Saturday, October 18, 2014

Give to the Emperor, Give to God

Matthew 22:15-22

 Today’s gospel story is one more opportunity for the Jewish leaders to harass Jesus. This time it’s the Pharisees and the Herodians.
I think we all have a sense of who the Pharisees are. They are the canon lawyers of the faith; they know all the traditions, all the interpretations of scripture, and can be counted on to provide rulings for new situations. If cell phones were introduced into their world, they would be able to tell us how and when they should be used, and when to leave them home. The Pharisees have a reputation of wanting to preserve the present social order by caring more about the letter of the law than the spirit of the law.
The Herodians were a political or religious party that supported King Herod Antipas, who reigned because of his allegiance to Rome. To not support Rome would immediately bring the might of the Roman army upon the Jewish people, so it was expedient that they support Herod. Most of the people hated the Romans, however, and therefore they also hated the Herodians. The Herodians saw no conflict between the purity of the Jewish faith and the idol worship of Rome.
It is strange that these two groups so opposed to each other have united in the effort to get rid of Jesus. Yet, here they are, asking Jesus about the imperial tax. This tax supports the Roman presence in Jerusalem. It’s like paying the jailer to keep you in jail.
The Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” It’s a trap, of course. If Jesus says he supports paying the tax, then he favors the Herodians. If he says the tax is unlawful, then there is risk of all-out war, because the people will stop paying the tax, and Rome will not like that at all.
Jesus wisely sidesteps the trap. He asks to see a coin and asks whose image is on the coin. Of course, the image is that of Tiberius, the current emperor. Then Jesus answers the question by saying, “Give to the emperor that which is the emperor’s, and give to God that which is God’s.” This answer throws the question right back at the Pharisees and the Herodians, who walk away, stumped once again by Jesus.
What was Jesus really saying? Was he saying that it was right to pay taxes? Or was he saying to give everything to God? We still don’t know. Except, we do know that everything we have comes from God. There is a Native American saying: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We are borrowing it from our children.” We do not own anything. It all belongs to God, who allows us to use it.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield has been on TV recently promoting his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. While on the International Space Station, he took about 45,000 photos of the earth. He has edited them down to fit in a fabulous new book. Seeing the earth from outer space changed his perspective on life on earth, he says. His photos stand as a reminder of both the magnificence and fragility of life on our planet. Hadfield says, “To have the world on one side, like this huge kaleidoscope, and then the bottomlessness of the Universe right there beside you, [makes you realize] you’re not on the world looking at it. You’re in the Universe with the world.” It’s all about our perspective. The earth is the Lord’s, and God shares it with us.
Since Jesus was talking about money, and this is pledge season, let’s talk about money. We are tempted to believe that we have what we have because of our own hard work. But the origin of all that we have is God and God’s generosity to us.
The way we think about money reflects our relationship with God. At the council meeting, we discussed this passage as part of our opening devotions. The question was raised if we should calculate the amount we give to God on our net – after-tax – income, or on our gross income.
If everything we have belongs to God, why would we not calculate our own giving on everything God has given us, in other words, on our gross income? Giving generously to the church allows us to give back to God almost as generously as God gives to us.
… On American coins are images of dead presidents and some words. There is the value of the coin or paper money, serial numbers, other images, and a motto. What is the motto? …  In God we trust. … The question I have for you is: Do we really trust God with our money?  If we really trust God, we will have no problem giving it away, because we trust that God will make sure we have what we need and more.
The Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus a question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Their assumption was that people give a tithe to God and much more with all the special offerings. People pretty much had no choice but to give these offerings, because everybody knew everybody else’s business. The Pharisees and Herodians are really wondering, “If they pay the taxes, will there be enough left to be able to afford the basics, food, clothing, sandals?” For many people, the answer was, “Barely.”  
For us today it’s the opposite. We begin by assuming that we must pay our taxes, federal, state, sales, transportation, liquor, hotel. We have no choice but to pay these taxes. We benefit from them, of course, with roads and schools and police and fire protection, Medicare, CDC, clean water, trash disposal, military, and so forth.
By the time we pay these taxes, for many folks there is not a lot left for food, clothing, housing, transportation, communication, and medical care. Can we afford to go to college, many young people ask. How, then, can we afford to give anything to God?
There are some folks here who give significant amounts to Hope. There are many here who give generously, based on their own financial situations, though those amounts are not significant compared to others. And there are folks here who give a few dollars, just to give something.
When we give to God what is left after the bills and taxes and living expenses are paid, we are saying that we don’t really trust God. Our relationship with money should reflect our relationship with God, putting God first and money second. But it is usually the other way around. Our relationship with God reflects our relationship with money. We put the money first and God second. God wants us to put God first, and to consider how we are using the money God has given us.
So, here’s what I want you to do. I had the ushers hand out some cross stickers. I’d like you to put the stickers on your credit cards, so that every time you use them, you are reminded that everything you have comes from God.
Let the crosses on your cards be a reminder to give thanks for what the taxes provide for us, and give thanks that you can afford to pay those taxes.
Let the crosses on your cards remind you to be as generous with what you have as God is. Never forget that you cannot possibly out-give God.
Turn in your commitment cards, and consider them a promise to support Hope and the ministries we do here. If things in your life change, and you need to reduce or raise your giving amount, that’s ok. The amounts on the commitment cards allow us to produce a ministry spending plan, telling us how much we can pay staff, how much utilities will cost, how much paper and copier costs will be, and so forth. The commitment cards also tell us how much we can give away.

Please pray with me. Giving, generous God, you give us more than we need. Help us to share what we have with others, and learn to truly trust you. Amen