There are several unwritten rules that our culture seems to abide by. Things we are permitted to talk about. Things we are supposed to stay quiet about. That is even more true in church. I grew up learning that you do not talk about religion, politics or money. I guess Jesus didn’t get the message. He is always talking about all three. It is tempting to believe that somehow we can parcel off those three parts of our lives and remain silent or pretend we don’t have opinions. Politics these days are hard to avoid – especially if we tune into international politics. It is hard to remain silent in the face of injustices and discrimination. The political arena shapes the world we live in with laws that govern our daily living. Money while it does not make the world go around, if you don’t have any it is a big problem. Money covers off those basic necessities of food and shelter. And if we don’t talk about religion our lives of faith then how will people know about what God does for us and it shapes our living.
The truth is, it is impossible to parcel off politics, religion and money from our daily living and conversation. This past week I attended a conference all about stewardship where I learned the best definition of stewardship. It is everything after we say yes to God. Wow! It is how we live from day to day. It is how we take care of our children or care for aging parents. It is how we care for others around us. It is how we do our jobs each day. It is how we use our money. It is everything after we’ve said yes to God.
Jesus knew that all too well. He is teaching the crowds when the Herodian and Pharisees show up. That is the bible’s way of saying trouble is coming. The Herodians and Pharisees don’t agree on much politically speaking but they agree that Jesus must go. Here is what you need to know about the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians are fine with Caesar’s tax, given Herod’s cozy arrangement with Rome. For the Pharisees, the tax is a problem but so is the coin used to pay the tax. The coin proclaims Caesar as a god which runs contrary to the commandment that says ``you shall have no other God before me.`` So they set the trap with flattery and what seems like a simple question.
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (Matthew 22:16 – 17) Their goal is to cost him his following or his life. If he approves payment of the tax, he supports the empire and people will abandon him. If says they should not pay the tax, he is committing treason.
Jesus calls them all hypocrites. "Show me the coin," Jesus says. With the coin in hand, Jesus then asks the two simple questions: Whose image is that? Whose title? They say, “The emperor’s” What follows is a well known passage of scripture. The King James Version translates it this way: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22: 21)
Dr. David Lose writes, “Because if their question is clever, Jesus’ response is ingenious or, more appropriately, inspired, leading to an exchange that is as revealing as it is brief. After asking if any of his questioners has a coin of the Empire – the only coin that could be used to pay the tax in question – they quickly procure one. Jesus asks whose image is on it, and they answer “The Emperor’s.” There’s more going on here than meets the eye, as along with that image is an engraved confession of Caesar’s divinity, which means that any Jew holding the coin is breaking the first two of the commandments. All of which leads to Jesus’ closing line, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And with this one sentence, Jesus does not simply evade their trap or confound their plans, but issues a challenge to his hearers that reverberates through the ages into our sanctuaries.” (In the Meantime, October 15, 2017)
Jesus knows what we know – everything belongs to God. We live in a place that governed by laws but we also follow in God’s ways. In Jesus time, the politics were complicated. The people were governed both by religious law and secular law. Jesus lived within the Roman Empire, ultimately under the rule of the Emperor. The Roman Empire granted Jewish people a unique status that allowed them to practice their religion and use the rules within their religion to govern themselves. Jesus owed allegiance to Rome and to his religious community.
Lynda Wright in the book This Is the Day reflects on the need to not only spend time in prayer with God but also to be in relationship with others, to be part of the community. This is reflected in two central parts of Jewish spirituality: “’Devokut’ or ‘clinging to God’ – our need for contemplating the Mystery [of God] and in it finding our nourishment and ‘Tikkun O’lam’ or “repair of the world’ our responsibility to work for justice and the bringing in of God’s kingdom.” (This is the Day)
To be whole we need to be connected to all parts of our lives. We need time to connect with God through prayer and contemplation. We also need people. Recent studies show that loneliness is worse for our health than smoking or obesity. We need community and part of living in a community is those systems that help us live together. That is what the ten commandments are about. That is the role that government plays. That said we also know that governments can be corrupt or do things that hurt the ways we live in community. That is when we need to engage the system and let our voices be heard.
With Jesus, no topics are taken off the table. Our whole lives are an offering to God. So of course, we give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. More importantly we give to God what is Gods. Stewardship is everything, everything after we say yes to God. We give thanks to God by following in Jesus’ footsteps and living with compassion, with mercy, with grace and with love. And when it seems hard, we remember that we are made in God’s image and with God nothing is impossible. Amen.