Proper 24-A; 10/16/2011
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
The newspaper headlines Friday morning were scooped, as is often the case, by the radio and internet. It turned out that the Occupy Wall Street protesters were not after all to be evicted from their camp in a park in lower Manhattan. Mayor Bloomberg announced that a deal had been struck; the protesters and the owner of the park would negotiate how to keep the park clean. The newspaper pictures showed earnest, long-haired, tattooed-types pushing brooms on sidewalks and heaving huge plastic bags of demonstration detritus. For the time being, Caesar, or at least Mayor Bloomberg, had been rendered unto. In the words of “the street,” a deal had been done, and the Mayor got what he wanted, apparently a promise of a cleaner park, a mollified property owner, and orderly protesters.
We Americans -- founded on biblical principles since the Puritans came to a reformed England in North America to found a city on a hill, a beacon of righteousness for all the world to see – we Americans have a long history of protesting economic arrangements, from taxes to big banks, that strike us as unfair. The tea in Boston Harbor was neither the beginning nor the end. Andrew Jackson became president on his opposition to the central banks. Nineteenth-century populists nearly elected another president, William Jennings Bryan, who was opposed to putting the currency on the gold standard. Explicitly Christian, Bryan’s famous “cross of gold” speech equated what the banking interests were doing to ordinary Americans with the crucifixion of Jesus.
Nothing is certain but death and taxes, goes the old saying. Just as certain, it seems, is the human propensity to acquire, and the matching propensity for others to rail against the injustice and unfairness of systems which give too much to some, and too little to others. And on top of it all, it seems, Caesar always looms.
People in 1st century Palestine paid a lot of taxes. Jews had to pay the Temple tax – 21 percent! Everyone had to pay customs taxes on what goods they traded. If you were a farmer (and 90 percent of the population were farmers), two-thirds of what you earned went to the Roman and Jewish elite, through a combination of how much you were taxed and who owned the land you farmed. In those days, they really ensured that the rich got rich and the poor got poorer.[i]
But it was the coin with the face of Caesar that was deeply offensive to all Jews, who lived by God’s commandment not to make graven images. This coin with the face of Caesar had to be used to pay the tribute tax to the Roman Empire. If you used this coin with the graven image to pay the tribute tax, you were breaking one of the Commandments handed down by God to Moses. If you did not use this coin – if you did not pay the tax – the Romans would lock you up for sedition, and that is much worse than being audited by the IRS.
Just about everyone who reads this passage from Matthew acknowledges that Jesus knows that his opponents are trying to trick him with this question, and so he cleverly avoids the trap. He dismisses the problem with the coin as not a theological one at all: this coin obviously belongs to Caesar, so give it back to him. So what? It’s only money.
Then he lays out the theological problem: Give to God what belongs to God.
In our lives, what does belong to our equivalent to Caesar? In our lives, what does belong to God?
Most of us, most of the time, pay taxes. “Caesar” has to know how much money we have, or how much we spend, in order to tax us, and here in the United States, many people spend a lot of money, both legally and under the table, to avoid paying taxes. A lot of people aren’t even “rendering unto Caesar” but shaving a little (or a lot) off the top before Caesar knows what’s happening.
So what do we do with that money that is NOT rendered unto Caesar? With that money that, in the United States at least, does not go into fixing the roads on which we all drive, or the emergency services we all hope will be there when we need them, or the schools where we learned to read and write? How many people seem to exercise a “preferential option for middle class living over living the gospel?”[ii] If we’re not giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, are we giving to God what is God’s?
Think about it: What is God’s? What do we owe to God?
In this gospel passage, Jesus raises the question without answering it. But the way Matthew has arranged these latter chapters of his gospel, we are hit with parable after parable that tell us what Jesus has in mind.
Think about the context: in Chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem – the story we read on Palm Sunday. Chapter 26 is the Last Supper. In between, we read parables, speeches, teaching moments, difficult conversations about the world – often illustrated in the stark economic reality of his day – and about how God’s followers should live in place that has clearly become unjust.
Read over these chapters some time. It is easy to see how they are overlooked, misinterpreted. It is easy to see how the church over the centuries has been domesticated, concerned with small things, with being nice, with being proper, with worrying about sexual morality, who’s in and who’s out. It is much easier to put the stuff we “render unto God” into our buildings or staff or heating bills.
But think about it: if this building and this staff and these heating bills are what we render unto God, what are we doing with them, especially when we look at all that we have in light of the urgency Jesus speaks in these last chapters of Matthew?
Yes, it is stewardship time. What we put in the plate is important, but it is only the beginning. If we are only paying for our maintenance, then yes, we are rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But if we realize that what we are paying for – this building, this place, this community, this table – is a launching pad for what Jesus wants us to do in this unjust, unhealthy and broken world, where people are lonely and isolated and poor and hungry and where what we can do can make a world of difference, then yes, indeed, everything we give, we render unto God.
[i] From Marcus Borg, “What belongs to God?” http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2000/04/What-Belongs-To-God.aspx