gaining in the polls.  The Pharisees see him eroding their religious traditions and heritage, the Herodians see his popularity as a potential political threat and the seeds for an uprising.  Politically, the only thing the Herodians and the Pharisees had in common was their hatred of Jesus.  Indeed, politics do make strange bedfellows, as now they caucus together in a united front against Jesus, asking whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Rome.

 

Even Admiral Ackbar could see from a mile away that it’s a trap.  If Jesus answers, “yes,” he risks losing the support of his adoring public.  If he plays to public opinion and answers, “no,” then he can be arrested for advocating lawlessness and possible insurrection.  It’s a trick question with no right answer.  Jesus recognizes the inherent flaw in the question is that he is being asked to pick a side.

 

Jesus doesn’t take the bait, but reframes the question.  “Does anyone have the coin used to pay the tax?”  Someone in the crowd produces a Roman denarius, like this one, and presents it to Jesus.  Go ahead and pass this around, although, I would like it back, so whoever ends up with it, please bring it back to me!

 

As he casually holds the coin in his hand, Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription are on this coin?” and he knows full well, as his opponents will answer, that the face of Caesar, as well as words ascribing glory and power and even divinity are on that coin.  The coin that’s being passed around is badly worn, but you can just barely make out the face in the middle, and evidence of some sort of writing around the edges.

 

And so, Jesus says, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.

 

He hasn’t technically answered the question.  He hasn’t helped us make heads or tails about the question of paying taxes, but has introduced a new, more fascinating and utterly more important wrinkle to the fabric: namely, what – and who – belongs to God.

 

Before I tackle that question, let me ask one of my own: why is it, actually, that we’re not supposed to talk about money, politics, and religion in the first place?  Yes, these matters are personal and potentially divisive.  People feel very strongly about these matters, which is just why we should talk about them in the community of faith – not to tell people what to do but to help them see these issues from the vantage point of their faith. When you ask what church folks look for in a good sermon, one common theme is that the sermon will connect to and inform their daily life; how the biblical story, in other words, connected with their life story.

 

What is more daily, more directly related to our decisions and priorities than our politics and how we spend money?  Does not our faith and who we believe and experience Jesus to be not have some influence on both?  Do we not have at least some idea of what the kingdom of God is like, some picture of what that might look like, and are we not called to work to bring God’s coming kingdom to fruition?  Are we not called to bear a little more light to an often dark world, to bring a little bit of heaven to earth, and really mean it when we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

 

Give to God what is God’s – we don’t have to scratch down too far to realize that it all belongs to God.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all within it; the world, and all who live in it.”  But that doesn’t really solve the dilemma – if God already owns everything, how can we give God what God already has?

 

Think about that coin for a minute.  That coin stamped out by human hands for human purposes, and the image of Caesar imprinted on it - it’s hard to ignore the connection to those words from the beginning of Genesis about the first time God stamped out a human being: “Let us make humankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26).

 

An unspoken question hangs in the air as the eyes of Jesus meet ours. “And you, my friend: Whose image do you bear?”

 

Give to Caesar the things with Caesar’s image, but give to God what bears the image of God – yourself, your whole self, nothing less than yourself.  We belong to the one whose image we bear.  We belong to God.

 

Whatever we render unto Caesar, or to the retirement fund, or to the offering at church, we can never afford to forget this: we belong entirely to God. We may divide our budget, but we must never divide our allegiance.  Our first citizenship is in God’s kingdom, the church exists as an outpost of that kingdom, the embassy of a people who gather not under the flag of any one nation, but under the shadow of the cross of Christ.

 

That’s what we’re supposed to be anyway. Yet, I find that too often our other allegiances are allowed higher priority than God.  We too often modify and qualify our identity in God, describing ourselves as conservative Christians or liberal Christians; young Christians or old Christians; traditionalist Christians or contemporary Christians.  Every modifier and qualifier divides our loyalties and muddies our identity.  Our lives are influenced more by forces that are economic, cultural, and geographic than they are shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

 

Friends, God comes first.  Before anything else.  Our ultimate, absolute, and final allegiance is pledged to God and God alone.

 

While we may feel strongly about our loyalties, before we are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we are Christian.  Before we are liberal or conservative, we are Christian.  Before we are American, we are Christian.  No matter what else, our identity is in God.

 

Why does that matter so much? 
Think about that coin that’s going around, and think about the image on that coin.  That coin is 2000 years old.  The image has faded and is barely recognizable.  The emperor died long ago.  His empire has collapsed.  Everyone who pledged their allegiance and loyalty and identity in that earthly empire now have nothing to show for it.  The image on that coin is faded, and everything that image represents is now gone.

 

Eventually, all kings and kingdoms shall fade into oblivion.  Rulers and realms will be relegated to the ages.  Powers and principalities will pass away.  Every nation that rises will eventually fall.  But the name of the Lord endures forever.

 

The image of God, unlike the image on that coin and all it represents, doesn’t fade.  It is marked indelibly on each of us, it will last for all time and for the time that is beyond time.

 

Our value, worth, and identity is not found in that coin.  Not in the accumulation of those coins and the things they buy, not in the image on that coin and all it represents.  We are valued, every one of us, with sacred and inestimable worth, because we bear God’s image.  Recognize that value on yourself, and recognize it on all others who bear that image, and you’re on the right track toward giving God the things that belong to God.

 

So sure, give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.  Some trinkets?  A coin?  Sure, why not!  That will all fade away, anyway.  But give to God the things that belong to God – starting with yourself.  Give yourself to God, and those other issues about what to do with your energy and time and money will come along, as well.

 

But, just to give you an opportunity to practice, at both ends of each row, you’ll find a permanent marker.  What I want you to do is to reach in your wallet and pull out a credit card or your debit card, or a dollar bill if you don’t have any cards.  I want you to mark the sign of the cross on that card or bill, and then put it back in your wallet.  From now on, when you pull that out of your wallet, the first thing I want you to do is remember that you are made in God’s image, and nothing you or anyone else does can change that, especially not the amount of money in the account tied to that particular card.  Once you’ve done that, ask yourself if the purchase you’re about to make is consistent with the values of God’s kingdom, and your identity as one who bears God’s image.  Use that as an opportunity give yourself to God again, and ask God to shape your priorities and identity to be more like Jesus.

 

It’s been said “Who you are is God’s gift to you.  What you do with yourself is your gift to God.”  Give God your self.  Your whole self.  Your very best self, and nothing less.

 

Let us pray.

O God, all that we are and all that we have is a gift from you.  Out of your great love, you formed us in your image and breathed into us the breath of life.  When our love failed and we turned away, your love remained steadfast.

 

Forgive us for those times when we live with divided loyalties.  Forgive us when look past you for our identity.  Bear with us as we learn to give you the highest place and our first and primary allegiance.

 

We thank you for the value and sacred worth you have placed upon us, the honor you give us simply by forming us in your image.  As those who bear your image, help us to live like that actually makes a difference in our lives.  May we worship you not with lip service only, but with our whole lives.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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