In Jesus’ day, more than one son of god roams the earth. Jesus has competition in Rome – the emperor. Jesus is different. He teaches us to forgive 77 times, love others, even enemies, and pray for the low-life’s of this world. You might not expect him to be a name-caller.
Today I give Jesus a pass when he hands annoying religious leaders and politicians the “hypocrite” card. He’s at the Temple. It’s Passover. Jerusalem’s hotels have been booked for months. Sidewalks are packed – you can’t hail a taxi. The crowds are a buzz in favor of Jesus. His opponents are nervous. Will he challenge Rome? Herodians, Jews who make friends with Herod and get Herod’s favor in return, don’t want Jesus upsetting their sweetheart deals. And Pharisees – will he turn ordinary people against them and lead a revolt against them? They don’t want that. Two groups that hate each other unit: “If you are my enemy, and we find a common enemy, then we can be friends.” That’s what’s playing out here.
Herodians and Pharisees come to trap Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Saying not to pay the tax would be insurrection. If he says, “Pay it,” the common people will turn against him. “Got a tax coin on you?” They dig in their pockets, pull out a Roman denarius, and hand it to him. Busted! What are they doing with a Roman coin in the Temple? On the front is the emperor’s image – an inscription on the back: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, most high priest.” Years prior Augustus declares he is god. That makes Tiberius son of god. To the Jews that’s blasphemy. The denarius, the tax coin – was banned from the Temple, and who’s carrying them? Hypocrites!
“So,” Jesus says, “give the emperor what’s his.” Seriously, Jesus – pay the tax? “Wait – I am not finished. And to God give the things that are God’s.” Well, shut my mouth. They are so amazed, they walk away – seething and grumbling, I’ll bet.
Are you so amazed? What do you think is Caesar’s? I don’t know – maybe pledge allegiance to the flag, trust politicians to take care of you, pay taxes, vote, don’t criticize your political party, and buy more stuff to support a growing economy – we do render to Caesar certain things, don’t we?
And then give to God – what do you think is God’s? Jesus just leaves that one hanging out there. I suspect most people, even Christians give more to Caesar than to God – which is sort of ironic. Who do we trust more – really – Caesar or God?
It’s Stewardship season, when we think more intentionally about just what is God’s. Stewardship is more than a card we turn in. It’s a spiritual discipline to help us assess how fully we participate in the life of God. To be fully participating in God and the church, you make a pledge. You feel connected. You have a stake in what’s going on. You are more fully drawn into ministries with others, who, with you serve God through this church. I’ve known people in churches who welcome God’s benefits, but let others pay their way. Now, I know that isn’t you.
Here’s how this works. God doesn’t really need our money, time or talents. They’re God’s already. Caesar’s image is on a coin. God’s image is on us. We are God’s. We give ourselves to God – through time, talent, and money – prayers, worship and service to others. When our lives are in union with God we bear the fruit of God’s love. Then we won’t need to beg for pledges, your attendance and participation in church, living your faith and sharing it, bringing new members. All this automatically follows. Caesars and rulers through history, the person you detest, those who disagree with you, and even the jerk who cuts you off in traffic – all bear God’s image – and if they don’t realize it, maybe we need to help them. Jesus doesn’t say over there’s Caesar’s realm and here’s God’s realm; or this is sacred and that is secular. It’s all God’s and we are accountable to God. Jesus says, “Just give God what is God’s, and leaves what we think that is, to us.
What do you think amazed Jesus’ opponents? This week a church member sent me an article about the rampant fear gripping our nation: Ebola, terrorists, the economy. He also sends a page from Forward Day by Day with prayers of St. Augustine, and raises, indirectly, a question: “What are we giving to God? If we have God in our lives, why do we fear so much?” I think that’s a great question. Augustine prays: “By your Holy Spirit, change us, and conform us to your own image, that through our lives, your light may shine in this dark world.” Think about that. When you reach the end of the road, you are in a hospital bed, do you want the head of CDC holding your hand apologizing for what is going wrong – or a priest, church member, or a family member holding your hand and reminding you of what is right?
We seldom see how often we choose possessions, personal happiness, success or wealth to secure and save us, rather than God whose image we bear. Each day we make most decisions – if not all, with little thought for God. We fail to remember the larger world we came from, and where we’re going. Go ahead and give Caesar his coins. Give to God, what?
“When they heard this, they were amazed.” I wonder what amazed them? What’s amazing is how often and quickly we forget whose image we bear. Even more amazing, yet God holds us faithfully in the hands of divine love. We won’t change that. What we can change is what we give to God. We decide what that will be.