We are in week 2 of our stewardship campaign and this morning we have Jesus being questioned about taxes. Since taxes are levied by the government, in Jesus’ case the Roman Empire, Jesus is being pushed into a corner, being asked to make a political statement. So for us this morning we have 2 of the 3 things Christians do not like to talk about on Sunday mornings smashed together into one sermon: money and politics. All we need is Jesus to do is say something, anything, about sex to have the “no-go” trifecta of preaching.
Before I continue, I want to note that after saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” 4 chapters later Jesus is arrested and later crucified. So as I navigate the financial and political tight wire Jesus has strung, my prayer is that I can do better than him.
On Thursday during my ethics class, titled “Power, Sex, and Money,” a classmate asked me during a group discussion about Christian sexual ethics if mainline churches preach about things like sex and money. My response was one of laughter first, but when that was not good enough, I cleared my throat and said that I did not recall Jesus addressing sex specifically but that our stewardship campaign was in its second week “so yeah, 1 out 2 isn’t bad, right?”
Jesus does talk about money. His ministry begins with the declaration of Jubilee, a time when all debt was to be forgiven. If we want to overlook the Jubilee declaration we can go back to the beginning of the Gospel story all-together, to the 8 pound 6 ounce new born baby Jesus, in his golden fleece diapers. Does anyone recall why Mary, about 9 months pregnant, was traveling? A census to calculate the tax levied by CaesarAugustus, which was to be paid by Israel living under Roman occupation, was to be taken. Mary and Jospeh were returning to Joseph’s hometown to be counted. On the other end of the Gospel story, Jesus’ proclamation that the Kingdom of God had come, a rival king to Caesar , threatened the tax system Roman relied heavily on. Whether we like it or not, Jesus’ ministry had then, and continues today, to bear financial implications for those aligning themselves with his ministry.
The Pharisees and Herodians were strange bedfellows. The Pharisees did not like their Roman occupiers. They were orthodox in belief, Hebrew Bible-believing observers of God’s laws and commandments. The Herodians supported the Roman occupation. Yes, they had to pay taxes to their occupiers, but Rome brought roads, sanitation systems, and clean water with them. They feared Jesus would bring about a revolution, ruining what they saw as good-living and stability, and would turn on Jesus the moment he threatened change or provoked them. Imagine the extreme-right of the Republican part and the extreme-left of the Democrat party teaming together. That is what was happening with these two groups coming together. And the question they posed to Jesus was meant to be the ammunition they needed to get rid of him.
The question presented to Jesus, “Does the Law (Jewish law or Empire law?) allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not,” was intended to be an impossible question for Jesus to answer. If Jesus answers no, he would have been arrested and killed as a threat to the established order of the Roman Empire. The Herodians would keep the stability they loved so much. If he responded yes, his ministry would be over. The Pharisees would have used that response to prove he was a false prophet. Jesus is being put into an impossible situation.
Pick a side Jesus. What is it going to be?
When Jesus asks for the coin and asks,“Whose image and inscription is this,” the third-way that no one saw coming appears. Jesus begins to show the true motives of his confronters. The word Jesus used for image is eikon. That is the same word used at the beginning of Genesis when it says that we are made in the image of God; icons. The response Jesus receives from the Pharisees and Herodians of “Caesar ” sets Jesus up with, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” But what we miss in our English translations is that Jesus is really saying, “pay back to Caesarwhat he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.” Give the coin back to Caesarbecause it has his name and image on it. It belongs to him.
It is important to note that the Pharisees viewed the Roman tax to be heretical. The denarius was equivalent to a quarter. The tax was not a burden. It was offensive. Carrying that coin, the only coin you could use to pay the tax with, the coin the bore the eikon and name of Caesar Tiberius, with the inscription ‘Son of God, our Great High Priest,’ put the Jews in a tough place. Remember back to Exodus, chapter 20 – ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ Anyone who carried this coin was ritually unclean, and because of that it could never be carried into the temple, which is why there were money changes set up outside of the Temple grounds, profiting on the Jews who needed to, were required to, exchange their currency before they could enter the temple to worship.
So now Jesus, if we are to pay back to Caesar what belongs to him, and pay back to God what belongs to God, what are we to give back to God? If Caesardeserves his money back because it has his image engraved on it, what does God deserve?
Jesus was telling the right and left wings of the synagogue that you give Caesarwhat bears his image, but that while Caesarcan require a specific engraved coin to be used to pay the tax you cannot pay him something that God has already laid claim to. God has already stamped God’s on eikon on you. When reading this story we run the risk of mixing up God and Caesar . We read it and immediately think Jesus’ response is about figuring out the dollar amount we are to give to God and to Caesar . Is it 10% before or after taxes? Can I leave out the returns on my investments? Jesus was only talking about the number on my W-2, right? Two numbers, and chances are, we fear the number we choose to give to God will dwarf in comparison to what we owe Caesar .
While the U.S. Mint has stamped God onto our currency the only thing God has stamped an image on is you and me.
Payback to God what God deserves. Give to God what belongs to God.
We are image-bearers of God.
We bear the image of a loving, forgiving, and gracious God. Perhaps what we owe to God is the grace and generosity that God extends to each of us. Regardless of the calculations required to determine what we owe to Caesar , and the corruption outside the Temple gates we are forced into as we trade in our dirty money, as image-bearers of God, God does not want a meticulously calculated return. God does not want us to split hairs over itemized deductions.
God was all of us.
Yes, God wants all of us gathered here in the communal sense, but God also wants all of you. God wants you fully committed to the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed had arrived when he announced the Jubilee. Remember, in Jesus’ answer he did not “say that there are two distinct realms, the religious and secular, and that they both require equal fidelity.” He said payback what is theirs (God and Caesar)
When we give ourselves fully to the Kingdom of God we become fully invested in the ministry Jesus began 2000 years ago. Being fully invested means that we are just as committed to keeping the lights on and toilet paper stocked as we are about new organs, building renovations, and international mission trips. It means that our lives are committed to the ministry happening everyday in this church.
Church buildings, especially large ones like Mount Olivet, are often viewed as financial liabilities. Large buildings require maintenance, are more expensive to heat, and can seem as though they are cared for just to serve the social-club church on Sunday mornings. That mindset does not have the Kingdom of God in mind.
This church building is a hub of activity from early in the morning, 6:00 am, until late in the evening. Part of the ministry of Mount Olivet is to provide safe spaces for church groups to meet yes, but also a place where the community gathers. From preschool and scout groups to a chess club, neighborhood association boards, and recovery groups, all of them are blessed by the day-to-day operations of Mount Olivet.
A rough count of the calendar by Tina tells me that 17 different groups, in addition to ministries of Mount Olivet, are impacted the day-to-day ministries of our church. 17, that’s more than 2 per day.
Keeping the lights on is about more than just paying back to Dominion Power what is determined to be theres by the meter. Keeping the lights on is about providing a safe and illuminated parking lot where divorced parents can meet on neutral turf to drop-off and pick-up their children. Keeping the lights on at Mount Olivet means we are fully invested in the ministry happening in our community. Being fully invested means that we care about the little things just as much as we do about the big, sexy, church ministries. Keeping the lights on at Mount Olivet is an opportunity for us to ensure that this faith community remains a light to the community around us, the Waycroft-Woodlawn but also to Ballston, Clarendon, and the greater Arlington Community.
We keep the lights on because we are returning ourselves to the One whose eikon was stamped onto our lives when we were formed in our mother’s womb and through the new life we receive when we die to ourselves in the waters of baptism. We keep the lights on because we have not mixed up God and Caesar.
As image-bearers of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace all we can pay-back is that which God has given us, giving God everything.