The Gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday — the 20th Sunday After Pentecost — with food for thought on scarcity, abundance and trust. Gnaw away!
Then the Pharisees went off and began to plot how they might trap Jesus by his speech. They sent their disciples to Jesus, accompanied by sympathizers of Herod, who said, “Teacher, we know you’re honest and teach God’s way sincerely. You court no one’s favor and don’t act out of respect for important people. Give us your opinion, then, in this case. Is it lawful to pay tax to the Roman emporer, or not?”
Jesus recognized their bad faith and said to them, ‘Why are you trying to trick me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin which is used to pay the tax.” When they handed Jesus a small Roman coin, Jesus asked, them, “Whose head is this, and whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
At that, Jesus said to them, “Then give to Casear what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were astonished and went away.
The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?
For the past several weeks, we’ve heard Jesus talking in parables with the religious leaders in the Temple, inviting them to take part in the coming of the Kingdom of God that he is inaugurating … but also being clear that there are severe consequences for them choosing to stand against him.
The leaders have rightly determined that Jesus is a threat, so they team up with the Herodians to trap him. The Pharisees and the Herodians are sensible partners — both because of interest in their own safety and prosperity are complicit with the occupying Roman government , the Pharisees with silence and the Herodians (like their patron, Herod) by active cooperation.
The trap is simple. If Jesus says that taxes should be paid, then it looks like he is complicit with Rome, too, and loses all his street cred as a prophet. If Jesus says that taxes shouldn’t be paid, then he is a criminal and they can have him arrested. Either way, problem solved. Right?
Not so fast. Jesus not only gives a dead clever answer that sidesteps the trap, he makes a devastating theological point. The “coin of the realm” — the powers of the world — is irrelevant to the Kin-dom of God. Go ahead and give them all away. It doesn’t matter! It’s as if Jesus stared them straight in the eye, lifted up both hands and made a big W for “Whatever.”
A few things to chew on:
*Jesus makes a clear point here — you can tell whose something (or someone) is by what image it bears. The coin belongs to Caesar because it has Caesar’s image on it — so go ahead and give it back to Caesar. But that’s only half the equation. What about God … what bears God’s image. That’s even easier — all of us. Any Torah-reading Jew could tell you that in Genesis (1:26-27):
God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God the Divine created them; male and female, God created them.
So what belongs to God? Every one of us and all of each of us. Totally. Completely. Fully. Let Caesar keep the change.
*Jesus is not preaching accommodation — that we can somehow serve the state/culture and Christ as equal masters (in fact in Matthew 6:24, Jesus is pretty clear about trying to serve two masters). You have to choose one or the other — and God has first dibs on our whole selves. The Pharisees and Herodians truly understand what Jesus is saying. We can tell this because “they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” But not
so us. We tend to take this in stride … hear it in church and move on as if somehow it doesn’t lay down an incredible challenge of deep change for us. Maybe it’s because we live with the illusion that our nation truly is
“a city set on a hill,” a “Christian nation” that has special status with the divine. Maybe it’s because an American dream that is primarily about personal finances has become so powerful that we — both out of our own addiction to it and for fear of the crowd for speaking against it — succumb to the temptation to try make the Gospel relevant to society instead of being a church that creates its own society with Christ at the center (what Dr. King called “the Beloved Community“). Whatever the reason, if these words don’t amaze us and at some level tempt us to flee — we’re not paying close enough attention.
Every day I catch myself saying something like this:
“I don’t have the time.”
“I don’t have the energy.”
“I don’t have the money.”
And of course, all three are true … but not for the reasons I might think. Yes, we all have various levels of time, energy and money. Some of us are way overburdened in time commitments. Some of us deal with chronic, debilitating pain and illness that saps our energy. Some of us are living on low or no income at all. Those are very real conditions and as a community we must support and care for one another in the midst of them.
And, there is another, theological point. None of us have time, energy and money because those things are not “ours.” And it’s when we think of them as “ours” that we begin to fear losing them, protect them as scarce resources … and be more conscious of their lack than their abundance. My experience – albeit anecdotal – is actually the more of any of these we have (particularly money), the more likely we are to adopt a scarcity mentality about it.
This week, take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to sit in silence and contemplate that the day ahead is not your time, that the energy to go through it is not your energy and the funds to sustain you through it is not your money. All of these are God’s … and are given freely to us to use but not to own.
“How can I let go of my anxiety about time, energy and money?”
“How can I treat this day — the time, the energy and the money — as a gift to be enjoyed and shared?”
“How can I use what I have to help those who truly live in scarcity – and if I am truly living in scarcity, how might my community better be structured to share the gift of God’s abundance?”
All Saints Church — We Have A Problem
This is a deeply problematic passage to consider in the middle of a giving campaign. Because at the same time we hear Jesus saying, “Give those coins back to Caesar,” we’re also saying “Give those coins to the church!”
Jesus’ message is clear — the money is insignificant. God wants our whole selves because God adores us and knows there is no better future for us than us giving ourselves fully to God. And so Jesus says, “Don’t worry about the money. The money isn’t important. Free yourself from the money.”
And yet here we are as a very Herodian-looking institution … trying to stay afloat and accommodate a world of electric bills and property insurance and paid staff. As individuals, families and as a church, it’s clear that the money is important to us.
We are the height of the human imperfection of following Jesus. We have a $5,000,000 + budget that goes to maintaining the institution of All Saints Church as a place and community where the Gospel can be preached and
Jesus can transform people’s lives. And we’re torn because just as Jesus bids us as disciples to be free of our money so we can grasp fully on to him, we can’t figure out how to be good stewards of this church and the
mission that faithful generations have handed down to us other than ensuring there is enough money to not just have it survive but thrive.
Stanley Hauerwas, in his wonderful commentary on Matthew says this:
Jesus’s claim that we are to give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s creates an insoluble problem because they do not see how followers of Jesus can then live in the world as we know it. But to
recognize that we have an insoluble problem is to begin to follow Jesus. Jesus’s response to the Pharisees and Herodians does create an insoluble problem, but that is what it is meant to do. You know you have a problem, at least if you are a disciple of Jesus, when you do not have a problem.
So yes, we have a problem. We are called boldly to live in this world but not be of this world. And yet we are also given a worldly institution to care for – one that without which in some form the Jesus movement would have faded in the blink of an historical eye.
All Saints Church — we have a problem. And … that’s not a bad thing. Because feeling the tension and wrestling with this problem continually shows we’re listening to Jesus deeply and trying to follow him intently.
We have no easy answers. But we do have a call and a promise.
Our call is to trust. To trust that as we lay ourselves on Christ’s table completely, Jesus will not leave us hanging. That as individuals, as we give away our money instead of grasping it for ourselves, that Christ will sustain us. That as All Saints Church, as we give away our space and presence to the community instead of hoarding it for ourselves, Christ will sustain us as well. In fact not just sustain us … but cause us to thrive!
And we also have a promise. A promise that if we continue to speak honestly, listen deeply and follow Jesus closely, that a divine wisdom that is deeper than our own will change our hearts and show us the way to go.
A call to trust and a promise of presence. That’s what we affirm when we say “We will, with God’s help.”
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Check out the rest of Sunday’s readings
The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday – just click here.
Collect for Sunday: Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Want to read more?
“The Text This Week” is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the scriptures for the week.
“Gnaw On This” is a weekly publication by Mike Kinman, the Rector of All Saints Church.