24The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
2for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
3Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
5They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
6Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah
7Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up,
O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.
8Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.
9Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
10Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory. Selah
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying,Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said,Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them,Whose head is this, and whose title?21They answered, The emperor's.Then he said to them,Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
In our present political climate here in the United States, I don't know if there's a more charged topic than taxes. And in our present economic climate, I don't know that there's a more pressing question than the one about what is the best use of the limited resources any of us have. And to be honest, there's at least part of me that would have preferred for Jesus to just come out and say that paying taxes was wrong… I mean in our context where for better or worse the idea of the separation of church and state is one of the cultural foundations of our society, wouldn't it be nice for our pocketbooks to have some sort of religious grounds that would allow us to keep more of what we earn… to not have to give the 25% or whatever you happen to be paying to Uncle Sam?
But then I guess on the other hand, if Jesus did answer the
Pharisee's question that way, things might have been pretty
different than they ended up. The question the Pharisees asked Jesus
was intended to put him between a rock and a hard place… they
may have started off with words of flattery saying
we know that
you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with
truth… but the question they asked about paying taxes to
the emperor was a trap… If Jesus said yes, pay taxes…
he would have lost all credibility with the Jews because the
majority of the Jews in Jerusalem at that time thought that the tax
was both oppressive and blasphemous. It was oppressive because this
particular tax was used to support the Roman army, which was the
occupying social, economic and military power in ancient
Palestine… and it was blasphemous because the coin that was
required to be used to pay the tax was stamped with the image of
Caesar and it sported the inscription
Son of the divine
Augustus. So it was offensive to people who were trying to
follow the commandments to not have other gods and to not make
graven images… which by the way are the first two of the ten
Devout Jews were so against the coin itself that they wouldn't use
it at all if they didn't absolutely have to… remember when
Jesus cleansed the temple… part of the reason the money
changers were there in the first place was to have these particular
coins accessible so that Jewish people who otherwise wouldn't use
the coins could pay the tax… So the rock was losing
credibility with the Jewish people if he says
yes, pay the
tax. And then the hard place was if he says
No, don't pay
the tax. Although in the context of 21st century life in the
United States, it may have given us religious grounds to pad our
pocketbooks, in 1st century Palestine it would have immediately put
him in the position of actively antagonizing Rome… This was
way before the idea of separation of church and state and it was way
before the idea of freedom of speech… antagonizing Rome
wouldn't be a good thing to do until you had finished whatever work
you hoped to accomplish in your life, if you know what I
mean… and apparently Jesus wasn't ready to die quite
yet… It was a question that didn't have a good answer. It
was intended to put him on the spot… between a rock and a
But Jesus didn't square off against the rock and he didn't take on
the hard place… rather as he so often does, he reframed the
discussion. They asked him about taxes; and he challenged them
about their vision of God…
whose image is on the coin and
who's inscription? Jesus already knew the answer to his own
question but when his challengers said it was Caesar's image and
inscription Jesus tossed the question back into their lap by telling
them to give to the emperor what is the emperor's and give to God
what is God's.
Of course the situation was different then and now… how things change… our issues aren't issues of blasphemy and sedition… and our issues probably aren't about taxes either… more or less we've come to terms with the idea that taxes are one of two things that are certain in life… but still we all know what it's like to be faced with rocks and hard places… especially when it comes to money and time… which are two of the resources we've been given that always seem the most limited…
I remember when I was around 8 years old and I was at Pike Place market in Seattle — it's the famous one where they throw fish… and there are lots of shops and street performers and always all sorts of commotion and things going on. I was there with my parents and grandparents. My siblings and I were each given five dollars to get some sort of toy or souvenir or snack… we were told that we could spend it on whatever we wanted… the money was ours to do with as we pleased. I remember it felt like a lot of money… and I was acutely aware that I could do anything I wanted with it… and I carried it around in my pocket for what might have been as long as ten minutes before someone came up to me with a cup in his hand and he said I'm hungry can you help me out… I took the five dollar bill out of my pocket, put it into his cup and he disappeared into the crowd… I gave it to him… Needless to say, at least a couple of the adults weren't happy when they found out what I did with the money; and truth be told, I didn't really know what I was doing… five bucks felt like a lot of money but it didn't mean anything. I hadn't earned it, I didn't have any responsibility, there were no kids to take care of, no mortgage, no student loans to pay back… I wasn't worried about the economy… I had seen my dad go to the ATM so I knew how easy it was to get more money… and it's probably not the way I thought about it then, but this man represented a need right in front of me that I actually had the power to address… and so I did.
That was almost three decades ago, and oh, how things change… now that I do have a mortgage and kids and loans and more responsibility than I ever could have imagined that day… most of the time when someone on the street asks for money, I tell them that I wish I could help them out. And it's true I do… I still have that same desire to help, to make a positive tangible difference… I think most of us do, whether it's the person in front of us or disaster victims half way around the world, whether it's inner city poverty or the famine in Somalia; there are a huge number of needs… there are organizations and causes that are worth supporting and that we authentically want to support… and there we have a rock because that need isn't going away unless it's addressed and even then it may not… and the hard place comes because we also have to think about what the cost is to ourselves, what we want, what the people who depend on us need, what our plans are for the future… It's no simple matter to give away time and to give away money…
And it seems like the passage we're looking at from Matthew's gospel boils down to the same thing… It's a question of what are we seeking to do? who do we serve? what's important to us?
When Jesus said give to God what is God's, All of a sudden the
discussion had almost nothing to do with the politics of
taxes… the allusions to scripture and the magnitude of the
call of Christ came flooding in… there's Genesis chapter 1
where God creates humanity in God's own image… there's
Jeremiah chapter 31 where God speaks of the new covenant that will
be established by saying,
I will put my law within them, and I
will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they
shall be my people. Caesar's image and inscription may be on
the coin and may be in a whole lot of other places… but God's
inscription is on the hearts of God's people, and God's image is
carried by humanity…
This passage may have started out about taxes but pretty quickly, it
ended up about life. It may have started out with a question
designed to put Jesus on the spot, but it ends up with a question
that's asked of everyone who hears it. It's the question at the
core of the practice of stewardship not only as it pertains to money
but as it pertains to time and energy and everything else that we've
been given too… And the question is: What belongs to God?
And when we're faced with the question of what exactly belongs to
God we get Psalm 24, the psalm we read earlier in worship
The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the
world, and those who live in it. When we speak theologically and
theoretically, the answer is unequivocal… everything…
everything belongs to God.
And that's great in theory but sometimes it's awfully tough to know what that means in practice… What am I called to give back to God? What are we as a church called to give back to God? What can we possibly give back that's meaningful? How do we do that? What's going to be our response to the amazing grace that's already been given?
I think it's pretty ironic that Jesus mentions the inscription on
the coin… have you ever looked at our coins… no matter
what denomination of coins or currency is in your pocket, every
single piece of money minted in the United States is inscribed with
In God we trust. And yet there are a lot of
things that have a legitimate claim on us… in some ways it
seems like everything else owns us… our bills, our jobs, our
families, our stuff… and fundamentally this passage points to
the truth of the matter. We belong to God. We're here by God's
grace and every day we live and breathe is an expression of that
grace. We don't belong to anything or anyone else… we don't
even belong wholly to ourselves. We belong to God… in what
we do, all our gifts and talents, all our time all our stuff…
in all that we are, in life and in death we belong to God.
Some people hear that as a burden… but to my mind it has to be good news because we know that God will not forsake us… we've seen it in the rest of the story… even through the torture of crucifixion and death on a cross Jesus didn't give up, which means he didn't give up on us. We were created in the image of God… in Christ we are being recreated, renewed and restored. And this stewardship season, which begins with the instruction to Give back to God that which is God's, the question I want for us to focus on isn't what do I have to give back in order to be faithful, but rather how will I participate in Christ's mission to the world with everything that I am… because that's what we have been given… everything.
Gracious God we thank you for the multitude of gifts that you have given us: everything from life itself to the beauty of today to friends and family and those we've loved throughout the years. Help us to recognize your goodness, help us to understand how we might be able to live your vision and participate in Christ's mission. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Dan Holland at the United Parish of Bowie on October 9, 2011.
© 2011 Daniel Holland