“To God the things that are God’s”

A Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

I

n our cultural context, conversations about money tend often to be awkward, and even more so when that “conversation” comes in the shape of a sermon. Money is a hot button topic, but this isn’t just a modern phenomenon.

It is with a question of money that a group of Pharisees along with some “Herodians”—Jews who favoured collaboration with the Romans—sought to corner Jesus. Their question of whether or not it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor is a classic “catch 22,” in that no matter what Jesus answers they can accuse him of being allied with a particular camp. If he says “no,” then he can be discredited as a zealot and a revolutionary, while if he says “yes” then he is as good as a Roman collaborator. Either way, his reputation will be compromised in the eyes of his public.

  • To listen to the sermon, click on the arrow

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

But Jesus backs them up with another question: Whose head is this, and whose title is it on the Roman coin? Well, there is only one answer; it is the emperor’s image. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It is a statement that beats them at their own game, and so Matthew tells us, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” To which Stanley Hauerwas adds, “Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, Christians have not been amazed by this answer. Rather, they have assumed that they know what Jesus meant…”

In different ways and at different times we have assumed that it meant an absolute divide between the sacred and the secular; between the things of faith and the things of the world of politics and economics. Tragically, it has at times led good Christian people to remain tolerant of corrupt or compromised rulers, and mute in the face of unjust and violent governments.  We have too often divided the things of earth from the things of heaven—the ethics of God’s reign from the ethics of this “real world” in which we live—and in doing so have allowed the emperor to co-opt us into doing unspeakable things.

Quite clearly this confrontation between Jesus and his questioners is not merely about money. It is tangled in with what that particular coin symbolized. It was imprinted with the image of Caesar, and as such was actually in violation of the commandment against graven images; according to the strictest reading of the law, those Pharisees shouldn’t have even been carrying those coins. And so Jesus effectively turns the question into one of loyalties and of faithfulness. And in doing so, he turns it right back on those who would have cornered him.

But frankly, conversations about money are always loaded, because money is inevitably laden with meaning. It can represent power, success, comfort… or lack thereof. It is always a symbol. The other night we gathered a group of our music leaders for a workshop, to which Larry brought this wonderful array of fresh baked goods from Tall Grass Bakery. He handed me a paper receipt for something like $25, which I will put through our financial books and then sometime next week I will hand him a green twenty dollar bill and a blue five dollar bill, and it all be square. But what possible relationship do these pieces of paper have to the flour, sugar, chocolate, butter and human labour that went into the making of those cookies and squares? Surely I got the better deal… after all, you can’t eat the paper. But it is not just paper, any more than the coin that Jesus used to make his point was just metal. It is money, the agreed upon symbol for goods, time, work.

Which is why we easily get nervous when the conversation turns to money, and particularly when the preacher begins to speak about it. If you imagine that at any moment this preacher is going to make some sort of an appeal that involves money, you’re right. Not just any money, either. Your money, which means the symbol of your goods, your time, your work, maybe your good fortune or even your freedom. And you know, it is quite true that money does symbolize those things. All the more reason to not hold it too, too tightly. Because it symbolizes so much, it can convince us that it is the one thing most worth having.

When I was in New York last January on my study leave, I worshipped four times with black congregations in Harlem. Now I was quite obviously a visitor, but I wasn’t there as a tourist or spectator. I was in New York to work on my proposed book on the intersection of theology with jazz music, and had been told by the black liberation theologian James Cone that if I were to understand jazz I would need to go to church. “Not one of the big congregations that draws the tour buses,” he told me. “Find smaller local churches, that are truly part of the community and join in the worship there.”

Twice I ended up at Kelly Temple Church of God in Christ—a church in the Pentecostal tradition—once with a predominantly black Anglican congregation, and on my last Sunday in New York I joined with the community at Greater Hood Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Along with the music, the preaching and the hospitality, one of the things that was really striking at both Greater Hood and Kelly Temple was their practice around offerings. I hardly have to tell you how understated we are here in terms of offerings, with the baskets sitting on the table at the back, and that little note on the song-sheet informing you that “If you feel a connection here (or maybe just like what we’re doing), we’d welcome your support.” I will stand by our practice of not passing an offering plate, as I think that what a passed plate does is to make our guests and visitors feel pressured to contribute toward our ministry. But it can create a bit of an illusion that gifts and offerings are little more than a footnote, which in turn can create an illusion that what we do personally with our money is not all that important.

Apparently in many churches in Harlem, there are no such illusions. It is not even that a plate was passed; instead the collection plates were set on a table at the front of the church, and we got up from our seats, went down the side aisle to drop our offerings at that table, and then returned up the centre aisle. Congregational elders sat at the table, and actually sorted the cheques and cash right then and there.

Through the whole process, we sang. I have this vivid image in my mind of this one woman all but dancing in the aisle at Kelly Temple, as she waited her turn to make her gift. Have you ever seen anyone dance up to baskets on the table at the back of our church? Of course, for all I know there was someone sitting in the congregation that morning thinking, “Oh there she goes with her dancing again…” What’s more, when I was searching online for churches to attend, I came across a blog in which someone had posted a photograph of a very expensive car sitting in front of a very run-down building, with a caption suggesting that this car belonged to a pastor who was getting rich on the offerings of his poor parishioners. And maybe that was true. Money has a funny way of getting distorted, and of distorting us.

We had a bishop in this diocese some twenty-five years ago, who was very keen about promoting tithing. He even ordered bumper stickers for all of the clergy, which read “If you love Jesus, TITHE… anyone can honk.” The challenge to think of stewardship in terms of percentage giving was by no means a bad thing, yet mixed into some of the literature around this approach was this suggestion that if we learned to give 10% of our income, we would reap even greater financial benefits, almost as if it was a pure investment scheme. Money does have a funny way of getting distorted.

So, let me say that we are not going to start passing a plate, nor are we going to be ordering any bumper stickers. And while the people who keep an eye on our finances might suggest I’m a bit crazy here, I’m also not going to press the point that we are currently running a deficit in our finances. You see, to simply push the idea that we need to “break even” on the budget misses what is really at stake here. And I’m not even going to tell you about all of the exciting ways in which we could put increased congregational income into action. We can talk about our dreams, goals and vision another time. No, today I want us to think about the biblical challenge to cultivate a set of habits and disciplines that will help to keep us from getting distorted in how we hold our money.  That could well be by adopting the idea of a tithe or of percentage giving—simply look at your income, and set aside that 5% or even 10% right off the top—or it might be by setting yourself some other goal or standard. That is not for anyone else to determine other than you. Yet underlying our decisions about money and givings is a critical question.

“Whom do we belong to?” asks Clayton Schmit in his comments on today’s Gospel reading, and then he wonders if sometimes it does feel as if we belong to Caesar, or to our job, or to our material possessions. Schmit continues:

But to whom do we really belong? Take a look at any person. Whose inscription is on him or her? Each is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). There can be no doubt, then, what Jesus means here. Give yourselves to God because it is to him that you belong.

All else is commentary.

Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.