“The Things That Are God’s”
October 16, 2011
In a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House back in the early 90’s, Robin Williams – yes, I said Robin Williams – told a variation on an old joke. “How do you get to the Met?”
Maybe you’ve heard it. How do you get to the Met?
Practice, practice, practice.
But Robin’s version goes something like this. How do you get to the Met?
Money! Lots and lots of money!
I thought perhaps telling a light hearted joke might help to get us started as we move into a topic that most of us don’t like to talk about. Especially in church.
One of the ways I prepare for my sermons these days is to listen to a weekly podcast on the lectionary passages called Sermon Brainwave. Professors and pastors from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota discuss the upcoming week’s scripture and their conversation gives insights and ideas about the different passages for pastors like me trying to figure out how to understand and interpret God’s word for us.
One of the professors, Rolf Jacobsen, made the comment in reference to these verses from Matthew that he would like to hear a preacher talk about money in church on a Sunday when he or she wasn’t actually asking for money. And if you think about it, most of the time, we preachers don’t like to broach the subject of money unless its stewardship Sunday, which my intern supervisor referred to as his annual passing of the hat sermon.
So when I heard that comment, I thought, “I’ll take that challenge. I’ll talk about money especially because I don’t have to ask for it.” Plus the fact that I’m still pretty new here and you still like me.
So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about money. Jesus certainly didn’t shy away from discussing it. Considering the current global economic climate and the Occupy Wall Street protests that are happening around the world, I can’t imagine a more important discussion to have.
So what do we say about money? It seems to me that the most comprehensive statement I can make is that all of our lives are driven by money.
That is not meant as a condemnation on my part. Saying that we’re driven by money isn’t an implication that we’re all motivated by greed or avarice. Nor am I hinting that we are mercenary about money. But we are driven by it. How can we not be? Like it or not, money is essential for surviving. We all know that it can be a cold, tough world out there and without money, it’s even colder and tougher.
Again, I make the assertion that we are, like it or not, driven by money. It is a reality of our lives. You need a certain amount of money just to survive. If you don’t have it, survival is more than just a basis for a reality show. I get enough calls every week asking for assistance with utilities and rent to know how necessary having money is, and, more importantly, what it means not to have it.
The topic of money is certainly at the heart of this passage. And from that flows the idea of priorities. But one informs the other. That becomes the question that is put to Jesus.
One of the commentators on Sermon Brainwave likened the combination of the Pharisees and Herodians to Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner teaming up together to take on a common enemy. That common enemy was Jesus. They knew that Jesus was a threat to them so they devised a question to snare him.
The question was about Roman taxes, one tax in particular. It was the Roman census or the “head tax” that was instituted when Judea became a Roman province. The tax was not only considered unfair, it went against Torah. The land of Israel belonged to God alone. Since Caesar was a usurper, paying the tax was considered an act of disobedience to God.
The Torah forbade any graven images. The coins used to pay the tax, the coins the Pharisees produced to show Jesus at his request, bore the image of Caesar. The hypocrisy of that, having a coin like in this in the holiest of places, was not lost on Jesus.
But their trap was set. If Jesus said “yes,” that paying the tax was lawful, then the common people opposed to Roman occupation would surely turn on him. And if Jesus said “no,” that it was lawful to pay the tax then they had reason to haul him to Pontius Pilate right there and then. Either way their plan to get rid of him would not only be set in motion, but essentially accomplished for them.
Jesus, as usual, sees through these kinds of questions. He knows what they are doing. He names what they’re doing and he names them.
“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?’
“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?’
Then he brilliantly redefines the question. He calls for a coin, looks at it, and asks, “Whose head is this and whose title?”
When they answer, “The emperor’s,” he responds “Then give to the emperor what is his and to God what is God’s.”
Or as many of us heard it translated growing up, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
I have often heard this passage interpreted as helpful guidance for believers trying to find their way in a complex world. Just decide what is Caesar’s and what is God’s then give them what you’re supposed to give them. Simple, right?
It has certainly been used as justification for the separation of Church and State.
See, even Jesus implies that there is a dividing line between them. The two should not mix. Keep them separated.
But thinking about the context and the culture of the time, I doubt that a reader of the gospel would have thought in those terms. To a Jewish listener, they would have assumed that everything belongs to God. Even the tax paid to Caesar. That belongs to God. Heck, let’s face it, even Caesar ultimately belonged to God.
So the idea that God and State were two entirely different entities would have made no sense to a person at that time. Religion, faith, God was the underlying factor of all things, all life. Politics included.
It seems to me that Jesus would have been well aware of this. I’m not so sure then that this was just a way to give a set of rules for how to prioritize one’s life. Nor was it just cleverness on his part at outthinking the religious forces trying to entrap him. It was Jesus, doing what he often did, putting the question back on them. Forcing them to ask for themselves what the answer might be.
And in so reading this, the question is now put back on us as well. What belongs to God? What belongs to Caesar?
But before we answer all too glibly, “Well everything, duh,” think about it. Really think about it. What belongs to God? What belongs to Caesar?
If it’s true that our money and all that we have and everything that we are belongs to God, do we actually live that?
Professor David Lose says that perhaps the best thing we can do is to say “I don’t know. What do you think?” And that’s not to worm out of giving an answer, it’s to honestly say, I don’t know. Your answer, your thoughts, your ideas are as meaningful as mine.
I know that just making a separate check list of what belongs in which category doesn’t really work. In theory it should. I’ve tried. But in reality, those kinds of categories are ambiguous at best.
And I think that brings us back to the issue of money. Because it is how we spend our money, how we use our money that can give an insight into how we prioritize our lives in relation to what belongs to God. I make a big deal of buying coffee that is Fair Trade and organic. It’s important to me to do this because a close friend from seminary spent a year in Nicaragua and returned with horror stories about the terrible things done to the workers at coffee plantations. Her stories convicted me that buying coffee that was grown and traded justly was the only way to go. So I do everything I can to buy Fair Trade.
But even as I say that, I don’t know who made the clothes I’m wearing this morning. I can tell you where I bought them. I can tell you how much I paid for them. But I don’t know who made them. Were they created and sewn in sweat shops? Quite possibly. But my money bought these clothes. My money is used to support systems of injustice. The Roman occupation was unjust, and the taxes levied against the people were oppressive. They were the early forms of the austerity measures we hear about today. They harmed the people who could least afford it. Yet paying those taxes or refusing to pay those taxes meant the difference between life and death.
I could not, in good faith, stand in this pulpit today and encourage any of us to not pay our taxes. It’s a reality of life.
I think Jesus recognized this. But he wasn’t afraid to ask the larger question about where all of this fits into what we owe God.
As David Lose said, “I don’t know. What do you think?”
It is easy to say everything. But it is much harder to live that out. It’s hard to do that with my time, with my talents and with my money. I know that I owe God everything, but Casear takes up the majority of my time and my income.
So I am left with ambiguity. What are the things that are God’s? William Willimon talked about it as dis-ease, that maybe the best we can take from this passage is a sense of unease about the tightrope we walk between the world and the kingdom. Yet the good news is, and I think there is always good news to be found, is that even the realm of Caesar lies in the larger realm of God. So let’s talk about these things. Let’s talk about money. Let’s talk about how we prioritize. Let’s talk about it, knowing that the ultimate good news is that we have the ability, even more the responsibility, to do so; to ask the hard questions and to know that God is with us always as we live into the answers. Alleluia! Amen.