18th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29
October 16, 2011
Matthew 22:15-22, Isaiah 45:1-7
“No new taxes!” Not liking taxes is nothing new, you see. Talk about Bible stories ripped from the headlines! Church leaders were arguing about taxes to Jesus.
The Temple elite who were trying to trap Jesus thought they had him in a really awful place. Taxes are always an issue for a colonial people. You pay to fund the oppression you experience. The coin of the Roman realm was loaded with propaganda. The silver denarii of Tiberius Caesar had his profile on it, and are inscribed with religious and political claims. Claims such as “son of the divine Augustus” and “high priest” of Rome were typical. So a coin was loaded with enough material to offend any sensitive conscience. Besides the taxes being oppressive, many religious leaders felt that they were blasphemous in their claims for the Emperor and wanted to opt out of the taxes because of those claims. But this is not the issue with the leaders who confront Jesus in today’s reading. They are simply trying to trap him with a very sensitive issue.
“Give back to the emperor those things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” It sounds so simple. That division would seem to imply that the taxes we pay to support the public good of our democracy are separate from what we would pay to support a church community or the larger church. But that’s not what Jesus really says.
What if he’d said instead, “Give back to God the things that are God’s and give to the emperor the part that is the emperor’s.” The point I’m trying to make is that what is God’s is not something we can ever really pay back. People tell me that pastors are not supposed to talk about politics from the pulpit, but I don’t know how that is possible. Our life in God includes our civic life. How we care for others as God’s people is part of our civic life. Our blessings in this country include our freedom to believe and practice our faith in public, and our freedom to disagree with our government. These are blessings that people in other parts of the world are giving up their lives for these days. Talk about ripped from the headlines.
So I ask you, what is it we have from God that bears God’s image, and that we would count when we are thinking of giving back to God? Are we created in God’s image? We give our heart and soul and prayer and praise. And, Jesus tells us, when we care for the least of God’s people we are caring for him. When we honor the bodies of the sick, the hungry, the prisoners, the excluded, we are honoring the flesh that bears God’s imprint. Are we blessed with enough to feed our children and keep them safe? When we take good care of our families and support our church we are passing on that blessing. When we give in the world instead of grasp, we are giving back to God.
How easy it is in our culture of individuality and self-sufficiency to believe that all we have is the result of our own hard work. How easy it is to want to hold onto it and to see others who have less as grasping and shiftless. But our faith story tells us that God loves beyond what we deserve. We have been treated so generously, how can we not be generous? God loves us abundantly, steadfastly, no matter what we have done or not done. Even the best we have to offer in prayer and worship would not be good enough to win God’s approval, but because of his enormous love for us, we are accepted and embraced. We have come to rely so much on our money and things that we may have lost sight of the most precious commodity that we have. It is God’s love for us, and God’s gift of grace that brings us into God’s own family. Jesus came into our world to be God’s image among us; to bring us new life that can only be grasped by trust in God’s promises. It is how that love becomes part of our life that is our civic story as well as our personal one.
The women in Mexico that I met had no money other than the pennies they raised by selling their embroidery. I was terrified of meeting them, as being the woman without resources was my personal nightmare. But they cared for each other, and shared in a way I had never witnessed before. If someone had a need, all of them worked to fill it, and so they saw to it that no one did without what was necessary. I came away from Mexico feeling as if I was the poor one, because all I had was money, I had never experienced that kind of community.
What is it that bears God’s imprint for you? When you think of all the gifts you have received as blessings from God, what would you offer in gratitude?
Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.