The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24), Year A.
The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.Matthew 22:15-22
Can you feel it in the air? The weather getting colder, the leaves starting to turn. The vague hint of pumpkin spice trickling out of every grocery store, restaurant, and coffee shop? The brutal heat and stale humidity that has made everywhere feel like a damp musty towel has finally broken and given way to crisp cool air inviting a warm drink and a soft blanket. It’s finally the magical season we have all been waiting for: stewardship season.
Yes it’s everyone’s favorite time of year again, a magical few weeks before advent that clergy write awkward sermons asking for money, using this story about “giving what belongs to God” to chastise, guilt, and beg from the congregation. This year is extra special, at least that’s the polite way to describe it, because not only do we find ourselves in a health, financial, and political crisis, but our lectionary has betrayed us. Normally we can artfully and elegantly avoid speaking about money, politics, and religion, focusing instead on safe topics such as benefits of philanthropy, the importance of financial planning, and funding future ministries. However, with today’s reading, we are forced to contend with the uncomfortable reality that money, politics, and religion have always been intertwined, no matter how much we like to pretend otherwise.
This reading, which for me will always be in the King James Version, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” is one of those iconic passages from scripture not only because it’s a great comeback, but because it can and has been used to support basically any political or economic philosophy as desired. This passage has been used to justify the divine right of kings, anarchism, taxation as theft, taxation as moral responsibility, capitalism, socialism, the marriage of Church and State, and of course, the separation of Church and State, just to name a few. For such a short and clever sentence, it has had an incalculable impact on the world as a message of pragmatic liberation, and justification for exploitation.
How is it that this passage is so versatile? Jesus’ answer, though short, is deliberately obscure. It may be obvious what belongs to Caesar, after all the man’s face is stamped on the coin that he was demanding, yet what remains mysterious is what Jesus means when he says “and to God the things that are God’s”.
What are these things that belong to God? The first answer that comes to mind seems obvious: well, everything belongs to God right? He made it after all. It is a good Sunday school answer that unfortunately leads to a more difficult question: If everything belongs to God, that would mean Caesar belongs to God, so if we rendered the things that belong to Caesar to Caesar, would that mean that we would also be rendering them to God? In other words, is God demanding that we pay our taxes to the state, no matter what? This is where this passage has been used to support the marriage of Church and State and the divine right of kings. But that cannot be what Jesus meant, otherwise he would have simply fallen into the trap laid for him.
So, what if the things that belong to God are the His people, in other words, the Church. Well this too leads to more confounding questions. If Caesar is trying to usurp God, as the coin implied by the inscription proclaiming Caesar as god, then the Church is fundamentally opposed to the state and all powers that try to usurp God’s kingship on earth. In other words, we shouldn’t pay taxes, instead mark all that cash on your pledge card and let God protect you from the IRS. This is where this passage has been used to support the division of Church and State. But that also cannot be what Jesus meant, otherwise he would again be falling into the rhetorical trap.
The truth is that the logic I have presented is as nonsensical and scheming now as it was when the Pharisees and Herodians confronted Jesus. The temptation and danger of this passage is how easily it can be interpreted toward serving vested economic, political, and religious interests. In the context of stewardship, it was fashionable for centuries to use this story as a reminder to congregations to purchase indulgences, reserve pews, pay tithes, and fill out pledge cards; often using a confusing amalgamation of Torah passages describing the tithe to help the laity better discern exactly how much to render unto God. Yet all of these practices and confounding logic are exploitive, and missing the message that Jesus teaches.
What are these things that belong to God that we must give to God? Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says it best:
“So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.”
-I Corinthians 3:21-4:1
What Jesus is doing when he says “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” is rising above the schemes and machinations we confront him with to entrap him. He is making painfully clear that we have a twisted and narrow-minded sense of ownership both of material things such as money, and of spiritual things, such as Truth by twisting God’s Word to suit our selfish ends. What Jesus is teaching implicitly, and what Paul explains explicitly, is that we all belong to God, and that God has given all things, including Himself, to us.
To give to God the things that belong to God is our charge as stewards. God has entrusted us with no less than everyone and every thing, and it is our task to ensure that they are loved, provided for, and prepared for the kingdom of heaven that is at hand. Through the Gospel we see God’s boundless generosity, and in that generosity, we see our true wealth. It is that spirit of gratitude that serves as our guide as stewards of God’s creation. We see the outpouring of God’s love and generosity that we too are free to share our love and generosity.
In that same spirit of gratitude, as we begin our season of stewardship, before we lose ourselves in conversations about budgets, giving, pledging, and all the particulars that support this community, there is one more message that you all need to hear:
I am continually humbled by the tremendous generosity of this congregation. This community is generous not only in material wealth, but in talent, in time, and most importantly of all, in love. Because of your sharing of time, talent, and funding, in this moment of profound crisis, we have been able to maintain our facilities, help many people in need, and above all be a community who loves and welcomes all. In a world where people are valued only by their supposed productivity, the love and generosity that this community demonstrates daily is a profound rebuttal. The Holy Spirit of generosity and gratitude working through you has made the impossible possible. Your work as God’s church in the world is nothing short of a miracle.
We are faithful stewards when we share God’s love. Every time we ease just a little of the pain that is so deeply a part of the world, we are laying a foundation for God’s kingdom. We are building a kingdom where there will be no war, poverty, or pain. When we give to God what belongs to God, we will learn to beat our swords into plows, and our spears into pruning hooks so we can feed the world.1 Thank you for all that you have done, and all that you will do. Be safe and take care of yourself, we know that Caesar and many others demand their due. Know that here you are loved and if you have any need, this is your church and your family, we are here for you. For you belong to God.
1 Isaiah 2:24