Pentecost – Proper 24
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96: 1-9 (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I grew up in a home where money was sometimes used as a way of control. For example, if I did not complete my chores at home, I didn’t receive my weekly allowance of 25 cents. The allowance, the money, was an incentive for me to attend to my responsibilities around the home. This is common for all of us - we are all impacted, and controlled by money. Isn’t that interesting? The numbers on a computer screen reflecting back a dollar amount or the dollar amount on a check can motivate us to do all kinds of things. Some of us get up in the morning, shower, comb our hair, and even brush our teeth because we have these things called “jobs” that pay us money.
Jesus talked a lot about money, but was neither controlled nor compelled by it. Today we hear religious leaders confronting Jesus about money. They try to manipulate him with a simple question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” This is a trick question, by the way.
The question posed to Jesus about whether or not to pay taxes to the emperor is a trick question because if Jesus declares publicly that it is forbidden to pay taxes to Rome, then he easily could be arrested for treason by the Roman Empire. On the other hand, if Jesus answered that the Torah allowed people to pay taxes, knowing that the income received from tax payments would be used to maintain pagan temples and sustain Roman rule, Jesus’ teaching on money, and his growing reputation would be renounced. The religious officials weren’t asking the question about paying taxes to the emperor because they wanted to know Jesus’ answer. They wanted to paint him into a corner by getting Jesus to say something either treasonous to Rome or offensive to Jews.
That’s a tough spot to be in, and Jesus was cornered, with no easy answer to give. So he didn’t give one. Instead he asked for the coin used to pay the Empire’s tax. This coin was called a denarius, and was worth roughly one day’s wage for a common laborer. So whatever amount you would pay someone for a day’s work back then, that was what one denarius was worth. One of the religious officials produced a denarius and hand it to Jesus. Jesus asks to see the coin because he himself does not have one. This detail matters because the likely reason Jesus was not able to produce a denarius was that denarii were produced in Gaul, far away from Jerusalem. The circulation of denarii in Jerusalem was likely scarce, and it was probably limited to people who were in collaboration with the Roman Empire. Different coinage was used instead of the denarius to buy things like fish or produce or clothing.
The denarius Jesus held was a coin that bore the likely image of Emperor Tiberius. The Emperor’s image was considered profane to observant Jews, and nothing profane was permitted inside the Temple, which is where this encounter with Jesus takes place.
That the religious officials questioning Jesus easily have a denarius to show Jesus demonstrates two things: (one) they are revealing their own hypocrisy by bringing something profane into a holy space, because a denarius bears the image of a pagan emperor and (two) that they routinely used them, taking advantage of Roman financial largesse.
Jesus held up the coin and asked them “whose head is on this coin?” and they replied “the emperor’s.” And Jesus said, “very well, this coin belongs to the emperor, return it to him.” “But also return to God the things that are God’s.”
The denarius belonged to the emperor because the emperor’s image was imprinted upon it. The point Jesus made was simple: A coin that had the emperor’s image on it belonged to the emperor, but creation is made in God’s image. Every person, the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God. Creation is made in the image of God. The point Jesus makes is simple, yet profound: if we are to return coins with the Emperor’s image upon them to the Emperor, what are we to return to God if everything already bears God’s image?
What do we give back to God? Jesus never clearly answered this question, at least in a way that we might prefer. Instead he asks each of us, what will you return, what will you give back?
That’s the question we are asking as a church this month as we prepare our budget for 2018. What do we give back to God? What number do we write onto that pledge card? I have had people come and speak to me about their stewardship, asking me what the “right” number is for a financial pledge commitment to St. Andrew’s. And in each case, I have said “I don’t know” - stewardship is between you and God. Every person’s situation is different, and every pledge tells a unique, intimate, and powerful story.
This month we are fortunate to have the stories of parishioners who have been courageous enough to tell the story of why they return back to God what already belongs to God through their financial commitment to this church. They are powerful stories that inspire me. Next week as we draw our campaign to a close, we will offer all our pledges for 2018 at the altar to be blessed. We will give back to God a portion of what God has already given us, in gratitude that God always gives, while never counting the cost. AMEN.