Do you ever find yourself wishing you had the perfect comeback in an awkward social situation? Jesus has this gift. In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem. This text comes soon after the one we heard a few weeks ago, when Jesus’ authority was questioned by the priests and the elders of the people. Threatened by Jesus’ popularity and the scene he made overturning tables in the temple, these priests and elders tried to silence him through intimidation. No luck. Now it is the Pharisees and the Herodians who are after Jesus, with a new strategy: flattery and a trick question.
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. (How’s that for buttering someone up?) Tell us, then, what you think, Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Everyone present that day knows that there is no good answer to this question. If Jesus declares that faithful Jews do not need to pay taxes to the emperor, he will be arrested by Roman soldiers. But if Jesus declares that these taxes should be paid, he will lose credibility amongst his people. Roman taxes were a true hardship to pay, and a source of bitterness among the native population.
Tell us, then, what you think: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Jesus has been set up, but he is quick on his feet. First he asks a question: Whose head and title are on your coin? The answer, of course, is Caesar’s. Then Jesus gives a neat and memorable answer: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Or, as you may have heard instead, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.
I don’t know about you, but I welcome Jesus’ wisdom on this particular subject of what we owe to whom. In fact, just reading the scripture for this week made me laugh with recognition. Over the past week or two I have been wrestling over my own financial loyalties while budgeting for next year. I’ve been working on a spreadsheet filled with estimates of my family’s income, our taxes, our pledges to two different churches, daycare for two children, medical bills, groceries, car insurance and repair, and a leftover bin for “everything else.” I do intend to pay my taxes, but almost everything else is up in the air: Can I justify the premium we pay for great childcare? Do we really need home internet service and cable and smartphones? How much can I realistically give to the church, and what am I willing to sacrifice to make it happen? Underneath these questions lie another: If this is challenging for us, with two solid incomes, how do other people make it work – and what should we be doing to make it easier for them?
Deciding what to do with what we have isn’t simple for anyone, whatever our particular situation, whether we have considerable means or are treading very close to the wire; there are just too many responsibilities to fulfill, and too many possibilities to consider. It’s not just money, either: we have to decide how to spend our time and our energy, too. There are so many tasks and causes, far too many for us to meet all the demands that come our way. What is more worthy: time with family and friends, or work; volunteering or blessed rest?
How do we decide what to do with our precious resources; our money, our time, our energy? It sometimes feels like we’re being asked a trick question.
I am glad Jesus has something to offer us: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” I’m so glad to receive his advice… but here’s the problem: I don’t know what it means.
I do have some ideas about what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t care what we do with our money. You’ve heard me say this before, and you’ll hear me say this again: Jesus cares a lot about what we do with our money, so much so that it makes most Christians very uncomfortable. He talks often about the dangers of wealth and the cruelty of poverty. He encourages a young man of wealth to give away everything he has to the poor. So it’s not as if we could just decide that faith should have no bearing on our financial decisions.
I’m also fairly certain that Jesus’ instruction to “Render unto Caesar” doesn’t mean that Jesus thinks that we should give total and unquestioning obedience to our governments. He wasn’t interested in armed rebellion; he didn’t try to start a war. But at this very moment in the text, as he is teaching in Jerusalem, he is putting his life on the line by speaking hard truths to Romans and Jews alike. He was appalled by the practices of Rome, and the shortcomings of followers of his own faith. He thought that what was wrong should be addressed, and changed, through peaceful but radically countercultural action.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Sadly, this is not a tidy equation we can apply to our paychecks, or our planners. Rather, like most of Jesus’ teachings, it is grist for the mill: something to disrupt our habits and guide our discernment. Be careful, Jesus warns us, of who and what you give yourself to. There should be no forgone conclusions about this; it will take work. And be sure to ask yourself, as you decide, what belongs to God. Remember: you are made in God’s image; you are called to build God’s kingdom.
In the coming months, we will all be discerning what to give financially to the church; and how to offer our time and talents to the church; this, amidst all the other clamoring demands that are made on us. Part of me wants to apologize to you for adding yet another layer to the work you are already doing to decide where your money, time, and energy will go. But I know that because we undertake these conversations here, together, we are helping each other to remember that God, and God’s church, are part of the equation: something, I think, it is all too easy to forget. God, and God’s church, are part of the equation; and our identity as part of God’s creation should inform the choices that we make.
How might your identity as a child of God, as a disciple of Jesus, change your decision making in the coming months, in the coming year? Who and what do you want to give yourself to? What do you feel called to say no to? What do you feel called to say yes to?
God, help us with our no and our yes. Help us to say no to anything that harms us, or others, or your creation; to what will exhaust us, mislead us, distort us; and also to what is really not ours to do, however worthwhile it may be. Help us to say yes to what will bring freedom, justice, and joy; to us, and others, and to your creation; to what will empower us, liberate us, delight our hearts; and to what really is ours to do, however reluctant we may be to do it. When we get lost and overwhelmed in our decisions, remind us of what is most important: that we belong to God, and one another. Remind us that God’s forgiveness, God’s blessing, God’s kingdom is already here, just waiting to be discovered. Amen.