Some times we agree to do one thing we don’t really want to do to escape doing another thing that would be worse. So years ago when a certain adjunct bishop was assigned to supervise the deacons of the Diocese and this bishop didn’t see my ministry the way I saw it, the Diocesan bishop intervened and offered me an escape: How about you report directly to me, he said, and I’ll send you around the Diocese to do some preaching
You’ll preach about stewardship.
Oh. ……. Really?
So I spent a year or so doing this. I went to Duluth, I went to Frontenac, I went to Edina, I went to Mankato and Minneapolis. It was rewarding, and it was difficult. You can imagine how happy congregations were when I announced what I was there to talk about. And I struggled to present a message that was different, that was compelling, that was Biblical. So I admire those who attempt to give their heartfelt take on stewardship, as Gwen will today.
As luck or the Holy Spirit would have it, the lesson I have to work with today is about money – specifically taxes –could this get worse? — Yes, it can because in his answer to the Pharisees, Jesus opens up the relationship between government and God. So this is a sermon about money, taxes, and government but more generally about currency – that is the way we pay for things.
Volumes have been written about today’s Gospel and everyone from Tolstoy to Gandhi to evangelical Christians have weighed in. So opinions differ vastly about what Jesus “really meant” when he said the famous words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
The whole thing is a trap in the form of a question that is set by the Pharisees for Jesus. If he answers that it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, this will alienate his followers, most of whom hated the tax. If he says no it isn’t lawful, he will be arrested by the Romans for sedition.
There were two kinds of taxes in Rome at this time: the general customs tax, which was used for tangible benefits like roads and waterways, and the poll tax, money which simply disappeared into the emperor’s coffers with no visible benefits. It is the poll tax that is in question here.
The required tax was about a day’s pays for an ordinary worker, or about $100 today. The coin of the realm was a denarius. Jesus asks for one and quickly receives it from one of the Jews gathered around him. Jesus doesn’t seem to have one himself, which is no surprise since observant Jews were not supposed to carry Roman coins in their pockets for two reasons: First, they were imprinted with the image of the emperor, a graven image that was forbidden by the Torah. Secondly, they had their own currency. In deference to Jewish sensibilities, Rome had made provisions for Jews to make their own copper coins without the emperor’s image, but to use only these coins would have been inconvenient and slow you down considerably in business dealings with non-Jews. So for the sake of expediency, many Jews used the Roman coins. The picture on the denarius was that of Tiberius Caesar, “son of the divine Augustus,” it said.
Holding the coin in his hand, Jesus tells the crowd to render – that is give back—to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. The Pharisees are stunned by the simplicity and brilliance of the answer as Jesus once again avoids the trap they had constructed so carefully.
Jesus never denies that government is necessary – and most of us would agree, especially to provide an ordered society and essential infrastructure and basic services. Jesus would have been killed immediately if he had taken on the government of the Roman Empire, but is the government of the Temple – of the Pharisees – the Jewish authorities — that outrage Jesus. Jesus battles the Pharisees constantly; in fact, there is a whole chapter in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus does nothing but attack those of his “government” for their selfishness, their arrogance, their hypocrisy, their failure to help those who need it.
A key difference between Biblical times and the present is that we elect our governmental leaders and so in a sense, we are the government. At the same time, we are also its critics. Of course, it is not solely the job of government to look out for the weakest in society; it’s just that on a larger scale it can often reach people more efficiently than individual efforts.
So when do we support our government and when do we not? The writer and activist Jim Wallis put it this way: “As Christians we are called to support public policies that conform to what God has taught us about right and wrong.” So how might the actual words and actions of God in Jesus –and what Jesus has taught us about right and wrong – say to us now? What questions might be present?
Jesus was a healer. Would Jesus support everyone having access to healing treatment?
Jesus fed the hungry and always cared for the poor. What would he say about the fact that 16 million children in the United States live in households that are unable to afford nutritious food on a regular basis, even when the parents are working?
Jesus respected the powers of the mind and the intellect. He liked to debate other rabbis in the Temple. He was often impatient with the Disciples who were too thickheaded to follow his arguments. How would he react when a government disregards the findings of 99% of scientists as well as of the United Nations and attempts to reinstitute policies that will hurt the very air we breathe? Would would he say to us, appointed the stewards of God’s creation?
Jesus called for respect for all of God’s children. He even sat at the table with tax collectors and sinners. What would he say about the atmosphere of casual, Twitter-enhanced cruelty that is is afoot in our country? About the lying, the atmosphere of incivility and disrespect for elders, for the disabled, for women, for the struggles of immigrants?
And when our government claims it has the right to take the life of a human being, we remember that the Eucharist we celebrate this morning was really the last meal of a condemned man sentenced unjustly to death by a man who could not wash his hands fast enough to get the blood off of them.
In our culture this week, we click our tongues and are disgusted by tales of a Hollywood producer who preyed on dozens of women. Yet ta major perpetrator of abuse has been the Christian Church? What a heartbreak this must be for God.
In an earlier lesson in Matthew, Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple just three days before Passover and four days before his execution. Along with Jesus and his disciples who had journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover, many of the the pilgrims that swarmed into the Temple at this holy time were unfamiliar with the city and didn’t know that the Temple merchants sold sacrificial animals at higher prices than elsewhere, with a generous cut for the Pharisees and the high priests.
I always thought that the “moneychangers” were there kind of making change for people who needed to buy a couple of doves and only had a denarius with them. But no, they were really there because the temple priests would only allow Jewish copper coins to be used and so those who came with the Roman denarius or other Roman coins would have to have them changed to the Jewish coins, for a price of course. That is why the moneychangers were there. And Jesus is furious that the commercial exploitation of the poor is taking place inside the Temple walls. He overturns the tables with a corded whip and chases out the whole sorry mess.
We exist on this fragile planet, “our island home” which is given over to our care. It’s by no means a given that we will survive, you know. We are stamped with the image of God, not of Caesar, but also Caesar is us. The needs of the world demand that Christians stay deeply engaged in it.
The most compelling reason I have ever heard for for generous giving is this one from the author and man called “America’s rabbi,” Harold Kushner. He tells us that when God told the ancient Israelites to bring sacrifices to The Temple, sometimes the meat from the burnt offerings or the money was given to the poor. But this wasn’t the main thing for God’s command. The main reason was because these actions put people in touch with their better nature.
And isn’t that the case? Doesn’t the voice of God that we call “conscience” reward us with a sense that we have done the right thing? A good thing? Unless we have been reckless, how often do we feel badly after being generous? How frequently do we regret being kind, being compassionate, giving to someone who needs it more than we do? Do we regret building the clinic in Uganda that has helps hundreds of people a year to better health and has even saved lives? Are you sorry that you helped fund programs at St. John’s to help people understand their Scriptures and their faith? Were you disappointed that children are eating breakfast today because of a gift you have made?
I think that this is the same impulse that makes people behave selflessly in a crisis – even when others are being shot in front of them, as in the Las Vegas shootings or when the doctors at Santa Rosa hospital kept treating the victims of the wildfire even while their own homes were burning.
Our conscience – or the voice of God within us—affirms this behavior. So if we want to be more in touch with the holy, these are pretty foolproof methods: charity, compassion, contributions, even compliments. (Mark Twain said he could live two months off a good compliment). It can all begin with observation, simply looking at someone closely, wondering what God loves about them. We may give money, time, or in some other way…. The Pharisees tithed spices!
There aren’t a lot of stewardship jokes out there. In fact, there’s not much Biblical humor either. But here’s what I think would happen if Jesus was sitting on the steps outside of St John’s and asked for a piece of our currency – a dollar bill – to make a point. Most people would be frantic because they only had credit cards!
And then one of us old enough to still carry cash would save the day by rushing up: “Step aside, Millennials, and put away the plastic., Here you go, Jesus. I’ll show you the money!!”
And Jesus would laugh and then smile as he looked at it and saw: “In God We Trust.”.