Yr A ~ Pentecost 21 ~ Matthew 22:15-22
You know how lots of times I tell you about how scripture passages that appear to be straightforward are actually very tricky and need really careful unpacking to get to the deeper meaning? Well, today’s scripture is not one of them. There’s nothing tricky about it. And there’s nothing subtle about it either. Once we hear it there’s no mistaking what Jesus is saying to us. The only mystery is why do we have such a hard time following his teaching?
I haven’t done this in a while, and if you’re a visitor today I assure you that I don’t talk about this all the time, but today you get a sermon mostly about money. Did you know that Jesus taught more about money than any other subject? Twenty-seven of Jesus’ 43 parables – that’s 62% – have to do with money and possessions. Approximately one of every ten verses in the gospels deals with money. The whole bible has around 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 on faith, but more than 2000 on money. Then, as now, money was a huge faith issue.
So it’s not surprising that Jesus’ enemies choose to use the minefield of money to try to entrap Jesus into making a mistake so they can discredit him. A subtlety in the text that you may not have picked up is that Jesus’ testers in this tale are described as the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. In other words Jesus is facing off against agents of the church and agents of the state! They ineptly try to butter him up with false praise and then slyly ask him if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor.
If he answers yes then the religious accusers will jump on him for abandoning the purity of the religion and if he answers no the state accusers will jump on him for going against Caesar. Jesus will have none of that simplistic, dualistic, either/or nonsense, and gives them a fantastic and penetratingly deep answer.
Jesus asks them to toss him a coin. Looking at it he says, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (Matthew 22:20)
But the Greek word isn’t the word for ‘head’ it’s the word e-i-k-o-n – icon. An icon is something that represents something bigger. Another translation is ‘image’. Image is a powerful theological idea. We first encounter it in the book of Genesis when we’re told that humankind is created imago dei, in the image of God, as God’s icon.
So when you put that deeper meaning together you see that Jesus is actually asking a really profound question of us as he holds up that coin – and it isn’t really about Caesar at all. He’s basically asking “whose” you are.
Whose image? Whose image is imprinted upon your soul? Whose image does your life strive to resemble? Whose image is influencing your character, your actions, and your dreams?
Is it the image that’s printed on the coins? Because if you look at the state of the world it certainly feels most days like it’s money, or the frantic lust for money, that seems to be driving the bus.
Whose image? Whose likeness? Whose alikeness – as in who are you more alike? What does your life look like? If someone who didn’t know you well took a look at you, whose likeness would they see? Would it be more like Caesar’s or more like God’s?
I know, that’s not really fair – because when you look at someone all you can see is the tangible worldly stuff – the material stuff of money and possessions. You can’t see someone’s true likeness with the naked eye. The “God-stuff” is deeper.
And to be even fairer, Jesus doesn’t ask us to choose. Jesus doesn’t castigate people for having, needing, or spending money. He holds the coin, has us look carefully at it, and he asks us a key question: What is the rightful place of this coin in your life?
His entrappers wanted him to say that money is bad and not spiritual and they could catch him in the hypocrisy of thinking that religious people could somehow actually live apart from the realities of the world. We can’t. In John 17 Jesus says that we are to be in the world but not of the world. That’s a critical distinction. Yes, be in the world – work, earn, spend, acquire, possess, share – do all that stuff that is a necessary (and often very enjoyable) part of being human. Just don’t let it possess you.
“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” is the classic language. There is stuff in Caesar’s world that is “worldly”. That’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with money or possessions. They’re part of life. The question is about what place they hold in your life.
I recently heard something that stopped me in my tracks. Apparently there are waiting lists for storage units! We’re in great danger of having our possessions possess us!
But I really don’t want to get into that today. One of the big mistakes religion has made over the centuries is that we’ve spent so much energy worrying about the wrong things. We get a teaching like this from Jesus and we focus in on how money is good or bad and what we should do about it. But the bigger picture, the part we ought to be spending our time with, is the second part.
Matthew 22:21 – Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Ok, fair enough.
Now the second part: Render unto God what is God’s!
In other words, give Caesar his due. Pay what you need to pay, buy what you need to buy, do all that stuff as required. AND, render unto God what is God’s!
Ok, that begs the question. What is God’s? What is properly due God? What manner of things are we talking about when we say “give to God what is God’s?”
Well, everything is God’s, right? Sure, but that’s not really helpful. So let’s run the list. What is Jesus telling us to give to God?
Our praise, our worship, our awe, our humility, our devotion, our prayer, our openness, our passion, our love.
Ok, good list. What about the next level?
How about our compassion for others, our generosity of spirit, our gentleness, our conviction to follow, our ethics, our justice-seeking and justice-making. We should give all that to God too!
Ok, now we’re getting down to it. Anything else?
How about the three classic aspects of stewardship we always talk about? Aren’t we called to give God our time, our talent, and our treasure?
Isn’t it interesting that it isn’t until these three that our giving to God actually starts to feel like it “costs” us something? I don’t know about you, but for me, these days it feels like time is the most precious commodity on the planet. I don’t mind giving my talents for God’s kingdom – in fact, I kinda like doing that – but giving time is really hard. And then when we talk about giving treasure – money – it gets even harder!
Here’s a thought.
I can give time to God in prayer and presence, and I can give talent to God in being mindful of how and where I share my talents, but is it even possible to give your treasure, your money, to God?
I mean, you must know that old joke about three people comparing how much money they give in the name of their faith and one says “I draw a circle on the ground and throw the money up in the air and whatever lands outside the circle I give to God.”
The second says, “I do the same, except I give whatever lands inside the circle to God.”
The third says, “I do the same, except I throw the money up in the air and I figure whatever God needs God will keep!”
Giving to Caesar is compulsory, and simple! Giving to God is optional, and complicated – especially when it comes to money. God may not directly need it, but the stuff Caesar gets is pretty darn useful for churches!
So in the place of God we give to the church.
And right now I bet you’re starting to feel uncomfortable.
Talk of money in church always does that to people. Even in Jesus’ day, handling that coin was problematic on some levels. And what makes it extra uncomfortable at times like this is the fact that as your minister I’m the most expensive item in the budget. So “give to God” can sound suspiciously like “give to me!” Render unto Larry what is Larry’s!
Here’s our conundrum:
The things of God are not about money, but it takes money to facilitate our growing in the things of God.
But how shall we spend that money?
Earlier this year we celebrated the burning of the church mortgage. It was awesome! We are debt free now after living in its shadow for 20 years. You’d think, therefore, that this church would be rolling in dough now that we’re not paying down the debt anymore. Actually, that’s not the case. We’re running behind in our finances this year.
It’s not because people are giving less. In fact, offerings this year are on track or even slightly higher than last year. There’s no single explanation but one factor in the difference is expenses are higher. (No, I didn’t get a new Ferrari.)
What we did was expand our ministry and mission over the last couple of years. We realized that our staff hours were insufficient for the amount of work we were expecting of them. And we added our Children, Youth, and Young Family ministry person to lead some vital work.
In other words, we extended ourselves and invested in ministry and mission.
And quite frankly, that’s going to cost us more.
The challenge is that we don’t all have the same priorities or values about what’s important in church expenses. Some people like to pay down debt – some like to give toward things like building expansions or improvements – some like to repair big ticket items like air conditioners that died this year.
It’s harder to inspire people to fund day to day mission!
But that’s exactly what I’d like to do.
Our mission is very exciting!
Apart from the fine people we have leading our various ministries, I’d like to encourage you to do some pondering about why you come here.
What aspects of Faith United are most life-giving for you?
What features of our ministry and mission would you lament if we stopped doing them?
What things do we offer here that you are proud of and brag about to your friends?
Some of those things are directly provided by staff. Some are done by ministry volunteers (you) because staff are taking care of other things that free volunteers up for mission.
All of those things, on some level, require a physical plant – sure, it doesn’t have to be this building, we could operate out of a school, or a storefront, or the back of a van, or whatever – but this is the physical plant we have and it requires significant funding to keep it going.
In blunt terms, what do you value, and what’s it worth to you?
Up on the screen for the past while there’s been a graphic – a step chart – showing how many givers give at what level per week. Hopefully by now you’ve figured out around where on the chart you might be.
In case you’re wondering if I practice what I preach, with some trepidation I’ll tell you that my family is among the top 8 contributing families.
And I’ll also tell you that preparing this sermon convicted me to take my own advice and try to move at least one step up the chart. If you can manage a few more dollars a week you can take a step up, or two steps.
And because I’m going to do that I get to trot out my absolute favourite stewardship season joke of all time. “Friends, I’ve upped my givings – up yours!”
2 Corinthians 9:7 says:
Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
I hope that’s how you feel.
It’s hard to do a sermon like this and not make it a guilt trip. I’d love it if you can go away from this inspired to be a cheerful giver who can move a step or two up the chart.
And even more that that I hope that in all aspects of your stewardship you’ll “give ‘er!” Have you ever heard that phrase? When you’re about to do something that requires energy or passion or commitment or great effort someone might encourage you by saying, “Yeah, dude, give ‘er!”
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. But when it comes to God, and to church? Give ‘er!
When it comes to your time? Give ‘er!
When it comes to your talents, and gifts, and abilities? Give ‘er!
And when it comes to your treasure, your money? [everybody!] Give ‘er!
My prayer is that you won’t see church as another bill to pay – instead see it as a way to participate in God’s mission in this place.
And it would be really great if you could commit to joining PAR – the pre-authorized remittance program that automatically contributes the amount you commit to without having to fuss with remembering to do your envelopes each week.
Contributing to this church isn’t like paying a bill – it isn’t rendering unto Caesar.
It’s responding to God’s image in you.
It’s an act of faith, a tangible form of support for what we’re all about together, an acknowledgment that this aspect of your life has great value for you and that you yearn to have others feel God’s love too.
In short, giving is an act of loving God, loving others, and loving one another.
Knowing that makes me a cheerful giver!
I hope it does for you too.