10/22/2017 Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 22:15-22.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s gospel is one that is familiar to all of us.
We have heard it argued that “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” implies a strict separation of church and state, that Jesus is dividing life into two separate and distinct parts – a spiritual part and a secular, or worldly, part. But is Jesus really telling us to obey God in the spiritual realm and to obey the government in everything else? It might be nice to have such a neat little division – where politics is politics and religion is religion and never the twain shall meet. But, we know that isn’t how it works.
We can’t divide our lives like that. For we live with many obligations and priorities and most of them simply don’t fit together. They are like the answers to the questions:
Did you put on shoes this morning, or did you come to church in a car?
Do you eat cereal for breakfast, or don’t you like football?
Are you Lutheran, or do you live in America?
Will you obey God, or will you pay taxes to Caesar?
These are false dichotomies, that is things that are wrongly set against each other, “either/or”s that really make no sense at all. For, can you wear shoes and come to church in a car? Can you eat cereal and enjoy football? Can you be Lutheran and live in America? Of course; in fact, you can be an American Lutheran who wears shoes and eats cereal while enjoying football after you’ve traveled to and from church in a car. None of these things are mutually exclusive. (Tim Pauls, Your Two-Kingdom Life)
So, when Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes, he treats the question like a dichotomy. Of course, it is lawful to pay taxes. Whose picture is on the coin that is used to pay this obligation? There is nothing in the scriptures that forbids us from doing our duty as a citizen. In fact, paying taxes is a responsibility as those tax dollars go toward providing for our needs and the needs of others.
Sure, we may grouse about it. No one likes paying taxes. And it would be nice if we could use religious convictions as an excuse for not keeping the civil law. But there is nothing in scripture that instructs us to do so. So we keep our obligations as members of society and as followers of Jesus Christ we “seek first the kingdom of God.” We render to the government that which is required by law, and at the same time, we hand everything over to God for safe keeping. This giving to God is not a legal requirement. It is an act of thankfulness, hope, faith and joy, knowing that God will provide for our every need.
It is this second half of Jesus statement that caused uproar. For, we like to think that we can do it all ourselves. We like our independence and like to live life our way. At that means we render what we want, when we want and how much we want if we render to God at all.
For somehow, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, we have forgotten the rendering to God. We think that everything we have and everything we are is of our own doing, so we can use it as we please. Yes, we pay our taxes because we can’t figure a way out of it; but rendering to God is another thing. We see it as optional. We view it as an extra. We think of it as a nice add-on to our life, IF and only IF we have the time, energy and resources to toss a little in that direction. In stewardship terms, giving back to God means giving 10% off the top of your time, energy and resources and that’s much more than spending an hour in church on a Sunday when there is nothing else on the calendar. Of course, that means that we suffer spiritually. For, rendering to God isn’t the option. It is an opportunity that we fail to utilize.
We know that the biggest struggle most Christian churches are facing right now deals with the number of people who are actively involved in church life and the financial and physical consequences this causes. Recent studies have shown that the younger generations don’t consider church to be important and even those who have some interest in organized religion simply don’t give like the Baby Boomers. In fact, many don’t give at all. They are not giving of their time…if they don’t have children, we are lucky to see them a couple a times a year in church. They are not giving of their talents – that’s why we have to find creative ways to perform even the basics of ministry. They are not giving of their money…so churches are closing right and left because you can’t maintain a physical plant like the one we have without money for utilities, supplies and maintenance.
This would be bad enough if the lack of giving only applied to local churches. But rendering to God has a much broader implication. As Martin Luther wrote, “I have held many things in my hand, and have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands that I still possess.”
That new car, the latest smart phone, the home, the sports activities…they will one day fade away. Our bodies will age. Our needs and activities will change. Over time, every-thing we have now, every-thing we consider valuable other than a relationship with God will be gone…some will go the way of the 8-track faster than others. But they will all slip through our fingers. The only lasting things are what we place in God’s hands…our faith, our love, our sense of being, our whole life. God protects and guards these things. They are blessings we render unto God for safe keeping.
Somehow, all too many people have forgotten this…if they ever understood it or heard it in the first place. So, they don’t get involved. They stay at home. They never pray unless they have need. They get their “church” online if they desire to have any spiritual connection to anything but their own little world. And they give little or nothing back to God for the blessings bestowed.
I wish I had a magic wand and could open people’s eyes to the truth that Jesus speaks on this day. It would make life a lot easier around here as pews would be filled, hearts would overflow, wallets would be opened and the needs of many would be met. But today, I’m speaking, figuratively, to the choir and not to those who need to hear these words the most.
And yet, through the grace of God, I know that all is not lost. Today, I rejoice as we welcome some new members into our congregation. And next week, I will rejoice as 3 of our youth will affirm their faith. The numbers of those making such a commitment to live a life of faith may not be large, but God continues to work in the hearts of those who listen to the words of Christ Jesus.
So while we may grouse about paying taxes, may we not grouse about placing into God’s hands the best of all that we have – for what we have here on earth is temporary and what Jesus offers us through his life, death and resurrection is life in God’s kingdom forever.
May we rejoice in God’s good gifts to us by placing our hearts and lives in God’s hands. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.