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What Do You Think?

San Williams

October 16, 2011
Matthew 22:15-22

10-16-2011 Sermon “Tell us what you think.”  That’s the request the Pharisees and Herodians made to Jesus in today’s scripture.  As we know, this request was a trick to entrap Jesus.  They didn’t really want to know what he thought; what they wanted was for him to say something that would get him in trouble.  Still, as I contemplated this difficult passage, the Pharisees’ question to Jesus, “What do you think,” became my question to you.  Unlike the Pharisees and Herodians, I’m not trying to trick, entrap or get you into trouble.  No, the more I pondered this passage, the more I sincerely wondered what you, the congregation, think about it. My confession to you is that I’ve lived with this passage all week, read it over many times, scanned the commentaries, and I still don’t know what it means. That’s why I’m coming to you this morning asking, “What do you think?”

To begin, let’s put the Pharisees’ question in context.  Jesus had increasingly come under suspicion by the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and they were seeking a way to have him arrested.  So they came to him with a trick question about the lawfulness of the Roman tax.

Now if Jesus said it was lawful to pay the tax, he would alienate the Jewish population of Palestine, whose resentment toward the tax ran deep. As we well know, even today taxes are a matter of contentious debate.  Just imagine, though, how first-century Jews felt about being taxed–not by an elected government, but by a foreign dictator whose taxes were enforced by an occupying army.  So if Jesus voiced his support for the hated tax, he would lose credibility with his countrymen, especially the poor of the land.

If, on the other hand, he answered that is it not lawful to pay the tax, the religious leaders would have a reason to report him to the authorities on a charge of sedition against the government.  Either way Jesus answered, he would have gotten into trouble.  In today’s political terms this was a “gotcha” question.   Yet Jesus escapes their trap by replying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  Brilliant answer, don’t you think?  Except what, exactly, does it mean?

Well, I can tell you what various interpreters have said.   Some have concluded that Jesus’ remark was meant to separate the economic/political realm of our lives from the religious realm.  That is, some have taken his statement to mean that we are obligated to be responsible, dues-paying citizens of whatever political order we are under.  The Apostle Paul suggests as much in his letter to the Romans, wherein he admonishes the early Christians of Rome to be subject to the governing authorities, because their authority came from God.  So is Jesus saying that we owe certain things to the emperors of this world—things like taxes, while we own other things to God—such as our worship, our tithes, our prayers.  What do you think?

Other interpreters have discerned a more radical meaning in Jesus’ enigmatic response.  They point out that the coin used to pay the tax bore not only the image of Caesar, but also the inscription “Caesar, Son of God.”  Was Jesus reminding his fellow Jews that possessing such a coin was itself idolatry and a violation of the first two commandments?   Did Jesus’ instructions to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar carry a subtext that no faithful Jew could miss?  Namely, that nothing belonged to Caesar since, as the Psalmist proclaimed: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”  So is Jesus saying that we owe nothing to a false god like Caesar and should reserve all things for God?  I’m not sure.  What do you think?

Friends, I’m not merely asking a rhetorical question.  I really am interested in what you think.  My hunch about this passage, and it’s only a hunch, is that Jesus isn’t trying to separate out our religious responsibilities from the economic and political dimensions of our lives, even though we often do just that. In a recent seminary publication, our own Dave Jensen observed that many of us Christians today are functional Gnostics.  That is, our faith is viewed as a purely spiritual matter that doesn’t have any application to the physical, economic and political associations of our lives.

Yet it’s hard to imagine that Jesus intended such a separation.  During his ministry, he repeatedly connected our relationship to God with the needs of our neighbors.  He spoke a great deal about our attitudes and use of money.  He kept pointing his disciples to the needs of the poor, the outcast and the sick.  When we consider the sum of Jesus’ teachings, it’s hard not to conclude that for Jesus all our decisions and relationships—personal, public, economic and political—are to be shaped by our confession that the earth is the Lord’s and so is everything in it.

But even if you agree with this idea in principle, what does it mean in practice?  It’s easy to declare on Sunday morning that everything belongs to God, but it’s much more difficult to wrestle Monday through Saturday with questions such as:  How much money should I save, and how much should I give away? What should I buy, and what should I decline to buy?  What should we be teaching our children about money and possessions?  In short, how does our faith shape our economic decisions—our buying, saving, giving, and the rest?

Granted, these are not matters we often talk about in church.  Typically, the only time we talk about money is during stewardship season, when we’re asking you to consider you pledge to the church.  And yes, that’s coming up soon.  But this morning, I’m asking for your thoughts:  What things are Caesar’s and what are God’s?  I recently read about a twelve-week curriculum called “Lazarus at the Gate.”  In response to global poverty, the curriculum attempts to get Christians talking frankly with one another about how, as followers of Jesus, we think about and manage our incomes, budget our resources and simplify our lifestyles.  Are these matters that we can talk about in our church?

There’s a blank card in your bulletin.  I hope you’ll take a moment and write down what you think?  What one question about the relationship between faith and money would you most like to talk about at church?   You can put your card in the offering plate, or hand it to me after worship or even send it to me later by mail or e-mail.

“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  What does that mean for us today?  I’m inviting you to help me answer that question. Together we just might come to some new understanding.