Sermon preached on Sunday, October 16, 2011, by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate.
Giving to God
(RCL Proper 24A2 Matthew 22.15–22)
This morning’s gospel reading contains a phrase that almost everyone, Christian or not, recognises: the phrase is, in the older translation, which I can’t help using, Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. It’s so well known, that we might be tempted to think we’ve learned all there is to learn from it. But as I read it through, I realised that I’ve really only thought it through about half-way, and perhaps I’m being presumptuous in even thinking that, so let me share my thinking with you in case any of you are in the same position.
Context is always crucial, so let me remind you that the incident in which Jesus says this is an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, who hated Him and wanted to get Him into trouble. They thought they could do it with a question about whether it was right to pay this particular tax. The question wasn’t about whether the economy will do better if we raise taxes or lower them, but whether it should be paid at all, regardless of what the government said. Jesus’s answer was likely to get Him into trouble, first because devout Jews hated this tax worse than other taxes, and we know that there was a crowd of Jews watching, and second because the Pharisees had made sure there were also some government types present, the ‘Herodians’ of v 16. One of these two groups was almost certain to resent Jesus’s answer.
The Jews hated this tax because it didn’t just demand a certain amount of money; it demanded it in the form of a Roman coin called a denarius. And Roman money had the Emperor’s face on it, and for Jews the second commandment didn’t just prohibit images for use in worship, it prohibited images for any purpose whatever. So having to pay the tax with this coin added spiritual insult to financial injury.
Jesus’s answer to the question goes right to the heart of the matter, and as far as we know doesn’t get Him in trouble with either the devout Jews or the government. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Look at the coin, he says, it’s got the Emperor’s name and picture on it; that means it’s his. If he wants it back, you must give it back. End of story: when they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The Pharisees paid no more attention because they failed to get Jesus in trouble. But we should pay more attention, because Jesus’s answer is not a way of not getting into trouble, but like all Jesus’s words, profound spiritual truth.
So first we note that while Caesar’s name is no longer on anyone’s money, unless you’re an investor in rare coins, the name of the owner still is: Federal Reserve of the United States of America, it says on all the bills in my wallet. It belongs to the Federal Reserve, any time they ask for any of it back, Jesus says, the only right thing to do is to give it to them. So Christians pay their taxes. We pay all our debts, even if there is no debt collector on our heels. It’s the obvious lesson, and I don’t think I need to dwell on it.
What I want to say more about is the next bit, render to God the things that are God’s. It’s easy to assume that it’s just a nice thought, a rhetorical flourish that makes the statement memorable, but without the same practical application. But as I thought about that more, it seemed to me that I hadn’t thought it through very clearly. Partly it’s because of the context: Jesus has just talked about money and whose name is on it, and most of us don’t think of anything as having God’s name on it, or as belonging to God in that simple a way. But the Bible says a lot about what belongs to God, and what He asks us to do with it, and what it says has practical consequences for those of us who want to obey God that are perhaps even more important than the consequences of the duty to pay our debts.
The Bible even tells us that God’s nature, His image in one sense if not quite the same sense as the Emperor’s image on the coin, is on what He owns. In the letter to the Romans in the New Testament, the Bible tells us that Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. God’s signature is on what He creates, you could say, like an artist’s is. When we look at the world around us we see God’s power at work, and that’s His signature, His inscription, His image on His creation. All the wonderful things that make this such a great world to live in, that make living such fun for those who have access to them, grain to make food and clothing and wood and stone to build warm houses, people to play with and to talk to and to love, interesting things to learn, beautiful things to look at, all these are God’s, and Jesus is telling us to give those things back to God when He asks for them, just as we give the state back its money when it tells us to.
Money is just a means of setting a value on things, a measurement of value. It enables us to measure out amounts of value, whether for paying taxes or paying for college or going to the movies. But money itself is not the thing of value, it just stands temporarily for the value things have. Sooner or later we turn it in for the things that really do have value, like food and clothing and shelter and books and music and art and a week at the beach.
The money, the measuring tool, belongs to the government. The things of value, the wealth, the food and clothing and shelter and books and music and art and so on, those things belong not to the government but God. ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool… all these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine,’ says the Lord in Isaiah 66. ‘Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine… the world and all that is in it is mine,’ says the Lord in Psalm 50. When He tells us, as He does in Scripture, to use some of that wealth to preach the good news of salvation in Christ to those who don’t know Him, or to feed the poor, to heal the sick, to shelter the homeless, to comfort the sorrowful, the man or woman of integrity tries not to argue, tries not to say ‘after I’ve finished with it’, or ‘here’s some of it, that’ll have to be enough’. We try to say ‘Here You are Lord, thanks for letting me use it.’
But it is tempting to say something else. If the government didn’t set a date like April 15th and say ‘pay by then or we’re coming to git yer’, our army would still be fighting with muskets and there still wouldn’t be a paved highway from here to New York. Not because we’d refuse to give, but because we’d say ‘not now, too many other bills, we’ll send something after we’ve made our next mortgage payment, really.’
We get into trouble pretty quickly when we do that with Caesar, but we find it easier to do where God’s commandments are concerned. Because God doesn’t set a date and say ‘OK, my work is not getting done, give a tithe to the church by the first Sunday of Advent or I’m coming to git yer.’ He leaves it up to our sense of honor as men and women of integrity to give Him what is His when He asks for it. But unfortunately what He hears too often is ‘not now, too many other bills, we’ll send something after we’ve made our next mortgage payment, really.’ And so the gospel isn’t proclaimed with power, the poor go without, the homeless go without.
The Bible says that God asks us to use ten per cent of His stuff for His work rather than our own needs. Opportunities to give to God what belongs to God are all around us. Every week we read about something in the paper, or something arrives in our mailbox, reminding us of some need in God’s work, whether it’s help for hurricane victims or for missionary work overseas or for the work of this church. That’s God saying, render what’s Mine to Me for this. It’s not a begging letter, it’s the owner of the wealth reminding us of the conditions under which He lets us use the rest of it. Render to God the things that are God’s. Every good thing we have is His, we are simply His trustees. And we’re the best paid trustees that ever were: 90% of the Trust is ours to do what we want with, He asks for only a mere 10% to go to His other beneficiaries. If we want to follow the way of God in accordance with the truth, we’ll give God His cheerfully and thankfully. Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.