10/19/2014 Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Text for today’s sermon is Matthew 22:15-22.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Today’s gospel makes it clear…paying taxes is not optional, as if we ever thought it was. And neither is it an option for us to give to God, even though we may have assumed that we had a choice in that matter.
Now, I know that if there is one thing we all hate, it is paying taxes. We hate paying taxes not because we feel we don’t need the services we receive from the government. We wouldn’t want to do without fire and police protection, and garbage collection (if you are lucky enough to live in a place where you don’t have to hire someone to do it). We like having roads, help with cleaning up the environment, Social Security benefits, a military to protect us from our enemies, and the like. Sure, we could do with less corruption, overspending, and a ton of government programs which seem wasteful and problematic. Yet, the crux of our problem with taxes has little to do with these things. Instead, it has a lot to do with the fact that so much out of every dollar we earn goes to the government whether we like it or not…and it is used for things we neither know about nor control.
For most working people, tax dollars are skimmed off the top and are never seen in paychecks, and we don’t even begin earning money for ourselves until half the year has gone. So, it’s no wonder that many of us are discouraged. It’s hard to sit still when so much of what we work hard to earn evaporates before our very eyes in the taxes we pay. And yet, Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” But, does Caesar have to get so much? Someday, it would be nice to feel as though we receive more than we give when it comes to those tax dollars!
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s,” Jesus tells us. Caesar, the ruler of the day, seems to have the right idea when it comes to getting what he wants. We have no choice when it comes to paying taxes. By hook or by crook, the government will get it from us every time we fill up our gas tank, buy a car, pay a cell phone bill or order on line. But, God isn’t as demanding as the government. God doesn’t skim off his rightful portion of the blessings which he bestows upon us. God doesn’t force us to give him anything. So, it is easy for us to forget that we are indebted to him and should give him our very best.
The debt we owe to God is so large that we could never repay it, but unlike our creditors in this world, God doesn’t expect us to make full restitution. In this world, we can’t forget about paying our debts to those we owe. They won’t let us forget. We are billed, and if we don’t pay, we are dunned. If dunning us doesn’t work, then our entire credit rating will be affected and no one will let us acquire anything else on credit. But as if that were not enough, if we continue to refuse to pay, we will be brought to court and will be forced to pay up. Yet, God extends us unlimited credit when it comes to the use of the gifts which he has given us. We can use the water and the air. We can eat our fill of the vegetables, the meat and the grain his good earth provides. We can use our brains and our talents as we wish. We can use our time as we choose. But, all these things belong to God, as we, ourselves, belong to him who created us and made us his own in baptism. All that we are, all that we will be, all that we have, all that we will have, is on loan to us from God. He has extended to us unlimited credit, and only asked that we remember that he is a gracious God who has provided for us. We do not own what is God’s to give. We are the benefactors of his grace, and God only asked that we believe and trust in him, believe and trust in him enough to willingly offer a portion of the blessings he has bestowed upon us back to him for his use in this world.
The Bible speaks of a tithe, that is, 10% off the top – the very best we have to offer. Although this is far less than what we pay in taxes, Jesus is not as specific when it comes to what we should render unto God. That may be because the question that was asked of him by the Pharisees and the Herodians was intended to trap him on the issue of paying taxes. If he said, “Yes, pay taxes,” it would look like he was appeasing the Roman Empire and Jesus would lose the support of the nationalists. If he said, “No, don’t pay taxes to Rome,” then he would be squarely in the camp of revolutionaries, and the Herodians could denounce him as a subversive. Under these circumstances, Jesus answered the question with caution. He did not challenge the right of governments to collect taxes. After all, coins minted by governments are minor league when it comes to determining wealth. Real wealth comes not from coins, but from the God who blesses us with life itself. So, there is no doubt that, for Jesus, God’s claim comes first.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s.” When it comes to rendering to Caesar, paying our taxes, we have no choice, no option, other than jail, and we give reluctantly and begrudgingly. Sadly, when it comes to rendering unto God who gives us much more than the government, we often give with the same feelings of resentment. With this attitude, Christian stewardship – the responsibility that we have for all that God has entrusted to us, for both our use and care – is governed by obligation, biblical directives, membership vows, peer pressure and expectations, rather than thankfulness, joy, charity and discipleship. It becomes a process of determining relative value; that is, what is Caesar’s money, my money, and God’s money, and how much to whom? We may render unto God, but instead of offering the choicest portions, our very best, we give what is left over of our time, money, energy and talents. We render, but reluctantly and without thought to God’s graciousness to us.
Robbie Carlson has the right idea when it comes to rendering unto God. “When our daughter, Susan, was about six years old,” she writes, “we were talking about giving to the church. Her father gave her ten dimes and said that as her tithe she should give one of them in the offering. With a surprised look she said, ‘and I get to keep all the other dimes?’ When her father replied, ‘Yes,’ she cried. “Wow! God sure is nice’!”
God sure is nice. God brands us with the cross of Christ. God forgives us. God blesses us. God gives us all that we have here on earth. God gifts us with talents and time. God enables us to work in order to earn a living. And on top of it, God is a lot nicer than the government which demands an even greater portion of our earnings. It’s too bad that all of us can’t feel the same way about giving as Robbie’s little girl. God sure is nice. Wouldn’t it be nice for us to give with thanks, without complaint, to the God who gives freely to us more than we desire or deserve?
“Render unto Caesar,” Jesus says, “the things that are Caesar’s, but give to God the things that are God’s.” Give back a full portion of the time, talents and blessings received from his grace. That is what God deserves. That is what God would like to have all of us do as we work for justice and peace, serve our neighbor and those in need, read and hear his word, offer ourselves to the work of his church on earth. Yet, we still have the right to decide for ourselves. God will not force us to pony up, any more than he forces us to love him.
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…we don’t really have a choice in that regard anyway…but don’t forget to give to God the things that belong to him. Give to him a full portion, for he has given to you more than you could ever dream of having. He has given you the blessings of life and all the good things that this world holds, and so much more. He has given you the hope of eternal life…a gift held for you through the sacrifice of his only begotten son. What more could he give? What more could you need?
So, render unto God…give with praise and thanks giving. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.