“Render unto Caesar…”
The Rev. Keely Franke
October 16, 2011
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Oh My. I’ve said this before but my dad always told me there are three things you aren’t supposed to talk about: Religion, politics, and money. People get upset when you bring up these topics and especially in church. These are all topics to be avoided at all costs in the pulpit. Because after all it is our personal relationship with God, our decision how to vote, our money to decide how to spend. Who is anyone else to tell us how to live our lives after all? And I would agree, mostly, because it is our life. Or is it?
Money, politics, religion. We’re told we’re not supposed to go there and yet in the gospel today Jesus does that. He hits all three. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem, the week is Holy Week, the day is Tuesday. Jesus is busy teaching in the temple, knowing that his death will come in just a few days.
The Pharisees who are against Jesus’ teachings are trying to trap him and speed up this process. The Pharisees are also against the Roman occupation and so they bring along the Herodians who are obliged to Rome for keeping Herod in power. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, they ask? Either way Jesus answers, yes or no, he will be caught. But instead Jesus answers with the well known phrase:
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “When they heard this,” Matthew says, “they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”
Before I went to seminary I spent a little over a month in Thailand. We spent the majority of the time up in the hills of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai sleeping on bamboo floors and squatting over holes in the ground to use the bathroom. At the end of the trip I was back in Bangkok for one last day. I was tired, exhausted really, and at this point just wanted to be home. I also didn’t want to be in Bangkok so I boarded a train which took me up to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand which has some of the most ancient temples.
After a three hour trip that should have been 45 minutes I got out of the train and headed off with absolutely no plan in mind, just a map. Luckily I ran into a tuk-tuk driver who offered to take me around his city for the small price of 500 baht. I talked him down to 350 and off we went.
As he drove me from temple to temple my tuk-tuk driver took great care in making sure I saw the best temples but also tending to my every need. It is hot in Thailand
after all. Between temple visits he insisted I drink a bottle of water. He then seemed to know when I needed a restroom and pointed me in the direction. When I was starting to think about being hungry he took me to his favorite restaurant. When I was starting to feel tired from the day’s journey he seemed to know that as well and took me to the bus stop instead of the train. He paid my ticket, told me it would be much quicker than the train, which it was. He even told me what side of the bus to sit on so the sun wouldn’t shine in on me and I could get some sleep. In my fatigued state I was caught off guard by the stranger’s attentiveness and care for my needs.
When it came time, though, to pay him for the day I had in the back of my mind that I needed at least 500 baht for the tax at the airport the next day to get out of the country. And I really wanted to go home. I was also tired and didn’t want to stop at an ATM again. Knowing full well I wanted to give him more than 350 baht, or the equivalent to 11 dollars, I caved into my weariness and only doled out the 350 baht anyway. The tuk-tuk driver and I bowed to one another and said goodbye. As I climbed the steps to my air-conditioned bus I had a sinking feeling of disappointment in my gut that I had not honored this man or his day’s work.
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and what is God’s unto God. The truth is there are many Caesar’s in our lives. Things which we attach ourselves to in order to feel secure and which end up dominating our lives. Some would call these addictions. We are addicted, for example, to the need for security, to the need for approval, to material possessions such as furniture, houses, cars, having stuff, to relationships, to intimacy, to sex, to food, to work, to the stock market, to money itself, to… the list goes on. And where we give our money is often a sign of where our addictions lie.
It is stewardship season in the church, which can feel like the never ending MPR membership drive. And it is like this in a way, but it is also more than that. It is a chance to enter into the spiritual practice of discerning how it is we want to be good stewards of our resources, of our money. In discerning where our attachments lie and where we are willing to let go. In discerning what is ours and what belongs to God. In the stewardship season we are called to the daunting task of taking account of where our money and time and talents go.
As Gerald May writes in his book Addiction and Grace, “‘In God We Trust’ may be inscribed on American money, but the money itself usually feels more trustworthy. Few if any of us,” he says, “are able to follow Jesus’ call for trust completely.” We like the Pharisees would love for Jesus to tell us how much to pledge this year to the church and we humans have done a funny thing by coming up with the notion of tithing. Where does 10% come from anyway? It sure doesn’t sound like Jesus is saying in the passage today “give 10% to me and the rest you can give to the government.” This isn’t a passage about tithing. This isn’t a passage on separation of church and state either. It is a passage about the state of our financial commitments and the commitments of our lives. For what does belong to God and what belongs to us?
In the evening when I got back to Bangkok and was packing my bags I picked up a pair of pants and checked the pockets before I folded them. In them was a wad of something that I pulled out and it turned out to be 900 baht. More than enough to have paid the tax at the airport and for dinner that night. And oh how I wished I have given the tuk-tuk driver all that I had.
We clench onto things like our lives depend on it. And yet we have enough and more than enough. The good news, though, is that the Pharisees were right on one thing. God shows no partiality to people. Whether we give a little or a lot and no matter the motivations for giving, God loves us all the same. And thank God for that. May also says in his book while we might not be able to completely open our hand and empty it, we can choose to loosen our grip even just a little bit.
In the meantime we are left with the impossible question the gospel so abruptly ends in today. What is Caesar’s, what is ours, what is God’s? Amen.