The Compass Rose at the Canterbury Cathedral
photo by Kathy Monson Lutes
Money, politics, and religion, the only missing ingredient for impolite conversation is sex. So why is it we're not supposed to talk about these things? Maybe because these things are felt to be too personal to discuss in public, and too divisive. People feel very strongly about these things and don't want to be told what to think. Unless, of course, you are in some churches, that tell you exactly what to think about just about everything. I'm not going to tell you what to think about any of these things, but scripture and our commitment to follow Jesus definitely informs us on these things, and today's reading from Matthew is all about these things, so, let’s talk.
Money, give to the emperor what is the emperors’.
Politics, everyone has to pay taxes.
Religion, give to God the things that are God's.
But as we well know, it's never easy, or clear, or straightforward. So what's really going on here? What is the kingdom of God like?
What we have is actually one of the oldest tricks in the book. Entrapment. That’s what the Pharisees are about in this story, pure and simple. They know very well the Jewish law against creating images. We read all about that last week in Exodus. The Israelites took all the gold from their ears, their sons’ ears, and their daughters ears, melted it down and made an idol out of it. Not making and worshiping idols is the commandment second only to loving God.
The Pharisees know what they ask of Jesus creates what we today call cognitive dissonance. You can’t act one way without compromising your morals; it’s the slippery slope. We do it all the time. At least I do it all the time, should I eat that doughnut because it is good, or should I eat that apple because I know it is good for me? I want the doughnut because I believe it will make me feel good, because I like it, because I deserve it, because it’s fun… But I eat the apple because I believe it’s good for me, because it tastes good, because I need the vitamins, because it will help me in the long run. How we act has to do with the priorities we choose for our lives. And how we act has to do with our baptismal promises to follow Jesus, to seek and serve Christ in everyone we encounter.
The Pharisees are trying to entrap Jesus, if Jesus says we don’t pay taxes to the emperor he’s guilty of sedition, but if Jesus says we use these coins with an image on them to pay taxes to the emperor, he’s guilty of breaking the commandment. Caesar or God? This is not just a slippery slope, it is a no win situation. But Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees' question, as is his answer each time they ask him questions about wealth is really simple. Jesus’ answer is it’s all God’s. It’s all God’s. There is no hierarchy, there is no priority list, and there are no top ten things that belong to God. The question is pointless. It is all God’s. You see, there is nothing that is the emperor’s. We live in this world as God's beloved, we are God's image, we do not live in the image that the world will make us.
So what Jesus may be doing here is showing that wealth is not ours. All wealth comes from God. And wealth includes so much more than money. There are some ramifications of this for us today. All wealth comes from God, and we live in a land in which order is kept by a mutual agreement that everyone shares in the responsibility of government and infrastructure and protection. Therefore we pay our share. But all we have still comes from God.
So maybe what Jesus might be doing is inviting us to declare our allegiance. Perhaps the key question in this passage isn’t, after all, whose image is on the coin, but rather whose image is on us. We indeed are made in God's image and marked as God's own forever. And that’s what always seems to get lost in conversations about money and politics. For while we may feel strongly about our political loyalties, before we are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we are God's beloved. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business an no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the some total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.
So, there are no easy answers here. There are elements of our lives that are, indeed, part of the world order and should be “rendered to Caesar.” But, our deepest self belongs to God, and if we remember that, all of life takes on greater focus and meaning. And our identity as God's beloved, will, in turn, shape our behavior, urging and aiding us to be the persons we have been called to be.
So today, I'm inviting you to a way of reminding yourself of your identity, as God's beloved, take out one of your credit cards, (and if you don't have a credit card, use one of the cards in the pew) and mark it with the sign of the cross. Every time you use it, or see your card in your purse or wallet, you may think about how your faith, your belovedness, impacts your decision about spending.
And I hope this is not a burden, but rather an empowering reminder of your identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. Maybe it will help to actively reflect on how your faith shapes your daily life and particularly your economic life. God wants more from us, in the end, than polite conversation. God wants for us abundant life. God wants us to know that we are enough. Because while Benjamin Franklin may have once said that death and taxes are the only two certainties of this life, each week we have the opportunity to declare that the one who was raised from death shows us that God’s love is more certain than anything else.
The story that informs us and transforms us is that we are created by God in God’s image, and we are related to all of creation. God’s abundance in creation is already bestowed upon us. Our job is to hold it in trust, and to care for it. This is what we call stewardship. Give to God the things that are God’s, and everything is God’s.