Render To The One To Whom It Belongs
In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Finally, we hear Jesus saying something this morning that we can instantly understand. For the last several weeks we’ve had a series of cryptic sayings, parables and allegories that might have driven us to distraction; but this morning we get a good old saying that we can sink our teeth into. “Give … to (Caesar) the things that are (Caesar’s), and to God the things that are God's.”
This morning we find Jesus in the Temple teaching. The Pharisees are still trying to trap him into saying something that will make him appear in a bad light. So they send some of their disciples to ask him a very carefully crafted question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” It is not often that someone of my limited Greek scholarship disagrees with translators, but this is one such time. The original Greek does not use the word, “pay,” here, but rather the word doumai (doumai) meaning, “give.” The Pharisees used this word to make certain that Jesus could not hide behind legal obligation in His answer. Now the trap that they set is obvious for modern readers who know the story. If Jesus says yes, it is lawful under Torah to pay taxes, he incurs the wrath of faithful Jews who resent Roman occupation and dominance. If he says, “No, it is not lawful under Torah,” then the Romans have grounds to arrest Him for sedition. But Jesus knows this. That is why he questions them about trying to tempt, or trap Him.
Jesus’ response to His questioners though, is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit. He asks these disciples of the most holy and scrupulous of all Jews, the Pharisees, to give him the coin used for taxes. Apparently one of them whipped out a denarius. This is interesting because the denarius was equal to a full day’s wages – some say that it would be roughly equivalent to $100.00 today – and this disciple (a student of the religious leaders) had this much rattling around in his pocket. More interesting though is the fact that one of these devout Jews had this coin in his pocket, in the Temple. Jesus asks the pointed question, “whose image is on the coin?” His questioners respond that it is Caesar’s image. In actuality, what was on the denarius was the reason that no devout Jew should have been carrying one in the Temple. The coin had Caesar’s face on it alright, but it also had an inscription that said, “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest,” which made it both idolatrous (for carrying a graven image) and blasphemous (for holding Augustus out as being divine). So Jesus has already exposed the questioners as being hypocrites who came to trap him, not to really converse with him. But then comes the coup de gras. Jesus tells them to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. Here, the Greek uses the word, apodote (apodote), which is related to the word doumai (doumai) but means, “to give back.” And it is here that our lesson this morning takes its interesting turn.
Rather than what we have most often been taught in our lives, Jesus was NOT trying to define a distinction between the secular and religious worlds here. Not at all. Rather, what Jesus was doing was pointing out the absolute and awesome truth of the world. That which bears Caesar’s image, belongs to Caesar. Caesar minted it. Caesar decided its value. Caesar circulated it and decided what it could be used for. Therefore, Jesus says, if you believe it appropriate to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, then do so. However – and this is a huge “however” – you must also give back to God that which belongs to God. The implications there are daunting, if not downright frightening.
The Psalmist says, “Ascribe to the Lord the honor due His name, bring offerings and come into His courts.” Jesus is saying much more than that! He is saying to give to Caesar all that bears his image and was made by him. Give to God ALL that bears God’s image and was created by God. Suddenly we’re not talking about giving a part of what we have as our weekly, monthly or quarterly offering. Suddenly we are talking about (as I said two weeks ago) all that we have – indeed, all that we ARE, belonging to God and our need to give THAT back.
Every year, in every Episcopal Church in the United States, about this same time, in virtually every church, you’ll hear the same things. Tithe, “proportional giving,” sacrificial giving. These are all code words for what so many clergy have trouble talking about, money. You’ll also hear every year phrases like, “time, talent and treasure,” which are code words for, “I really want to talk about money, but I have such a hard time with it, that instead I’ll talk about the other areas of your life where you can give.”
Be it good or bad, I don’t have any trouble talking about money up here, and I will tell you right here, today that part of what Jesus is talking about – just a part, but part nonetheless – is money. Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we should “lay not up for ourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but rather lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Jesus then goes on to say, “for where your treasure is, there also will be your heart.” Truly, Jesus knew that if you follow the money you will most often find people’s priorities. Jesus talked a lot about money, because he knew the incredible power it had in most people’s lives and He worried about how the power of money could badly affect people’s relationships with God. So here, Jesus is not saying, just give the first 10% to God and all will be well. This goes much farther than that. This is about dedicating our lives to God.
Jesus wants us to understand, in no uncertain terms, that it IS about money, but not JUST money. It IS about time, but not JUST time. It IS about our talents, but not JUST about our talents. Give back to God, that which belongs to God. The sheep on the hill are God’s because He made them. The grass they graze upon is God’s for the same reason. Likewise the dirt and rocks in which the grass grows; the rain that waters the grass and the sun which causes it to flourish. It is ALL God’s and therefore all should be given back.
Reality check time. Am I saying that we should all go home and sell everything we have and give all of the proceeds to the poor? No. Not unless money and possessions get in the way as we try to know God. What about all of our “stuff”? It is not a big deal unless it becomes an obstacle to our dedicating ourselves to God – to our giving back to God that which God has so graciously given us.
How that will look when we take the opportunity to give back to God, to answer God’s call, will completely depend upon where each one of us is in life. Some of us don’t feel like we have much in the way of money to give back. Some of us have what we believe to be an absolute dearth of time to give back. Some of us feel as though our talents may be less than useful.
It is up to each of us to look deep inside – to look critically at our own lives and to actively listen for God’s call as we try to discern what it is that God is calling us to give back. What, in each of our lives, will be so central to who we are that when we give it, it will feel like we have given it ALL back to God?
Years ago, I knew a man who was, by most standards, wealthy. He gave more to the church than any other, single giver in the parish. But to him that did not feel like he was giving it all back. That’s why he volunteered to handle all of the building and grounds issues at the church. He didn’t write checks to repairmen, he learned how to do the repairs himself and spent his precious time and energy getting them done.
I knew a young woman who really struggled financially, but went out of her way to come a long distance to the church so that she could help with the children’s education program. It felt like it was what God was calling her to do, so she gave the time – difficult though it might be on any given Sunday.
And I know many people who have given up lives that were successful and full in many ways, in order to follow God’s individual calls to them and to seek ordination, with all of the secular uncertainty that that decision brings. They have given back their careers because that is what they believe God called them to do.
Are these people better, or more holy, or closer to God than all of you? No, just different. Everyone is called by God, to, as St. Paul says, to exercise the individual gifts we’ve been given. So this week, let’s all look critically at where the things are that can separate us from God and begin to rid ourselves of them. Then let’s start, one day at a time, to try to discern God’s call, heed that call and give back to God ALL that God has given us, by walking in the path God has given us and living into the wonder of a life lived faithfully answering God’s call. We all have to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Now let’s see if we can treat God better than we treat Caesar and give to God ALL of that which is God’s. Amen.