Rendering unto God

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Matthew 22:15-22

Once upon a time, a little boy was given two quarters by his mother. She told him, “One quarter is for the Sunday School offering, and one for an ice cream cone on the way home.” (You can tell this story goes back a few years!) Running down the sidewalk the boy tripped, and the coins slipped out of his hand. They started to roll away. He managed to stamp his foot on one, but the other rolled off the curb and fell into the storm drain below. The boy looked down into the drain. The quarter was gone. He raised his face toward Heaven and said with genuine sorrow, “Well, God, there goes your quarter.”

It’s remarkable how universal some situations in Scripture are. We have a tax problem too, Jesus! The ears that were deaf to parables about vineyards and lost sheep suddenly perk up. Wow, Jesus had to pay taxes?

I was both amazed and amused to research some of the humor connected to this passage. One commentator writes: “Death and taxes may always be with us, but at least death doesn’t get worse every time congress meets.”

Arthur Godfrey once said, “I feel honored to pay taxes in America. The thing is, I could probably feel just as honored for about half the price.”

Jesus’ words, however, aren’t a punchline. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”… If any of you grew up hearing the King James Version of this text, we would remember it as “Render unto Caesar.” These are familiar words. How many of us have muttered this under our breath on April 15th? The Pharisees have come to Jesus for a little tax advice (in reality they are setting a trap) – do we have to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus? Isn’t it against the Jewish Law?

It’s remarkable how universal some situations in Scripture are. We have a tax problem too, Jesus! The ears that were deaf to parables about vineyards and lost sheep suddenly perk up. Wow, Jesus had to pay taxes?

Let’s be honest – we often shift uncomfortably when the preacher starts talking about money. I know I have when I’m not the preacher. “Uh oh…, here we go again, talking about money…”

Well I’m here to tell you this morning that this passage is NOT primarily about money. “Hooray!” Everyone can relax. Exhale.

No, as I see it, this passage is not about taxes; no matter how often preachers have used it that way in the past.

I’m also here to tell you that, despite the fact that this is October, traditionally the season for the clergy to give a sermon series on Stewardship, I don’t believe this passage is about tithing, either. Not in the strictest monetary sense.

I have a feeling the story about the boy and the lost quarter was meant for a stewardship illustration. But Jesus isn’t telling the crowd that was listening to this exchange with the Pharisees – pay your taxes but don’t forget to give to the synagogue too!

The very first verse of the gospel reading should tell us that this is not a quaint “teachable moment” that Jesus used to encourage good money management.

The Pharisees are plotting against Jesus. Remember where this encounter takes place in Matthew’s gospel account – this is during Holy Week. Jesus has entered Jerusalem, and a showdown of sorts is taking place. Jesus has already turned over tables in the Temple – another act that wasn’t about money but something more profound.

Right after this Jesus would launch into a series of warnings against these religious leaders – the “woe to you” passages. The tension is pretty high.

A little historical context – this question was probably in the minds of more people than just the Pharisees. One of the ways some of the messianic figures in Israel at that time made a name for themselves was to advocate things like boycotting Roman taxes, the tribute to the emperor. There had been a major tax revolt during Jesus’ lifetime led by Judas the Galilean. The Pharisees who wanted to trap Jesus, knew this was a very touchy subject.

They bring along the Herodians, who were cronies of Herod, who himself was the toady figurehead of occupied Jerusalem placed there by Caesar. With the Herodians listening in, the Pharisees knew that whatever Jesus said would get back to Herod almost immediately, and telling Herod was like telling Pontius Pilate and the other Roman authorities.

Why would it be against the law to pay taxes? It wasn’t only that one was giving money to an unjust, pagan government – it was the money itself. The coins used, the denarius, bore the image of the emperor, in this case Tiberius Caesar, who the Romans claimed was divine. This broke two of the commandments – that against graven images and having other gods before Yahweh.

Roman coins were the only legal tender you could use on the street. Indeed the moneychangers in the temple were there simply to exchange Roman coins, which could not be brought into the temple because of their pagan nature, for Jewish coins, which had no image and could thus be used in the temple to buy animals for sacrificial purposes.

You see, they are trying to back Jesus into a corner. If he says, “Caesar is a tyrant, don’t pay your taxes,” the Romans would arrest him. If he says, “Be a good citizen, pay your taxes,” then the Jews could accuse him of breaking the Law and collusion with the occupiers. Jesus asked for a coin – an object lesson.

Jesus sidesteps the whole quagmire – because Jesus knew that a coin, in and of itself, isn’t worth anything. It’s just a piece of metal. It is the worth that the Romans attached to it that made it worth something. It represents worth.

Money is just a symbol. This piece of paper means what it means because we all agree that it is worth something. Whose image is on the dollar? This is what Jesus is asking his contemporaries. George Washington. Tiberius Caesar. If his picture is on it, it must belong to him. Give it back.

But then Jesus makes a sudden turn – give God what belongs to God.

What’s the correlation here? If Caesar’s image is on the coin, where is God’s image?

God’s image was standing all around him. The Jews knew that teaching well – we humans are created in the image of God.

Jesus turns the tables again – this time not spilling coins on the ground, but rather drawing focus back on what God cares about – people, God’s children.

The question is suddenly before us – we can debate what a dollar is worth, but what about a person? What are human beings worth? And what does God expect?

God’s expectations are not like taxes or tithing. We pay taxes because we have to, and you give your tithes and offerings because you belong to this community, this family, this household at St. John’s. Running a family costs money, so we all pitch in, to keep the lights on and the building in good shape, to pay clergy and musicians, and staff. And don’t get me wrong – what we do with our money is very important as we strive to live lives of integrity. Are we surprised? Jesus talked about money more than any other subject.

But what Jesus is saying here is so much bigger than money – give to God the things that are God’s. As you give to the emperor, you must also give yourself to God.

What does it mean to give yourself to God? I’m not sure that one answer fits everyone. I believe that is up to each and every one of us to figure out and to act on it.

The gospel account says that those who heard this answer, Pharisees, Herodians, and probably even the bystanders, went away amazed.

If giving to God were as simple as writing a check or volunteering a little time to a charitable project, we’d all be off the hook. Instead we have these words of Jesus to think about. If I am made in God’s image, I belong to God.

I am not going to answer this very deep and profound question for you this morning. Indeed this is the kind of question we may be answering every day of our lives. I’m pretty sure there isn’t one simple answer, a simple solution that will answer that question once and for all. I will give you a hint, however, I believe being made in the image of God and giving ourselves to God has something to do with the fact that we are here in community. We are not alone. I am not the only image of God walking around. It is how I treat the other images of God whose lives are connected with mine – that is a start to learning how to give back to God.

So relax – this passage isn’t about your money – it’s about you. Amen.



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