Taxes, Money and Giving: October 21, 2017

October 22, 2017

Year A Pentecost 20                                                         


            I have never liked talking about money.  I know very few clergy who do, but there are some who are better than others. I am not one of them.  This is why I don’t talk about pledging very often. Last week was our Celebration Sunday, which is when we celebrate what God has given us by giving back. To put it more bluntly, it is when we ask people to turn in their pledges.  It seems that I talked about it so little, some people had no idea what was going on.  This was a lesson for me.  It was more of a reminder, because I know better.  First of all, preaching about money and giving is a good and necessary thing.  It is a huge part of life.  It is what God asks of us.  God asks us to be joyful givers.  Jesus talked more about money than he did about the poor or loving your neighbor. So I know that I need to talk about money. But then I thought, oh well, celebration Sunday was last Sunday, I can talk about it next year. Then I saw the Gospel for today.  Taxes, money, giving.  This is proof that God has a sense of humor.

            It is a clear from the very first verse of this passage what is going on.  “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.”  Over the last few weeks, we have heard several parables that Jesus shared.  In most of these parables, the Pharisees were not portrayed well.  They came across as hypocritical, narrow minded and just plain wrong.  The Pharisees could not let these teachings continue, so they came up with a plan.  They devised the perfect question to entrap Jesus and then recruited Herodians to be with them when they asked the question. 

While we do not know a lot about the Herodians, we know that they were associated with King Herod.  They were Jewish, but were perceived to be closely allied with the Romans who had appointed Herod to be the king of the Jews.  This was especially offensive to most Jews because only God could appoint a king of the Jewish people.  The Pharisees and the Herodians did not usually get along. Thus to have these two groups working together implied that Jesus had upset not just the Pharisees and Chief Priests, but the Roman leadership as well.

            In this nation, we are divided on taxes.  How much should they be? Where should the income from the taxes go? In Jesus time, the Jewish people were extremely burdened by taxes.  Scholars estimate that there were 3-4 different taxes and most of the income from those taxes went to the Romans.  The Jewish tax money was helping pay for their imprisonment. I think we can all agree that would not be something we would support in this country.  The question was, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus answered the question by saying that it was lawful to pay taxes to the Romans, he would have upset the Jews.  He would have lost many of his followers.  If he said that it was not lawful, he would have most likely been arrested by the Romans.  There was absolutely no good way to answer this question.   Jesus took another tactic.

            He told them, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  In asking for a coin, he was first of all admitting that he did not have any coins.  Someone from the group who was trying to trap him with this tricky question handed him a denarius.  A denarius is a Roman coin.  It would have had a picture of Caesar with the words, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus Pontifex Maximus.”  This coin had  an engraved image of a Roman god, an idol.  Just having this coin would have technically meant that any Jew holding it would be breaking the first two commandments. 

            In some ways, the question about whether it was ok for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman was a fair question.  Yet the fact that the Jews asking the questions were the ones holding the coin indicates their hypocrisy.  They were asking if it was ok for them to participate in a system that they were already participating in.  That is why Jesus called them hypocrites.  Jesus really did not like hypocrites.  Remember, Jesus did not have the coin.  He had to ask for it.

            When he had it, he asked them whose image was on the coin.   It was the Emperor’s image.  Jesus then provided his now famous answer, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words, if it has the emperor’s face on it, give it back to him.  A lot of people have used this response to help explain the divide between church and state or sacred and secular; as if Jesus was drawing a line between what was God’s and what was Caesar’s.  That was not the case.

            Jesus asked whose image is on the coin.  Whose image.  Think about the first chapter of Genesis. Genesis takes us through all of God’s creation.  After creating earth, water, plants, animals, God created male and female in his image.  We are made in the image of God.  Therefore when Jesus tells them to give the coin to Caesar because that is whose image is on the coin…well that is a very small thing compared to what and who bears the image to God.  We give coins to the leaders of this earth, but we give ourselves to God.  There is no divide between the sacred and the secular because every part of creation is sacred. 

            The reason talking about stewardship and pledges is difficult is not just because clergy don’t like to talk about money; it’s that talking about what stewardship really means is far too daunting.  Everything belongs to God.  We earn nothing because all we have is a gift from God.  That is a difficult thing to wrap your mind around especially when you have worked very hard for what you have.  But it also explains why giving of ourselves is part of what we do in church. 

In my last church, we had a very outgoing stewardship chair.  He had a deep southern accent and was a little pushy at times, but always charming.  He loved the church.  Once I saw him sidle up to someone in the hall before the service.  It was not someone I saw regularly, not someone I would have expected to pledge.  He put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “Dan, do we have your commitment.” Dan looked a little confused.  The stewardship chair stopped so Dan would have to look at him.  “Your commitment.  Are you committed to this church?” He was so earnest.  It even made me uncomfortable.  Yet it made me think of what it would be like to be cornered by Jesus.  What would it be like to have Jesus pull you aside, look into your eyes and say, “Do I have your commitment?”   That is what he asks each one of us every minute of every day.  Are we committed to him? Only you know that answer.