Give to God That Which is God’s- Sermon for October 18, 2020 from Pastor John
Sermon for October 18, 2020
As we know all too well, campaign ads fill the airwaves. In 30 seconds one candidate will attack the other with the topic of taxes: if so-and-so is elected your taxes will be raised. This can be an effective attack ad, which calls for the other side to deny any such thing. For me campaign ads tax my patience. The money spent could be used to finance education, feed the hungry, or house the homeless.
In the gospel lesson we heard how Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees, wanted to entrap Jesus in his talk. Doesn’t that sound like an election year ploy: candidates must speak carefully because every word they speak is being recorded and analyzed for future attack ads. So the Pharisees joined forces with a group called the Herodians to plot against Jesus. Normally Pharisees and Herodians would not be friends. Pharisees hated the super-power of the time which occupied Israel, the Roman Empire. The Romans were considered idolaters with their worship of other gods, and the worship of conquest and power. The Herodians, supporters of the local ruler with the name of Herod, supported Rome because they depended on Rome’s favor to stay in power. So you could say the Pharisees and Herodians were ‘Frenemies’ since as the. saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Their common enemy was Jesus. Jesus threatened their comfort zones. The Pharisees would live by separating themselves from people they felt were unworthy, unclean, and unfit for the grace of God. Jesus overturned such thinking welcoming all kinds of commandment breakers with the invitation of repentance for that truly is grace: God welcoming the unworthy, unclean, and unfit. The Herodians were certainly threatened by the great crowds attracted to Jesus.
So this was the plot of the two frenemies: trap Jesus with a trick question. Before they set the trap they spoke words of fake flattery: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God and show deference to no one for you do not regard people with partiality.” Then they asked Jesus the question they were certain would land Jesus in trouble: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” I can well imagine a hush settled over the crowd. No matter what Jesus said it seemed to be an open door to trouble. Taxation was considered oppressive and no one wanted to pay taxes to the Empire that conquered your holy land. Throughout the gospels we hear about how unpopular tax collectors were. If Jesus said it is important to pay taxes to the Emperor he would have been booed off the stage. If Jesus told the people don’t give a dime to the Emperor, the Herodians had a warrant for Jesus’ arrest ready for the crime of rebellion. It was a clever trap indeed.
Jesus was well aware of their malice: you could see it in their malicious grins. To answer Jesus asked for the coin for the tax and asked a question of his own, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” I am sure the frenemies were confused wondering just what Jesus was up to, and surprisingly he was not intimidated by their malice. But they had to answer: On the coin was the image of the Roman Emperor. Not in the text but the title on the coin was significant for the coin said of the Emperor, “Son of god and high priest.” For religious Jewish people it was obvious the wording on the coin was pure blasphemy, breaking the most fundamental commandment and confession “You shall have no other gods.” I imagine Jesus tossing the coin up and down in the presence of his questioners and then delivering his answer, “Give therefore to the Emperor the things that are the emperor’s; and to God, the things that are God’s”. It looked as if Jesus escaped the trap that was set for him, and his trouble-makers left him alone for the time being.
Many of us like this text cheering Jesus for outsmarting the hypocrites. We have understood the words of Jesus to mean that we live in two realms, an earthly one concerned with the “things of Caesar” or government, and the “things of God” or spiritual matters. And so we are called to be good citizens which includes casting your vote for the candidates of your choice, and demonstrating an understanding of democracy and hold elected officials responsible. And yes, it means paying taxes. In the best light taxes represent good roads, safety in food processing plants, Medicare, Social Security, safety nets for the poor to name a few. We are to pay our fair share for the benefit of all. The apostle Paul would call government servants of God for good order and justice so he wrote in the 13th chapter of Romans, “pay taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
But we must be careful not to minimize Jesus’ words “Give to God the things that are God’s” to apply only to a small portion of our lives. God desires more of us than lip service, recalling the frustration of the prophets of old who said these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Take a coin out of your pocket and whose image is on the coin….an image of dead presidents: Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Washington, Kennedy, or Eisenhower. Our coins do not say ‘worshipful sons of god’. But our currency does say “In God we trust”. This leads to the question, ‘just what god do we dearly and truly trust?’ Jesus warned of the idolatry of money and possessions. The Bible is not against money or is it? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said plainly “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other; or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” We are trapped by wealth. No one actually worships money outright singing, “alleluia, how almighty is the dollar.” But money traps us in fear. I must not minimize fear especially when people live from paycheck to paycheck, and then suddenly have lost their jobs. I heard on the radio that many people live on the edge that if an unexpected bill of $250 came they could not pay it. If you cannot pay expenses, the letters can be quite nasty ruining your day.
So we give to God the things that are God’s—do you hear the grace in Jesus’ words? We are not a ‘thing’, for we are made in the image of God, belong to God, loved by God. Instead of fear which is terrible tyrant, we are to give ourselves to God, to Jesus, with faith. My sister Nancy sent me a book “Preaching to the Chickens: The story of young John Lewis”. You remember John Lewis, the long-serving Congressman who died recently, known for his years of working for equal rights for African-Americans and really all citizens of our nation. As a young boy John wanted to be a preacher. He would practice with his sermons among the chickens. In one story John would even baptize the new chicks that would arrive. He would dunk the poor things in an old coffee can. Apparently one was held a bit too long under water and it looked like the poor little bird drowned. But John put the drenched chick in the sun and it eventually revived. John would tie this to the gospel telling the little chick, “Jesus can heal the sick and raise the dead.” The chick would responded with peeping sounds which John knew meant “Amen!” It is a cute story about the faith of a little boy. Now we don’t baptize chickens but the message of baptism is good news every day. Baptism invites us to give ourselves to God Every day we give our sins to Jesus and know his response of forgiveness. He“wipes the slate clean” for any record of our sins is nailed to the cross and we bear guilt no longer but instead we are refreshed by his grace. Jesus has replaced any such record of sin with the gift of reconciliation or the peace of God. We give our worries and anxiety to Jesus for he will never leave us alone to face our fears, “cast all your cares on Jesus for he cares for you.”
In the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he thanked God for their work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and their endurance inspired by hope in Jesus Christ. The little church, even facing persecutions, was known for their willingness to serve the living and true God. Note the contrast: a life serving money, wealth, and possessions would not be serving a living god. Jesus with love in his heart calls us to give our lives to God, the living God who accompanies us throughout life, the true God, who shows us the way of loving one another, the faithful God, who empowers our daily endurance in troubled times with hope.