By the Reverend Dr. Warren Crews
Editor's note: Father Warren gave this sermon on October 18; we're just now getting it published. We're grateful for your patience!
Our gospel lesson contains a dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees about paying Roman taxes. It includes Jesus’ often quoted saying: “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. For two thousand years Christians have been debating what it means. Where do we place the dividing line? A rabbi once suggested to me an interesting new possibility that I want to share with you.
The Sadducees and Pharisees had been arguing with Jesus in the Temple after Jesus drove out the money-changers and animal sellers. At this moment, the Pharisees had teamed up with the Herodians, who normally were their enemies, because the Herodians cooperated with the Roman occupiers, whereas the Pharisees had as little to do with the Romans as possible. So, the question as to whether Jews should pay the Roman tax was a “gotcha question”. If Jesus said “yes, pay Roman taxes” then the Jewish nationalists would turn against him. If he said “no,” then the Roman authorities would arrest him. Jesus cleverly asks for a Roman coin. Immediately, they produced a silver coin, which would have had on it a likeness of Tiberius Caesar, the current Roman emperor, and the inscription that he was the son of the divine Augustus Caesar, as well as being a high priest of the Roman religion. Incidentally, this was the very coin that had to be changed for a Jewish coin in the outer courtyard of the Temple because it was deemed blasphemous to bring it into the inner courtyards of the Temple. Jesus looked at it, and asked whose face that was. When they replied that it was Caesar’s, he said simply that it obviously belonged to him, so give it to him. But, he added that everything that belongs to God should be given only to God.
So, what for us what does belong to “Caesar” (a metaphor for the secular world) and what does belong to God (everything spiritual and religious)? Both the Jewish and Christian scriptures are very clear: everything belongs to God first, last, and always. Civil government then is part of God’s plan for human society (including the taxes to support the government). The rabbi that I mentioned told me that the rabbis of Jesus’ time made the point that the reason that Jews refused to use coins in the Temple that had the emperor’s face on them was because he claimed to be a divine being. On the contrary, the rabbis were making the point that that is that is NOT where God has put God’s image, not on coins for sure. God in fact has put God’s image in every human being. So, my rabbi friend was suggesting that Jesus, after saying pay Caesar whatever bears Caesar’s image, probably gestured to his questioners and told them to give their coins to whomever bear God’s image. The questioners would have immediately recognized what Jesus was talking about everyone, Jews and Romans both.
OK, that is a powerful reminder to us also. We all bear the image of God—we were created with it. What is this image of God in all of us? Its very nature has been revealed to us when we were marked as Christ’s own in baptism, because Jesus Christ is God’s perfect image in the flesh. It tells us that all that we are belongs to God and that God requires of us that we be good stewards of what God has provided for us. For example, yes, we need to return a portion of our income to the Church for its work and, yes, we need to give the government a portion of our income for its work. Yet, we need to be reminded that even our taxes are God’s money. In fact, all of our money, our time, and our talents come from God. So, nothing ultimately is ours or Caesar’s or anyone else.
Now, it is not surprising that the Pharisees and Herodians were shocked at what Jesus said, and decided to leave him alone. To be reminded that all that we are and all that we do and all that we have belong to God is a radical message that they did not and we do not like to hear. We are so very much into what is mine is mine. Whatever we give away we want to have a say in it. We vote on taxes. We freely choose what we will give to the church and to charities. And, we think that what we retain for our own use is strictly ours. I know that many people are shocked about this theology of stewardship, because we hold individual property rights to be one of the foundational pieces of our society. To claim that everything belongs to God is truly counter-cultural.
Currently, we are awash in growing controversies about the boundaries between religion and government. Abortion, same-sex marriage, treatment of immigrants and racial minorities, and especially in this past week the importance or irrelevance of a Supreme Court nominee’s religion—all of these test what we understand to belong to Caesar and what belongs to God. The solutions to these issues will not come easily, but it is time for us to have intelligent and faith-filled conversations about them. We must do this if we truly are going to give to God what is God’s — namely our very selves. This involves our time, talent, and treasure. The key takeaway from today’s gospel lesson is that whatever we set aside for God’s work in any area of life is part of the gifts that God has given to us to use not only for our own benefit, but also for the common good. Right now, God’s work could well include your spending time, talent, and treasure supporting political candidates and policies that you believe are doing God’s will. That is also true of supporting the work of the Church. In a month’s time we will have a Celebration Sunday when we will be able to support God’s work being done right here at St. John’s in the coming year. How much anyone can give of these parts of our life will vary greatly according to his or her circumstances. But, the guiding principle for everyone is summed up in an offertory sentence that many of us grew up with: “All things come of thee, O Lord. And of thine own, have we given thee.” AMEN.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org