It's Complicated (Looking Back)

Psalm 24: 1-5 and Matthew 22: 15-22

In the church, our least favorite topic to discuss is probably money. Part of that is cultural – we live in a culture where it is considered bad manners to discuss anything to do with money: how much we make, how much things cost, you know…. Jesus didn’t have a problem talking about money at all – he did it regularly. SIXTEEN of the 38 parables talk about money and possessions. More than a third -- almost half. There are 288 verses in the gospels – 1 out of 10 – that talk about money and possessions. Some of our difficulties talking about money lie in the past: our family history with money - and our own past practices. But we need to talk about money. What we have in the way of possessions and assets, and what we believe about what we have, influences our decisions about how we live and how we use what we have. And those things matter. Our resistance regarding money has a lot to do with the situation in this morning’s text: the question of ownership. Whose money and resources are they really?

Whose money is it?

Our story focuses on the question of ownership -- What belongs to Rome, the government, and what belongs to God? In this story, it isn’t an abstract philosophical question. It’s a loaded question and there isn’t a right answer. This is what scholars call a controversy text – a situation in which the Pharisees are attempting to trap Jesus into saying something that will get him in trouble.

To start with, there were two coins called a denarius. One was silver and had a depiction of Caesar enthroned as a god, “The Divine Caesar.” It was offensive to Jews, and many Jews wouldn’t carry that coin. So a second denarius was struck. It was bronze and had religious symbols on it, so faithful Jews could carry it and use it to pay the Temple tax. [i]

So here’s the problem: The Roman system of taxes was oppressive to the working class farmers from Galilee who comprised a large part of Jesus’ following. It was a heavy burden. On top of the Roman tribute, Herod Antipas was on a building campaign and required even more taxes to pay for his building program. Then there was the temple tax, and also tolls as well on major transportation routes. If you couldn’t pay your taxes, your land was taken. Many Galilean farmers were working as sharecroppers on the land that had been their families’ – and paying for that privilege as well. If Jesus said, “Oh yes, certainly you should pay the tax. We live under government” – he would have alienated his followers. If he said, “No, don’t pay those stinking Romans,” he would have been arrested right away for subverting the authority of the state.

So who’s money is it? Jesus says, “Show me a coin.” The coin they hand him is the silver one with Caesar enthroned as a god. OOPS! These are the religious leaders – they are not supposed to carry THAT coin. They have to own it. They are government collaborators, profiting from the oppressive Roman economy. He asks, “Who is on the coin? Whose is the inscription?” And the answer is Caesar’s. Here’s the other thing: any coin with a ruler’s image on it ultimately belonged to the ruler. So Jesus’ answer is simple truth: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” This coin belongs to Rome. Even has Caesar’s picture on it. Clearly Caesar can lawfully be given this coin. It is his anyway.[ii]

This text isn’t intended to offer up a simple dualism: give Caesar Caesar’s and give God God’s. It isn’t that simple. We can’t dismiss this story either as having to do with ancient Galilean politics or as setting up a dualistic world view.

Christian responsibility in a political world.

For one thing, this isn’t an ancient question. We too struggle with questions over taxes. We all have things that our taxes pay for that we would rather they didn’t. We’d feel a whole lot better about paying taxes if the money went where we would like it to go. Many of us struggle with paying taxes for war, capital punishment, and huge profits for government contractors. Toilet paper at $15 per roll doesn’t match our sense of what’s fair. Many of us struggle with paying taxes for luxury flights, lavish entertainments, and frequent vacations. Most of us would be happier if we paid our soldiers more and made fewer bombs to add to the nuclear stockpile. We struggle with how to live as ethical people with a sense of responsibility in a very political world. And it’s a world where the system isn’t always just, fair, or equitable.

We also know that how we use our resources has spiritual implications. We want to do good, to serve God and neighbor. Yesterday, while we were gathered here to pack UMCOR hygiene kits, we had another opportunity to do good with our resources. A woman came through our church door asking for help. She said that she had come up to Chicago after her daughter was in a car accident, and then her daughter had died. Cremating her daughter took all her money, and now she needed to go back to Mississippi. She was also on dialysis. Could we help her? Her bus ticket would be $98 to Memphis, and then she would need to make it home from there. There was no way to check her story. She was obviously struggling. So, with a sister in need, our team went into action. One of our folks called her a Lyft to get to the hospital for her last dialysis treatment here. One of our folks ordered her a bus ticket to pick up at will call, in her name. More of our folks contributed cash for her to eat on the way, and get home after she got to Memphis. And we collected food left over from PADS last week so she had something to eat immediately. We won’t know for sure if she gets home, or if her story was completely true. But we did help. We shared out of our abundance for a sister in need – an ethical use of resources.

We wrestle with the very same questions as in the text about how we support government, and how we use the resources that we have for God’s purposes.

III. There’s meaning in understanding that everything is God’s.

Jesus said something else in this controversy over possessions. He also said that we should give God what belongs to God. This is the part that we often forget – the psalmists’ perspective: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

Confirmation. In Confirmation, our youth are questioning what they’ve been taught, what they are hearing in the world around them, and trying to work out answers for themselves. Listening in, and sometimes guiding them in their thinking is a huge privilege. After reading the Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 we talked about what the stories were trying to say. “God made everything,” one student declared. “It doesn’t say when or how – those things aren’t the point. It matters more that God created the world, and the reasons are beauty and love.” But then what? What does that have to do with us? “It’s all God’s. We need to respect it.” And then there was an Aretha riff on R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I got out 10 apples, and re-created Gardiner Taylor’s sermon on 10 apples. And asked what that had to do with the creation story. And one of our youth said, “It’s all God’s. God shares with us. And we have to share back with God. Of course we do! That’s just barely anything compared to what God has given us!” Mic drop.

“It’s a Wonderful Life,” has a scene right in the middle of the chaos on that pivotal Christmas Eve. Harry Bailey had won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the bank examiners were expected to come inspect the books any minute, and George had admitted that the company is broke, knowing that he may be arrested. And Violet drops by. She needs some money to help her get to New York. George doesn’t say, “I can’t deal with this in the midst of what is a real crisis.” He listens to her. He gives her an envelope with a paper inside that we assume is a character reference for her to use in New York. Then he hands her some of his own money to help her get started. He calls it a loan, but we know better – and so does he. It’s one broke person giving another broke person a helping hand. He models sharing what you have with someone who doesn’t have it – and needs it. He is living the truth of the sign in his father’s office: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life,” is not a movie about religious faith. It isn’t “preachy.” But on Christmas Eve, when the whole town shows up to help and support George Bailey, we catch a glimpse of the legacy from living as a person of principle. George Bailey loves his neighbor. And his neighbors see that. When it seems that everything is going wrong, all of the right that has passed from him to his neighbor comes back to him. In the end, Mr. Potter’s taking of the Savings and Loan’s money doesn’t matter. The bank examiners’ inquiry becomes irrelevant. Caesar gets his due – but it is God’s priorities that win the day.

Whose money is it? There isn’t a simple answer. Coin of the realm belongs, ultimately, to the realm. But that isn’t a complete answer. We have the challenge of using whatever we have, including those coins, well… ways that matter. In ways that serve those in need, that work with God’s purposes. Because it’s all God’s – and what we give back is barely anything compared with what God gives us.

[i] The question about paying the tax was actually about a particular tax: the census tax that Rome imposed on Jerusalem when it became a Roman province in 6 AD. And that tax could only be paid in Roman coin. See NIB 420.

[ii] New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew. 419-21. And David Buttrick, Speaking Conflict: Stories of a Contraversial Jesus, 144-151.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash