GIVING GOD WHAT BELONGS TO GOD

“Caesar’s,” they replied.  “Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”                  

-Matthew 22:21

 (Preached on Sunday, October 22, 2017)

An enterprising college student placed the following message on his voice mail: “Hi, this is Dave.  If it’s the phone company, I sent the money.  If it’s Mom or Dad, please send money.  If it’s financial aid, you didn’t loan me enough money.  If it’s a coed, leave a message; I’ll get back to you – and don’t worry, I’ve got plenty of money.”

You see, we truly do have enough money, somehow, for our highest priorities.  It is always a question of priorities.  Which means it is always a question about commitment.

The question we hear Jesus asked today, though it sounds like a simple enough question about money and taxes, is in truth a question about priorities and about our commitments.  “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  In Jesus’ day, a tax was a form of tribute.  It was not considered one’s responsibility or obligation as a citizen – to contribute to the common good, for the upkeep of the roads, the armed forces, the police and fire departments, government regulators, etc.  No, the tax was flat-out a tribute!  Only the one with power and authority could exact a tax and that person could pretty much exact whatever amount they wanted.    Those living under Roman occupation paid exorbitant taxes.  Scholars estimate that the poor paid between 20 and 50 percent of their income in taxes of various sorts: on income, property, imported good, exported goods, sales, crops, construction, slave trade, tolls on the Roman roads, a census tax – talk about a system in need of tax reform!  To make matters worse, their taxes helped fund an empire that ruled them from afar, with violence and intimidation.  And very few of the taxes actually benefited them in their daily lives, in that sense of contributing to the common good.  No, their taxes were shipped off to Rome for the most part and funded whatever the Emperor needed to fund in the Imperial city.

The question about whether it was “right” to pay taxes to Caesar or not, that was a trick question.  It was a trick question because it was exactly about commitment.  They were hoping, and expecting, that Jesus would insist that no, it was not a right, or righteous, thing to do to pay the tax to Caesar.  It was anything but “right” because by paying the tax you were acknowledging that Caesar had a claim on your tribute, on your life.  The children of Israel, they understood that there was no one who had a claim on their lives but God.  Only God was worthy of tribute, for only God had a claim on their lives.  They hoped Jesus would state that obvious truth and provide an “on the record” statement which they could then use against him to have him arrested by the Romans for sedition, because he was promoting non-payment of the Roman tribute tax.

But Jesus was too smart for them.  He asks them to produce the coin which was used to pay the tax and tell him whose image was on the coin.  Of course it was Caesar’s image.  Only Caesar had the right to mint coins.  Of course, in the process of minting coins, Caesar would want to be sure and cover them with his image and propaganda: including his face, name, and royal and divine titles.  Jesus knew this would be on the coin and so he skillfully eluded their trap by stating that if it bears Caesar’s image then it must belong to Caesar and they should give it back to him.

Then Jesus goes one step further than they anticipated.  He continues, “and give to God what belongs to God.”  What belongs to God?  The Psalmist says: (24:1) “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”  That is a fancy way of saying that EVERYTHING on the earth belongs to God.  And keeping with Jesus’ line of thought, what is it that bears the image of God?  In Genesis 1:26-27 we are told that God created humankind in the image of God.  We bear the image of God.  That is who we are, the incarnated, enfleshed, image of God.

By that understanding our very lives along with the entire world – sea, land, air, and all the creatures that inhabit them, our families and our homes, the families of other people throughout the world, all of it belongs to God.  To give God what is God’s is to use it all as responsible stewards of the Creator’s possessions and in pursuit of that responsibility to honor God as the rightful owner.

There it is – that word STEWARDSHIP.  You see, stewardship is not just raising money for budgets.  Stewardship is actually about how we live out our answer to the two foundational questions of life:

  1. Who are we?
  2. What are we to do?

When we understand that we are created in the image of God, then the answer to question #2 is easy: we are to live into that image.  After all, if we are made in the image of God then the purpose of our lives is to help the elements of creation – including other people, the inhabitants of nature, and nature itself – to live together in mutual support so that each element can fulfill its purpose and thereby reach fulfillment.  Stewardship is not simply something we do, but is an expression of who we are.

Most of us realize that we do need to pay some taxes.  It is an essential responsibility and duty as a good citizen.  And if we want to have essential public services, such as schools, roads, utilities, fire departments, hospitals, the security provided by a strong military and police forces, then we need to pay for those things.  I would not want to give up any of those services, but I admit that I am a least a little resentful when I write that check to the United States Treasury and pay my income tax; or when I write the check to pay my real estate taxes which support local government, schools, and the state.

I think the resentment comes from several places.  From the tone of the documents from the government agencies for one – cold, threatening.  From the fact that some of the money – sometimes lots of my money – is used for things that I find morally objectionable.  From the fact that I seem to be little more than a number.  And, finally, from the fact that I sometimes seem so removed from the people and decisions that face public life.

How different it is to write a check to someone or to some community I know and love, and who knows and loves me.  I want to express love for the person or group.  I want to be a part of that world.  I see the work to which I am contributing as an extension of my own values.

As you think and pray about making a commitment of your time, talent, money, or other resources for the coming year, think about the fact that God knows your every cell.  God made you in God’s own image to be part of a community in which everyone and everything supports one another.  God loves you unconditionally and is even now working for this world to become that kind of community.  Think about the warm and caring community which is Christ Congregational Church.  Think about the challenges and opportunities for mission and ministry here and in the local community and in the wider world which Christ Congregational Church offers to you and your family.  Think about that mission as an extension of your own values and the behaviors that you would like to see in every person, every household, and every group.

I hope you make a commitment out of the deep recognition that God works through this community for you.  You are not paying a bill.  You are becoming a partner with God in seeking a world of love, peace, justice and abundance for all.

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