A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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.
said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to
God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and
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
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
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
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
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”
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
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
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
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.