St. Matthew 22.15-22
In today’s Gospel reading we join a story already in progress. Jesus has entered the Holy City, Jerusalem, mounted on a donkey, while the crowds have spread palm branches before him and called out, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And almost immediately Jesus goes up on Holy Mount Zion and there in the Temple throws a divine temper tantrum over all the buying and selling going on in that place. And now, in this morning’s installment, after a night’s rest in Bethany, Jesus is back in the Temple, teaching in parables, in parables custom-designed to irritate the living hell out of the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. And now at this very moment, the students of the Pharisees have come to Jesus to try to trap him one way or another. “So, Jesus, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” If Jesus says, “Yes,” he will be discrediting himself with his own people who loathe Caesar, the Roman occupation forces, and everything else Rome stands for. If, on the other hand, Jesus answers, “No, it is not right to pay taxes to the Emperor,” Jesus will have proven himself to be an insurrectionist and will be liable to arrest and prosecution for treason against Rome.
So, Jesus asks these students of the Pharisees to show him the coin used to pay the tax, and one of them obligingly fishes the coin from his pocket. “Why, look here,” exclaims Jesus, “the image of Caesar! And look what it says on the coin! ‘Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.’ Pretty idolatrous! But you who know the ins and outs of religious law would never do anything so hypocritical as to carry around with you something with a graven image, or something with so blasphemous a phrase on it. And of course, you would never carry it into the sacred precincts of the temple – so it must not belong to you. It must have slipped into your pocket by mistake! Since it has Caesar’s image and Caesar’s name on it, Caesar’s own I.D. – it must belong to Caesar. You’ll be wanting to give it back, right? And while you’re at it, give back to God all that bears God’s image.” Thus are the disciples of the Pharisees hoist by their own petard, undone themselves by their own scheme to undo Jesus.
But what about this business of giving back to God what is God’s, what bears the image and likeness of God? In Genesis One we hear, “Then God said, ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ . . . . So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God did God create them.” And again in Genesis 5, “When God created humankind, God made them in the image of God.” And once more in Genesis 9, “ . . . for in God’s own image God made humankind.” So, Jesus in effect is saying: “You are all imprinted with God’s image; God’s I.D. is stamped upon you. You are labeled, ‘property of God.’ Therefore – give back to God what is God’s, that is to say – everything of yourselves.”
Yeah. But what if we don’t want to? You know, we, unlike you clergy types live in the real world. And there are many demands put upon us – many demands placed upon our time and on our money. All this full-time God stuff – we’ll leave it to the professionals. And we do spend at least two, three, four hours a week at church, you know; that leaves us with only 166, 165, 164 hours a week as our own. And if my own particular needs aren’t being met, if I’m not becoming more self-actualized, those two hours at church are a real sacrifice. And if I give 3 or 4% of my take-home income to the church – that leaves me with only 96 or 97%; and if I were to tithe . . . I would be getting to keep only 90% of my paycheck for myself. Let other people take care of that. I have myself to worry about.
Therefore – give back to God what is God’s, that is to say – everything of yourselves.
But the whole of scripture testifies that we cannot say, “this small part belongs to God, so I will give it to God, but the rest belongs to me and I’m going to keep it.” Rather, everything we are and everything we have, all of it, belongs to God. We are only managers, stewards of the gifts God has given to us. And, I’m not sorry to say, managing the money that God entrusts to our use, does mean that some of it really must go to the government, must be “rendered unto Caesar.” Scripture and tradition both tell us that God uses government to stave off chaos, to keep us from harming one another, and to provide for the common good. In the first reading for today from Isaiah 45, we hear that God is using Cyrus, the pagan emperor of Persia, to accomplish God’s purposes. And St. Paul tells us in Romans 13 to be subject to the governing authorities; secular government is instituted by God to ensure good behavior. Therefore, says Paul, we are to pay taxes, because even the secular, pagan authorities are God’s servants. In both The Small and The Large Catechism we are taught that secular government is instituted in order that we take care of one another and so that good order be established and maintained. Though corrupted by sin – as secular government and all of us indeed are – still, the secular order, the government – along with every human being, regardless of creed, culture, or country – bears the image of God and belongs to God – so we are indeed giving back to God when we pay our taxes. In the final analysis, paying taxes is not our duty to country – paying taxes is our duty to God and the neighbor. And when those taxes are not being paid . . . . . well, I’ll let you figure out what happens to the common weal, what happens to the common good.
Now: I’ll freely admit that I don’t always exercise my stewardship with good cheer. I sometimes think about all the toys and things I could have, all the exciting things I could do, all the exotic places I could go with the money I give away. Giving 30% to the government, 15% or more to the church, and another five percent to various non-profits isn’t always easy. But then, you know, I think of the Spirited saints of my life who bore the image of God in their bodies. Some of you have heard me tell of the poor, working-class Swedes of my home parish who built with their paltry, blue-collar wages not only a church and rectory, but also an orphanage and a home for the elderly all the while contributing substatially to two colleges and a seminary, as well as being the mother-church of over 25 mission congregations in Northern Minnesota while also supporting missionaries to Tanzania and putting more than 20 of its sons and daughters (including me) through seminary, paying our tuition, room, and board. And too, I think of Spirit-filled saints here at St. Paul who have done and who continue to do likewise, giving and giving and giving it all away – the Larson sisters whose legacy recently paid up all of St. Paul’s debts as well as providing a healthy resource-generating remainder, and their only lament being that they don’t have even more to give away. And Dr. Edna Webster, raised at St. Paul, but no longer part of the community, even in her retirement giving St. Paul a healthy five-figure chunk of her income each Christmas and providing for St. Paul a six-figure gift in her trust. And thinking of these and other Spirit-filled saints, my own cold heart is melted; with the witness of their lives, like a sacrament, given to me, my old grasping self is once more put to death, and by the working of Spirit borne to me through them, a new self is made to arise, a new self, reborn in the image of Christ, belonging to Christ, made to give it all back to Christ without counting the cost. And the strangest thing happens in the process – joy descends upon me – joy from outside myself – joy I could never, ever have summoned up from within my self . . . . . and I begin to feel . . . light . . . . . so light . . . that I have all I can do . . . . . just to keep . . . . . . my feet . . . on the ground . . . just to keep . . . . myself . . . from floating . . . . clear . . . away . . . . . with joy.