GIVING GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S
I was thrilled when my children and grandchildren spoke their first words – mamma, daddy, adding more and more words. I’m sure that “No” was among the first; it seems that we so frequently say, “No, don’t touch, hot”. I also remember teaching them to say “Please” and “Thank you” as soon as that seemed possible. I wanted them to be grateful for what they had received, regardless of how big or how small. And to make a request with “Please” rather than “give me that…”, that they would somehow know the difference from selfishly demanding and taking something and grateful and politely acknowledge their needs, as well as the gift of receiving. The challenge of teaching those words came probably at the same time they became capable of saying “MINE”. Through their ‘terrible two’s’ and ‘triumphant three’s’, they had gained the confidence as well as the selfishness that seems to be internalized to declare that it was all “mine”, snatching back toys, covering toys with a body block-blanket, or grabbing and running from another vying for the same toy. Then came the lessons on sharing, “play nice with your friend, your sister, your brother, share what you have so they can play, too”. Later it was share your food, share what you have to drink.” Let others have some of what you have so they don’t sit there and watch you eat, drink. All in all, I thought I had done a pretty good job. But I regret not helping them to understand at the earliest possible opportunity that this was not just being polite; it is stewardship. We share because what we have wasn’t ours to begin with, it was given to us by another source, even if that meant we planted the seed and grew the vegetables, raised the baby pig to the point it could be butchered and serve as food for our table, babysat to earn the money to buy a new blouse, and later to study and train to be employed, earning wages that would supply our daily needs. The skills to work were given as a gift from God. Sometimes I have received a check and in the “Memo” line the person had written “thank you” – thank you for the services rendered. What would it be like if we wrote “thank you” in the Memo line of every check we wrote, acknowledging that we are grateful for phone service, for electricity, for water running through our pipes and garbage pick-up, for food and household goods. Thank you for the tax bill because I live in a country that affords me so many more freedoms and rights that I can’t even begin to name them all.
In today’s Gospel the question that is asked of Jesus is not whether taxes should be paid gratefully or grudgingly. Rather the question is whether in his opinion it is right and proper to pay taxes at all. The political situation in the time of Jesus was that the land was under military occupation; a foreign power extracted taxes from the citizens. Like many of the questions put to Jesus by the Pharisees, Jesus recognized the question to be a trick. The two groups of people who approached Jesus represented two conflicting alternatives; the Herodians were Jews who were partisans of the ruling Roman royal family. The Pharisees were religious purists who would have liked to avoid paying taxes to the Gentile over-lords. Thus, in putting to Jesus the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” the Herodians and Pharisees meant to trap him. Jesus gave a response that did more than merely foil their trick. Jesus gave a teaching that left them with a challenge that rings down through the centuries. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus said. They gave him a piece of Roman currency called a denarius. As our American coins today bear the heads of dead presidents, this small silver coin was minted with a likeness of the currently ruling Roman emperor, Tiberius. On the denarius Jesus held, Tiberius’ head bears a laurel wreath, a token of the emperor’s claim to divinity. Around the head of the coin runs the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of the majestic God, and High Priest.” No wonder the more zealous and sensitive Jews took offense at having to pay taxes to such an idolatrous regime. No wonder the Jews scorned those who made contracts with the Romans to collect taxes, as Matthew had done. Yet the account of the good news that we proclaim today bears the name of just such a tax collector: Matthew, whom Jesus called to be one of his disciples. “Whose head is this and whose title?” Jesus asked; they responded, “The emperor’s”. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” Jesus said, “and to God the things that are God’s.” The money was commonly considered to be property of the ruler who had minted it. But of course the emperor wanted more than just the money, the taxes. All governments, all government officials want more than just the money – they want allegiance and loyalty, they want military service which may even claim one’s life as they serve their government or take the life of another’s. What was also clear to these Pharisees was that Jesus had turned the table, and literally had overturned the tables in the Temple in Jerusalem. God declares the divine intent as we are created in the image of God. We bear God’s image imprinted on us. All that they had belonged to the Holy One of Israel. All that we have belongs to God our Creator.
We may not get a clear picture from this lesson just what it is Jesus thinks we should rightfully give the government or give God, but Jesus framed the question very clearly. Jesus was clear that such a line is to be drawn. In placing duty to state in the context of duty to God, Jesus affirms that no claim on us by an earthly power is to be considered an absolute. Only the claim of God on us is absolute. Discerning what is right and proper in this respect is up to each of us. God can work even through ungodly governments. In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God says he is first; God has called us by name, and all that we have comes from God. It is God who is divine. The most important and most challenging part of Jesus’ response is not what to give Caesar, but “give to God the things that belong to God.” For this saying of Jesus places everything we own and everything we are in the context of our relationship with God. With the coin that we possess, we have so many choices: What to give to charities? How much should we put away for our children’s education? How much for our own retirement? Don’t we deserve to be able to go out to dinner once in a while? What about the starving people in other countries? All these decisions, all these legitimate claims on us loom large. Scripture reminds us that we should give intentionally, share abundantly, and that God loves a cheerful giver, hallmarks of faithful stewardship. In Luke 12:34, we are to give communally, that we are interconnected, and that where are treasure is, that is where our heart is. Deuteronomy 26:1-2 tells about first fruits giving, giving back from what God first; not to give God the left-overs, if there are any. Jesus taught that it was the community’s responsibility to communally care for the widows and orphans, those without a security net. Who do we trust? How can we let go and give to God what belongs to God.
What belongs to God? What bears the image and name of God? It is our very selves. God created us. We are the coins of God’s realm. Let us “give to God the things that belong to God.” There is a limit to what we owe Caesar, but there is no limit to what we owe God. We may be reluctant to place in the context of our covenant with God and our relationship our wallet, our career, a relationship with another, our weekends, our work, but God claims us in our baptism, fully, totally. In baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit; we are made a child of God in our baptism. God lays claim to this marvelous creation in each of us and calls us by name. We are created in God’s image. No part of our life is excluded from our covenant with the One who created us, sustains us, redeems us, the one in whose image we are made. The reason we give God what is God’s is that God first gave us His love, and went even further in giving us love and grace in His son, Jesus Christ. We remember that each time we hear the words, “This is my body given for you; this is my blood shed for you.” God has given us grace, love, forgiveness, mercy, the promise of eternal life.
To give consideration to giving back to God, to have a plan and follow it, to be generous, to give first – not a little left-over, to give cheerfully are tenets of stewardship. Do we play tug-of-war with the envelope as the plate is passed or can we give it up, knowing that the church will be faithful with what is given and to be about mission that helps people grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, grow as faithful disciples. The church is not a club house, but is called to be about mission. Our giving is about discipleship – a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our giving, our very being is about stewardship, and God has called you by name and you are God’s. Don’t cling to every red cent you have, screaming “mine” inside yourself as the offering plate is passed. After all it isn’t a “bill plate”, but an opportunity to OFFER back just a small portion of what you have already been so generously given. Only God has the right to call out “Mine, all mine”, for indeed that’s what we are, each one of us, God’s very own, and will be there as we eat and as we drink – given for you, shed for you because you are MINE, God says. Thanks be to God! Amen
Isaiah 45: 1-7
Psalm 96: 1-9
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Matthew 22: 15-22