It is often said that in mixed company there are certain topics that are not “suitable” for conversation. Usually it’s the big four: money, politics, religion, and sex. Luckily for us, we’re going to cover 3 out of the 4 today. I’m all for going against the grain and talking about things that society thinks we shouldn’t. What if I asked you to turn to the person closest to you (that’s not related) and asked you to share with them the balance of your bank account? Or what if, when it came time for the offering, I asked you to hand your checkbook or wallet over to the person close to you and allow them to decide your offering for today. As long as we’re making one another pretty uncomfortable here, how would you feel if I asked you to tell someone what you paid for your car, or the balance on your credit card, or even your yearly salary (if you have one). What if you had to bring a friend from church into the voting booth with you? What if I met you at your polling place and went into the booth with you? (I know what you’re thinking “Pastor’s hitting it pretty hard pretty early….now might be a good time to go to the bathroom.”)
Sometimes I wish that Jesus’ stories and parables were in a nice, neat little package that ended “and what Jesus meant when he said this was….” But that never seems to be the case, does it? Just like his listeners in this parable, we might be left a little awe-struck, confused, curious, or maybe even mad. What does this mean, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” Once again, the Pharisees, in an attempt to basically frame Jesus (so they can arrest him and ultimately crucify him) are left with (I’m guessing) a lot of questions and not enough answers.
During this particular time period, Jews were taxed for a lot of things. There was a temple tax, land taxes, customs taxes, and on and on. The tax in question in today’s reading is an interesting one because it was the tax that the Jews were forced to pay their oppressors. An imperial tax (as the one in today’s reading) was a tax that paid to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. Basically, it would be like being bullied, and then paying the bully to support him or her in bullying classes so that they can learn to be a better bully. Got it?
The Pharisees take the opportunity to ask Jesus what he thinks of such a tax. In Jesus’ typical style he doesn’t outright answer them. He asks to see the coin used to pay the tax and asks whose face is on the coin. Which, of course, got me to thinking about our own money. Our money has pictures of our deceased forefathers and is emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust.” Our money is an oxymoron, really. What Jesus told the Pharisees is just as prevalent today as it was in ancient Jerusalem. Give to the government the things that belong to the government and give to God the things that belong to God. You will notice that not once did Jesus say “and keep a little for yourself.”
What I am about to tell you, friends, may be an equal mix between shocking and not at all surprising. All that you own, all that you have, all that you are, everything that you says is “yours” actually belongs to God. Every square foot of your home, every possession in your closets, every vehicle in your garage (or machine shed or quonset), every last single penny you have to your name belongs to God. Before you start to form the argument in your head that I might just be wrong about this, let me give you some examples.
The nights I put Ellen to bed, I trace the sign of the cross on her forehead as a reminder to her of her baptism. But it’s a reminder to me that she ultimately belongs to God. I didn’t make her, God did. Every month when I open my student loan bill (and groan a little) I remind myself that God gave me the knowledge I needed at the university level, God provided in ways I still don’t understand while we were in seminary and I am quick to thank God for the opportunity to study and be in school because there are others in this world that are literally dying for that right and privilege. Everything that is in my fridge belongs to God. The milk came from a cow that was cared for by someone like you and that cow was created by God. My bread came from fields of Kansas wheat, carefully cultivated by farmers just like us, on land that was created by God. When I start my car up in the morning, I give thanks to God for the gas that allows it to run. This is gas (which is partially corn) grown by you, combined in machines that also belong to God.
Everything we have, everything we are, it all belongs to God. This kind of thinking isn’t easy and honestly, it’s not what we’re used to (it’s not “natural”). It’s MY stuff. It’s MY car, MY house, MY kids, MY money! But really, it’s not. I have never seen a Brinks truck pull up behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you, right? I saw this great poster on the internet somewhere this past week and it read “when all the trees are cut down, when all the animals are dead, when all the waters are poisoned, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover that you cannot eat money.” That has been with me all week.
I’m not an expert in this kind of thing, I still get wrapped up in the “mine mine mine” attitude. Sometimes I buy something because I think “I deserve it” instead of remembering that God provided the funds for me to buy whatever it is that I am wanting. Not too long ago a colleague shared that she had done something that changed her perception of money and served as a small reminder of what it means to be a good steward of everything God gives us. She took out her debit card and with a sharpie, she drew a cross on the corner. Every time she takes it out of her wallet, she is reminded of who is providing for what she is buying. This could be an interesting exercise. Draw a cross on your debit card, your credit cards, your check book, your wallet, your front door, your fridge door, your car door, your combine door, and on and on and on.
In our baptism, we were claimed by God. That cross on our foreheads is a reminder to us and to all who see us that we belong to God. We are so much more than the total in our bank account, or the labels on our clothes, or the number of bushels in storage, and we are so much more than lies we have bought into that make us believe that we alone are not enough. We are so much more than all of that. We were made by God, in the image of God, marked with the cross of Christ, and claimed by God for all eternity. No matter what, we are first and foremost beloved children of God. That mark on your forehead, that identity, that is worth more than all the riches of the world combined. The meal that we are about to eat is so amazing, it could be served in the best 5 star restaurants in the world, but instead it’s free.
Not my table, but God’s. Not my church, but God’s. Not my people, but God’s. Not my life, but God’s.