This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Matthew 22:15-22.
The Pharisees were clever. They wanted to trap Jesus, catch him off-guard, get him to say something he’d regret. So they asked him about taxes. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” they said. The emperor they referred to was the head of the Roman Empire, who ruled over Israel at the time. And the tax they referred to was the tributum capitis, or “poll tax,” a tax that all subjects of the empire had to pay, for the privilege of being oppressed. This tax was deeply resented throughout the empire, but perhaps even more in Israel, because it could only be paid with a Roman denarius. This coin bore the image of the Emperor, and had words claiming that the emperor was divine. So for Jews, paying this tax was not only a financial hardship, but also participation in blasphemy and idolatry. The tax was scandalous, and even talking about it made many people agitated. So the Pharisees chose a good question to get Jesus in trouble: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
See, if Jesus said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay these taxes,” then many in the crowds would turn on him, and call him a traitor. He would lose a lot of support. But if Jesus said, “No, it is not lawful to pay these taxes,” then Rome would come down on him like a hammer, and eliminate him. Either way, the Pharisees would be free of him.
But Jesus found a third way through it. He said, “Show me the coin. Whose image is this on this coin?” They answered, “The emperor’s image.” He said, “Well then, give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. And give to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus seems to be saying that whatever bears the image of the emperor belongs to the emperor. And that would mean that whatever bears the image of God belongs to God. And a question hangs in the air:
What then belongs to God? What is it that bears the image of God?
Some words from Genesis chapter one: “So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Some words from our baptism liturgy: “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
What belongs to God? You do. We forget this so easily. We get distracted and tempted by other things. But deep down we know it, when we remember. Deep down we know that we are created in God’s image, that we are marked with the sign of Christ. And deep down we know that that’s not just a surface thing. We belong to God through and through, with everything we are, and everything we do.
Your mind – does that belong to God? Give to God the things that are God’s.
Your body – does that belong to God? Give to God the things that are God’s.
Your hands – your feet – do they belong to God?
Your skills – your talents – do they belong to God?
Your time – does that belong to God?
Your money – does that belong to God?
Your relationships – your family – your friends – do they belong to God?
Your successes – do they belong to God?
Your failures and your mistakes – do they belong to God?
Give to God the things that are God’s.
And this doesn’t mean giving up everything we have. It doesn’t mean giving away all our money, all our time. It doesn’t mean giving everything to the church. It means giving everything we have, everything we are to God. And while the church is certainly one way God operates in the world, it is by no means the only way.
Giving our whole selves to God includes the church, but it also includes a whole lot more. Perhaps giving all of our time to God means prayerfully sharing some of that time with the church, and also prayerfully sharing time with the workplaces where we make a difference in the world, and also prayerfully sharing time in our relationships with others, and in our times by ourselves for self-care and renewal. And perhaps giving all of our money to God means generously sharing some of that money with the church, and with other organizations, and also generously taking care of those we love, providing what they, and we, need. Perhaps every dollar we spend, whether it’s for hurricane relief or the electric bill or Oreo cookies, is an opportunity to praise and honor God.
Perhaps giving all of ourselves to God wouldn’t mean huge changes in what we do, but rather changes in how we look at what we do, how we think about it.
And perhaps if we try this, we would find some comfort, as we start to see that that there is always enough, enough for the emperor, enough for ourselves, enough for everyone. And perhaps if we try this, we would find some comfort, as we start to see that the whole world belongs to God, and that makes the whole world holy. And perhaps if we try this, we would find some comfort, as we start to see God with us as we give God what belongs to God.
Perhaps. I don’t know. Shall we try it together and find out?