Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Ordinary 29A; Proper 24
Right smack dab in the middle of what is “stewardship season” for many churches, the lectionary provides with a Gospel lesson talking about money.
What could be better than Jesus telling the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s? Because we all know that everything belongs to God. Fill out your pledge card and drop it in the offering plate, thank you very much.
But is that really what’s going on in this story from Matthew? Certainly, no argument can rightly be made that the earth and all that is in it does not belong to God. Surely, despite our budgets and actions, we at least intellectually acknowledge that God created all that is seen and unseen and therefore we are entrusted with possessions for a season, to be good “stewards” of them. The coins we give to Caesar or to Costco or to Amazon or to the electric company or to the church may not have God’s image stamped on them, but they are nonetheless part of God’s grand economy of abundant life.
Keep in mind, though, that this exchange with the religious leaders was not about paying or not paying tribute to Caesar; it was designed to “ensnare” Jesus so that he could be arrested, convicted and eradicated. Matthew’s version of this conversation has a particularly sinister tone, using the hunting term “ensnare” rather than the less violent image of “catch” or “catch unaware” found in Luke and Mark. Matthew wants his readers to know what’s afoot here, even before we are told Jesus knows the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ motives.
Feigned sincerity and false flattery are means to set and spring a trap for Jesus. I wonder what words we use today to capture and dispose of the gospel? Who do we join forces with to sideline and silence those we think are a threat to the status quo that serves us well? (Remember, the Herodians and the Pharisees heretofore were at odds, not at all in the same camp.) What rhetoric do we employ to justify our idolatry of politics, power and wealth? What currency do we trade in to make ourselves look righteous, religious and pious while still rendering to Caesar that which ought to be given to God?
In the pocket of my pulpit robe is a Kleenex and a quarter. The tissue makes sense. (One never wants to be forced to use a stole for unintended and unsanitary purposes.) But the quarter? Why do I have a quarter in my pocket? It was not a tip given to me in the narthex, nor a means to feed the parking meter should I preach too long. Frankly, I have no idea how it got there, when it got there or where it came from. The robe is relatively new, having purchased it when I graduated from “rookie” status and earned the right to have a robe with three racing stripes on each sleeve. And yet, I can’t remember a time when I have reached for the tissue and not discovered the quarter.
I never thought about that coin in the context of these verses until now, but maybe I should. The quarter reminds me of an encounter that occurred early in my ministry. In my first call, one of my areas of responsibility was mission. (I think we called it “outreach.”) One of the duties that fell under that umbrella entailed meeting with anyone who came into the church asking for “assistance.” (“Assistance” being code for money in one form or another.) Our church was near downtown, an imposing white sanctuary on a busy street corner. People came with some frequency asking for help with rent, electricity bills, food, a bus ticket. Of course, policies abounded around such “assistance.” Often the meeting felt cursory, a way to say no, refer to a social service agency and pray.
One day a gentleman came to the church. The volunteer receptionist called my line to let me know of his presence. I came to the well-appointed lobby and invited him to my office. I sat in the comfy chair, he sat on the formal sofa. I used the line I stole from my physician father, the one I heard him say time and again when people in our small town would approach him at the gas station or grocery store looking for medical wisdom. I said, “Tell me what’s going on.”
He had a lot going on. Time has faded all but a few details. Car trouble, late rent, on the cusp of eviction, a young son to care for and, “all I have,” he paused and reached in his pocket, “is this.” He held up a quarter, defeated.
Looking back at my 20-something self in my spacious office laden with theological tomes and expensive furniture, I cringe at the fact that a man much older than I was in a position of asking me to render to him something of God’s when all he had left was a coin stamped with the father of our country. In that exchange, who was Jesus and who was the Pharisee? The answer to that question catches me unaware, entraps me. Who was owed what in that instance? I know I provided some “assistance,” but I am certain I never saw him again. I handed over a small bit of Caesar’s coins when I should have responded in ways that showed that he – that we – belonged to God.
Rightly rendering to Caesar, paying taxes, putting a check in the plate, being a law-abiding upright Pharisee and citizen does not get us off the hook for giving to God what belongs to God. Recognizing that Jesus-told truth reorders our priorities and should make us look at our coins differently. The man sitting across from me was worth more than the quarter in his pocket, but his circumstances conspired to tell him otherwise. The church, our protocol and policy, I, my posture and privilege, conspired to communicate otherwise, too.
The quarter I inadvertently carry around in my preaching regalia is a reminder that my worth, and that of everyone I encounter, cannot be counted in coins, nor is it dependent upon currency imprinted with “In God We Trust.” The coin that rolls around my pocket while I read and proclaim the gospel tells me that which belongs to Caesar can never be conflated with that which belongs to God. Not only is the earth the Lord’s and all that is in it, but God declares, “I know you by name and you are mine.” The hairs on each head are counted. Each person, made in the image of God, bears the mark of the divine, and that’s to whom we belong.
Following Jesus is never about transactions. Imitating our Lord is always about relationships, with God and one another. Go ahead, give Caesar the tribute, pay the taxes, but give God what belongs to God – your heart, soul, mind and strength, loving God and your neighbor as yourself.
Go ahead, use this text for teaching and preaching stewardship. Everything does indeed belong to God. Everyone is made in the image of God. Caesar demands a transactional tribute. Turning from idols to serve our living and true God calls us into relationship, loving with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, both God and neighbor. Imprinted with the divine, we belong to God. Remembering that reality should put the coins in our pockets in perspective and help us know what to do with them.
- Read other passages in Matthew where Jesus is “aware.” Look at 12:15, 16:8 and 26:10. Of what is Jesus aware? Is this awareness unique to Jesus or can we be so aware, too?
- Issues of taxes have been in the news lately: the taxation of clergy housing allowance, tax reform, etc. Does this passage shape your thinking about these current taxation questions? Should it?
- The word “ensnare” is only found in this passage in the New Testament. What do you make of the writer of Matthew’s choice of this word? Is there a difference between “ensnare” and “catch unaware”?
- Do you think of your money as your own? Your possessions as things you have earned? What does it look like to live the truth that everything belongs to God?
- Look closely at a coin. What is on it? Why do you think those images and words were chosen? What are their theological implications?
- Are there aspects of our congregational life that are transactional when they should be relational?
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