Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Baton Rouge, LA
Reverend David Melville
Sunday, October 22, 2017
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 22: 15-22
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
Jesus’ interrogators had a new question for Jesus: “Do we pay taxes to Caesar?” That is the same as us asking today, October 22, 2017, “Do we pay taxes to the IRS?” Well “duh!” Try not paying. See how that works out for you. Most of us are not in the category of “too big to fail,” and most of us don’t receive bailouts when we fall behind.
Jesus knew that those standing in front of Him were up to no good, and – like high school students who run and snitch on someone who has said something bad about the school administration – the Pharisees wanted to gleefully tell the Roman authorities that Jesus had come out for stopping paying taxes to Caesar. After all, Jesus was talking about a new kingdom and a new way of thinking. Sometimes Jesus acted as if He were the new sheriff in town. It seemed as if Jesus were setting Himself up in opposition to the tax-supported authorities. But to the deep disappointment of Judas, Simon the Zealot and many others, He was not.
Like Jesus, I don’t want to grumble and gripe this morning about the amount of taxes we pay. We will always pay taxes; it is the cost of a free society. I’ve always suggested to my members: “Don’t worry about things you can’t control.” Of course as Americans, we can try to control taxes by our vote and by any sacrifices of time we are willing to make to help shape public policy, but in the end, we must obey the law. We must pay our taxes.
Like Jesus, though, I want to propose an additional angle about paying taxes: “Give to God what is God’s.” Debating and deciding that question should engage us our entire lives. It is a harder challenge than paying the IRS because we are not forced to give to God under penalty of law. We ought to want to give; we ought to be a cheerful giver.
One way to determine how to “give to God what is God’s” is to ask another question when it comes to our spending: “Where is God?” Do you see God in your spending? It is said, “The Devil is in the details.” Then where is God in the details? Where is God in our spending priorities and patterns? Do we see God in our checkbook and in our bank statements? Should not God permeate it all? I believe God should, and I believe we can ensure that God does.
As I have said many times before, if we treat our faith, our spirituality, our giving as a zero-sum game, God loses out. Most of us are overwhelmed with bills, and with constant demands on our time. We all wear many hats. If we parcel out our resources and our time to various entities, we quickly run out of both.
But God is not just another entity. Following God by following His Son, Jesus Christ, is not a zero-sum game. We don’t give to God instead of giving to something or someone else; our giving to God should control every aspect of our life. Giving to God gives us focus rather than frustration, and provides a guard against feeling what most of us have experienced at one time or another: futility. There is never enough time; there is never enough money. But there is always enough God.
I remember in college hearing for the first time pundits talk about “guns vs. butter” in a country’s economics. It is one way to characterize a nation’s spending … how much it spends on its military, and how much it spends on social needs. There is always a tension between the two.
But the “guns vs. butter” debate does not apply to our relationship with God. That debate lies within the realm of Caesar. In God’s economy, God’s likeness is on the coins of both guns and butter.
Where is God in war? Each side in the Civil War believed God was on its side. Today in the Middle East quagmire, each side believes it has God’s favor. Where is God in the number and nature of guns the Second Amendment allows us to possess? If we keep God out of the equation, we lose out as individuals and as a society.
Where is God in the estimated $9.1 billion that Americans will spend on candy, costumes, and decorations for Halloween this time around? Where else could that $9.1 billion be helpful? Where else could that $9.1 billion be God?
Figuring out and paying taxes is easier than figuring out and paying what we owe God. We may think that figuring out our taxes is hard, and paying our taxes is a burden, but it should pale in comparison to figuring out and paying our obligations to God.
And do you know another difference in paying taxes to Caesar and giving to God what is God’s? We can’t hire a third party to decide what we owe God. There is no H and R Block to advise us on giving to God. We must decide ourselves, and I believe Jesus would say we should give everything to God, as God has given us everything. It doesn’t mean that our time and resources disappear, or that they go down a rat hole. It means that we see God in everything we do and spend. Like the ancients, we have a man’s (and sometimes, rarely, a woman’s!) likeness on our coinage. But for the Christian, God’s likeness is on every coin.
With God’s coinage, we don’t fret as much about return on investment. But you ask, preacher, didn’t Jesus tell stories about the wealthy who entrusted their money to others in the owner’s absence, and who were very angry upon learning when they returned home that some had not cared sufficiently about investing and multiplying their money, and had been scared enough of risk that they literally buried their allotment? I suggest that Jesus was saying that God did not, and does not, want to be buried in the ground, out of sight and out of our lives. Follow the money!
With God’s coinage, we don’t divide our expenditures into “guns and butter,” because everything we spend and do should be for God’s glory. Does that sound too radical, or does that sound like something Jesus would say?
As with our taxes, a lot of us try to find loopholes in our giving to God. We debate the gross versus the net and wind up giving neither.
We use the “but I am only human” card; “Nobody’s perfect. Thanks be to God, I am forgiven.”
Sometimes we’re singing and bopping to the chirpy, bouncy song by Cindy Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” [Now I know what I’m going to be humming all afternoon!] Aren’t we supposed to enjoy life? What’s wrong with that? “Pastor, haven’t you seen the sketch of the laughing Jesus? Criticize Halloween? Party pooper! Does God have to be in everything?” Yes, if we want to have enough.
As children, and even as adults, we cry, “Well others are not paying their fair share, so why should I? Others are spending selfishly and getting away with it, so why can’t I?” I remember one time pulling into the terminal area at the New Orleans airport to pick up someone. Of course, the passenger I was meeting had not arrived yet, so I tried to just wait in a space, lying low and acting like I could see them coming. I put on my flashers. A couple of cars in front of me were doing the same maneuver, or so it seemed. An ever-present security guard shooed me along, and I protested, probably in a whiny, high-pitched voice, “Well they’re doing it; why can’t I? Make them move too.” The security guard retorted, “What are you, in kindergarten?” It was then that I realized how foolish and childish I had sounded. Just because others were violating the parking rules did not give me the right to. Just because others are spending foolishly and giving to everything but God does not give us the license to do so.
Remember how the rich young ruler ticked off all the things he was doing for and giving to God, but Jesus basically told him, “Give more; give it all.” And Jesus didn’t say give so much to the synagogue building fund, and so much to the retired rabbis’ pension fund, or to the Passover Feast food and decorations budget. Jesus didn’t say give anything to Himself; no, Jesus said to give it all to the orphans and the widows and to the poor. Maybe He said this because Jesus knew that the synagogue, the retired rabbis, and the Passover Feast would be just fine and taken care of as they had always been. He wasn’t so sure about the orphans and the widows and the poor.
Remember how Herod himself – Herod, who didn’t have the best reputation in the Gospels – Herod himself had built the second Temple after the first one – the one built by Solomon—had been destroyed. The new Temple was even larger and grander than before. But for some reason, there were orphans and dependent widows and poor people outside the Temple walls during Herod’s reign. Somebody wasn’t completely giving to God what was God’s.
Since the days of Moses, no priests had died of starvation; the priests had an uncanny way of survival. Jesus could see firsthand that those attending religious services were doing alright, as are we in this room this morning. But that wasn’t the case for everyone outside on the street. Hence, Jesus’ admonishment to the rich young ruler, “Give God what is God’s; give it all.” Because God was within those people on the streets.
I guess what Jesus is teaching is that in Caesar’s world people had to deal with such things as taxes, percentages, weights and measures and limits. But in God’s world, we don’t get bogged down in analysis and projections and limits, for we would be worrying about the wrong things. Just as God gave it all for us in the person of His Son, we must give our all. Only then will we find where God is. When do we find God? When do we give God what is God’s? When we give it all.
Featured Image Source: By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24821148