Worship Service, October 18, 2020, “Give to God What is God’s”
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Sunday morning via YouTube
One Sunday morning, Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate, so his mother decided to use some creative reasoning with him. “You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!” Horrified, the little boy obeyed.
After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty? “Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”
It’s God’s. This is essentially the answer that Jesus gives when asked in today’s Scripture about whether or not the people should pay their taxes. He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s.” When you step back and think about that statement, it is really a multi-layered response. On one level it is simply a clever way to get out of a trick question and on another level it is a statement that convicts the listeners of Jesus. For if we believe that God is the one who created everything then everything belongs to God and should be given back.
Right now, taxes are a big subject in the news as we are in an election year. There are Propositions on our California ballot that could have implications on our taxes. The presidential candidates are talking about their tax plans and whether or not they should have to submit their tax returns for public record. The notion of paying or not paying taxes can be a controversial, so maybe we can appreciate a bit of the predicament that Jesus was in when the leaders asked him about this issue.
The leaders were trying to put Jesus into a dilemma with their question in which there could have both controversial religious and political implications. On the one hand you had a group called the Herodians who were asking this question. Given their name, they were most likely supporters of King Herod who was a puppet king in collusion with the Roman Empire. These leaders would want Jesus to say “yes” to supporting taxes because they probably benefited from skimming off the top of those taxes to enrich themselves. They would probably also would have argued that it was important to keep the peace and appease the Roman rulers for the good and safety of the local people. If Jesus would have said “no, don’t pay taxes” to Rome, the Herodians would be upset.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were very concerned about keeping the religious law. They would have wanted to resist the tax from the Romans. They might not have gone as far as the zealot rebels who wanted to violently overthrow Rome, but they certainly would have wanted to side with the people in acknowledging that the taxes were oppressive and not in line with the Jewish religious law. If Jesus answered “yes, pay taxes to Rome,” then they would be upset.
Either way, Jesus was trapped. Moreover, keep in mind Jesus was not living in a democracy. The people did not get a say in their taxes or who could elect officials. The tax was from an outside, occupying army that was forced upon them without representation. Who would say yes to supporting that? On the other hand, the consequences for not paying the tax to Rome could be dire. It could mean more than just a fine or even jail time. It could mean execution. Jesus certainly would not want his followers to get into that much trouble, would he? Wouldn’t he want people to pay the tax and stay safe?
This isn’t the first time Jesus has had to deal with a question around taxes. Earlier in the Book of Matthew, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.
However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”
In this encounter, it seems clear that Jesus has paid the temple tax before and tells Peter to do it again. At the same time, he seems to be saying that Peter is free from paying it because the kings take tribute by exploiting other people who are not a part of their family. Even though Peter is ultimately free from being obligated to support an oppressive king, nevertheless Jesus says it’s probably good to pay the tax so as not to offend the rulers. Then he has Peter go fishing and a coin appears in the fish’s mouth, which seems rather odd and almost kind of funny.
The sense we get is that although Jesus is willing to play the game of the earthly rulers to keep the peace and not offend them, he is, in a way, mocking the game the earthly rulers play to exert their power over others. By having Peter get the coin from the fish, it is like he is illustrating where the real power over the earth lies. The rulers may be able to manufacture and demand pieces of metal, but God is the one who rules over the fish of the sea and provides the real sustenance for the people.
In today’s story, Jesus again uses a coin to make a point as he answers the trick question the leaders had hoped to trap him with. He asks them to show him a coin. They bring him one which means they had access to the money. It could be that they were actually carrying the coins with them so that when they show Jesus the money, it’s like they unsuspectingly exposed themselves as the ones who are the hypocritical compromisers. They are ones carrying around the emperor’s money. They are the ones who appear to have bought into the system of the empire ruling over the people. They are the ones who have Caesar’s image in their pockets—an image which would have been in direct violation of the religious law.
Remember the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a graven image.” Most of the coins contained an image of the emperor with inscriptions proclaiming him to be divine or the son of a God, so in a sense Jesus is insinuating that perhaps the very leaders who are trying to trap him are actually breaking that first commandment.
Jesus then tells them that they are to give back to God what is God’s. What does Jesus mean by this? Is there a connection to the time when Jesus tells them that they are to lay up their treasures in heaven and their reward will be great? It reminds me of a story about a man who died and went to heaven. He was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter who led him down the golden streets. They passed stately homes and beautiful mansions until they came to the end of the street where they stopped in front of a rundown cabin. The man asked St. Peter why he got just an old rundown cabin when there were so many mansions he could live in. St. Peter replied, “Hey, I did the best with the money you sent us.”
I don’t really think God needs a certain amount of money to give us a place in heaven, but I do think Jesus is saying something about how giving back to God means more than just a few extra coins. The thought that Jesus is trying to get across seems to be conveyed with the phrases, “The things of Caesar” and “The things of God”, which indicates that certain things belong to Caesar and certain things belong to God. How do we know what things belong to Caesar? They have his image on them! How do we know what things belong to God? They have God’s image on them! Because God created everything you could make a case that everything has something of God’s image on it, but this is especially true of humanity.
Genesis 1:26-27 says, “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; . . . . So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created; male and female they were created.”
What are we to give to God? We are to give the things stamped with God’s image…which is us! We are to give God ourselves — our whole selves — not just some part. Psalm 100:3 reminds us that we belong to God. The Common English Bible states: “Know that the LORD is God—God made us; we belong to the Lord.” The next part of the verse reinforces this truth by adding, “We are God’s people, the sheep of God’s own pasture.” Thus, when Jesus says “Give back to God what is God’s” he is telling us to remember who we really belong to and to dedicate our lives to the One who created us.
What difference does it make that we belong to God? This simple truth can transform our lives. It can give us profound reassurance of our self-worth. We matter because we belong to the Creator of the universe. The fact that we belong to God also gives order to our lives. We are first and foremost God’s people. Thus, all of our other roles in life must be seen in the light of this primary reality. You may be a lawyer or manager or teacher, but you are first of all, one of God’s people. You may be a father or a mother or a friend, but you are first of all, one of God’s people. How you live in each of these other roles will be shaped by your primary relationship to God as someone who belongs to the Lord.
Sometimes, when life is hard, or when we’ve turned away from God for an extended season, we can wonder if we still belong to God. The good news of the Gospel is that when we give ourselves back to God, nothing can ultimately keep us away from that divine love which lasts forever. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner