19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 19, 2014
Matthew 22: 15-22
Thanks to those ancient church fathers who gave us this lectionary text for today. On a day when we see Jesus put on the spot about loyalties to civil authorities or God, we are surrounded by the work of hands that represents the work of their heart. The question Jesus asks is the vital question for us too when we talk about loyalties, “Whose image?”
The religious authorities have joined with the supporters of Herod’s government to try to trap Jesus into the kind of mistake that will give them an excuse to arrest him and accuse him of either blasphemy or treason. Both offenses are punishable by death. The tax in question was particularly offensive to the occupied Jews. It went to Rome to pay for the troops that were quartered in their land. So they were paying for their own occupiers. But Jesus walks the question back – or as my ethics professor used to call it, re-frames the question.
Interesting that Jesus is not carrying any money, but put on the spot, a coin is provided. The Jews hated the Roman money, and the religious authorities tried not to use it because it bore the likeness of Caesar Augustus and his claim to be the “son of God.” That image and claim were blasphemous to the Jews, who followed the commandment not to create any image of God. But here it is, solid in Jesus hand. You can just imaging him running his thumb over the raised image of the Emperor’s profile while he asks the question, “Whose head is this and whose title?”
The answer, of course, is “The Emperor.” Then Jesus’ answer is the challenge we confront every day: “Give to the Emperor the things which are the Emperor’s and to God, the things that are God’s.” There’s an important connection here between the image under which we conduct ourselves and where our loyalties or our obligations lie.
Back in the creation story, we are told that God creates humans “in our image.” Remember that? So as we look at our money and the images of dead presidents on it, we can be reminded that we bear an image, too. We bear the image of our creator and our redeemer. We bear the same image as Jesus. Coinage and money are political instruments, they demand our allegiance to a particular national culture, and require us to participate in it by returning that coinage for the material benefits we derive from that nation. Have you ever thought that in bearing the image of Jesus, of God, that certain allegiance is also required of you? “You shall have no other Gods before me,” says the first commandment. Or as Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, “You are to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” What does that mean as we think about allegiance? And what does it have to do with my budget and how I spend my money. In a culture like ours that is so fixated on money and material success as a measure of worth it is hard to see budgets as an indication of our allegiance. In the same way that our national budget is a political instrument and reflects our priorities as a nation, so our personal budget indicates where our allegiance lies. No matter how we divide our budget, we must never divide our allegiance to the One in whose image we are created. And what does that look like?
In the old days, a tithe was expected of God’s people, the first fruits of everything: the first son belonged to God and had to be redeemed for a sacrifice at the temple, the first 10% of the crop or the profit was expected to be offered at the temple. The land belonged to God as well, and part of it was to be left for gleaners, parts were left unplanted every seven years, and at the end of 49 years it reverted to the original owners. We still talk about tithing as an appropriate way to put God first, to recognize that all our benefits are blessings from God, and that investing in the ministry of our community is a way to recognize our allegiance to God above all other allegiances.
Interesting how that works: we as a ministry pay our own tithe to the “Big Church,” by sending a portion of our collection through the Oregon Synod to the ELCA. Part of what that supports is represented before you today in these quilts and health kits and school kits. Through your support of Our Savior’s and Our Savior’s support of the ELCA, we pay the administrative salaries of those who work for Lutheran World Relief and the Hunger Appeal. That means that when you give money to disaster relief for the hurricane in the Philippines, or mosquito nets in Central Africa, 100% of those donations go to the cause. When you send your pennies to buy animals through God’s Global Barnyard, (as we’ll do this Christmas)100% of the money we have collected goes to that, because administrative costs are already covered through our tithes.
One pastor friend of mine put markers in the pews on the Sunday morning she preached on this story. She asked people to pull out a credit card or the biggest bill they had in their wallet and to mark it with a cross. It was meant to help people remember that every time they put money out for something they are declaring their allegiance. It makes the world look different when you realize that you are the currency that God uses to make the world more just and generous, and that the image you bear is that of Jesus, who wasn’t afraid to give everything for you. It makes the world look different when you realize that even the smallest amount given out of love is giving to God the things that are God’s. Amen.