By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew looks like a straightforward debate over taxes, a topic we’re hotly debating to this day. But there’s more going on here. An unnatural coalition of Jesus’ opponents has come together to bring Jesus down. I say “unnatural” because the Pharisees were a local religious sect, while the Herodians were political lackeys of the Romans coming from outside Judea. The Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t have anything in common, other than their antipathy to Jesus—but politics and religion make strange bedfellows!
The Pharisees and Herodians posed the perfect “gotcha” question: “Is it in accordance with God’s law to pay the Roman poll tax?” It was a trick question, you see, and there was no right answer. If Jesus answered, “No, it is not lawful to pay the Roman tax,” then the Romans would have arrested him for sedition. If he answered, “Yes, it is right to pay the tax,” then he would have alienated a large percentage of the Jewish people, who resented the heavy taxation of their Roman masters. Either way, it would be the end of the Jesus movement. Or so Jesus’ enemies hoped!
But Jesus saw through the trap, and he cleverly avoided it. He refused to give the yes-or-no answer that his opponents had anticipated. Instead, he asked them to show him a coin and then asked them whose image and inscription was found on the coin. They responded, “Caesar’s.” Chalk up one point to Jesus! Already the Pharisees had made a fatal error, for their delegation publicly displayed a Roman denarius while standing in the Temple precincts and by so doing had committed sacrilege. You see, one side of the denarius displayed the image of Tiberius Caesar, and it proclaimed him the son of a god, that god being Augustus Caesar. To display such a coin on the Temple grounds was tantamount to committing idolatry. So, Jesus scored a point against the Pharisees even before he gave his real response by showing that these particular Pharisees were idolatrous hypocrites!
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to respond to their question, although indirectly. He instructed them: “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We are told that Jesus’ opponents were amazed and walked away in defeat. What else could they do? How could they argue with what Jesus had said? For one thing, it probably wasn’t clear to them what Jesus even meant by this ambiguous quip. And frankly, I doubt they gave it much thought.
But as disciples of Jesus, we have to give it a great deal of thought. What does it really mean for us today to “give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought.
The first, espoused by John Calvin, focuses on the bit about Caesar. It interprets Jesus’ statement as granting divine sanction for the authority of the state. But I don’t think that Jesus was primarily concerned with the power of the state. It would be wholly inconsistent with his teaching about the Kingdom of God.
The Church Father Tertullian had a better explanation. He noted that the coin in question bore the image of Tiberius Caesar. As Jesus implied, that coin belonged to Caesar because it bore his image. But what then belongs to God? Tertullian’s answer was quite simple: that which bears the image of God. And the first chapter of Genesis tells us precisely what bears the image of God—we do!—human beings do! “In the image of God, he created them. Male and female he created them.” In this interpretation, Jesus conceded that the coin in question belonged to Caesar and should be given back to him. But he then reminded the Pharisees and Herodians that they must likewise give back to God that which belongs to God—their very selves! I like this second interpretation much better than the first.
But there is a third, and even better, answer to the question “What are the things that are God’s?” Surely, everything without exception belongs to God, since God created “all that is, seen and unseen.” In that case, the proper response for a disciple of Jesus would be, not just to give back to God his or her self, but everything that he or she possesses as well. In this interpretation, Jesus is calling for the complete and total dedication of one’s whole existence to God’s use. And one small part of this self-dedication to the Deity is good stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure.
Now, we are nearing the end of our annual pledge drive. And I could ask you for the umpteenth time to give some money to the church. But as badly as the parish needs your donations, it needs you even more!
Stewardship entails much more than filling out a pledge card, as important as that is. Having said that, I am, in fact, going to ask you to make a pledge as a token of your self-dedication to the Lord. I ask you to pledge your active presence here. Many of you are doing well in that regard. A few of you probably need to spend a bit more time at home! But I get the feeling that some of us here are on the verge of giving up and walking away. And if you are one of those, I say, “Please, don’t go!” This parish is small, too small, but it has a divine purpose and it needs you and your gifts.
Now, maybe you haven’t been asked recently to help out. Well, I’m asking now! If you aren’t on the rota, and think you might like to serve on a Sunday, let me know. You can read a lesson now and again or assist with the Prayers of the People or be a eucharistic minister. Or maybe you might like to accompany me when I visit a sick parishioner. And I bet the altar guild could use a new member or two. Or maybe you would like to write a story for the parish newsletter or join the choir. If so, Mathew Chacko is the man to see. Or just maybe you could sign up as a coffee hour host, so that the ladies who have been doing it for the last couple of years can have a break. And the list goes on! But even if you aren’t prepared to commit yourself to some such “churchy activity,” just pledge that you’ll do your very utmost to be here with us on Sundays. The upshot is that this church needs you to be here on a Sunday. I would go so far as to say that God needs you to be here on a Sunday. When you are gone, the Body of Christ in this place is diminished.
Today’s Gospel reading reminds us that we are expected to give all that we are and all that we have back to God for God’s use. Now, clearly this giving back is not confined to what we give to the Church. This giving back can, and should, take place in every aspect of our lives. But I’ve focused today on giving time and talent to the church for two unselfish reasons and one purely selfish reason. First, the two unselfish reasons:
- The folks who have been keeping things going around here are getting tired and need your help. That’s unselfish reason Number 1 for you to be here each Sunday.
- And believe it or not, this community of faith, despite its diminutive size, still has something to offer you on your journey to God. That’s unselfish reason Number 2 for you to be here.
Now for the purely selfish reason: I miss you when you’re not here! And recently, I have been missing more of you than usual. So for the love of your fellow parishioners, for the love of your own spiritual well-being, for the love of your associate priest, and for the love of God, I ask you to rededicate yourself to this parish and to its ongoing mission: to live and share the Good News of Jesus Christ. By doing this, you will be giving back to God the things that are God’s. And God will be well pleased!
© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.