The Rector’s sermon for October 22, 2017   


Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22


On November 13, 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a letter to a friend.  In that letter, Franklin touched on many things, but what makes the letter memorable is this statement, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  Over 200 years have passed and how many times have we heard that statement, even today!  Life changes all around us, but death and taxes are still a fact.  Obviously death has always been around and taxes came along early in the history of civilization.  From the very beginning, whoever was in charge always found a way to make sure someone else paid for what they wanted to happen.  So, it’s not surprising that the enemies of Jesus used the subject of taxes to lure him into a trap. At least that was their plan.


Scripture tells us that the Pharisees and the Herodians were in on this, and that was unusual because the Pharisees and the Herodians were not natural allies. The Herodians supported the rule of Herod, knowing that he fully cooperated with the Roman rulers and that he received his power and authority at their pleasure. The Pharisees were experts on Jewish law and believed they had its only correct interpretation. When they referred to the law, they were speaking specifically about the Torah, the first five books of our Bible.  There was a natural distrust and animosity between the Herodians and the Pharisees.  Yet here they are, working together…teaming up to confront Jesus.  Jesus was no longer just a nuisance.  In their view, he had become a threat to the religious and political order of the day.  So, they came up with a plan to trap him.  The question they presented to Jesus could go either way—supporting the Pharisees or supporting the Herodians.  Truth be known, they didn’t care how Jesus answered.  They were convinced that, whatever his answer, a large portion of the people would turn against him. And they thought it was a perfect plan.


They started the conversation in the temple with high praise for Jesus, saying that his approach with the people was good.  “Teacher, we know that you are an honest man and that you teach the truth about God’s way.  You are not afraid of what other people think about you, because you pay no attention to who they are.”  Then, thinking they had “softened him up,” they spring the trap. “Tell us, then. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  Regardless of how Jesus answers, he would reveal his political side.  He would be just another commentator where some would agree with him, and others would disagree and challenge him.  And as Jesus often did, he drops them in their tracks.


 “You hypocrites,” he says, “Why are you putting me to the test?  Show me the coin used for the tax.”  They do. Then he says to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” They answer, “The emperor’s.”  Then he says to them,  “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And if we were keeping score:  Jesus: one; the enemy: zero!


One of the big questions—along with others—that arise from today’s teaching is this: Is there one kingdom that I owe my allegiance to ...or are there two?  And when I “give to Caesar,” am I doing so out of allegiance or out of obedience?  And when I “give to Caesar,” am I admitting that part of my life does not fall under my allegiance to God?   And is it even possible to have split allegiances?  


In another part of the Gospel Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  So which is it?  It’s easy to say that we would never split our allegiance away from God.  But life often gets in the way of our best intentions, doesn’t it.  Of course we will choose to serve God first, but what do we do with the real world?  Those of us who are still in the working world deal with that issue. Or in family life, sometimes our priorities get lopsided.  Of course we give to God, but what about our family financial obligations?  And what about the issue of “working on Sunday?”  And not to get lost in the multitude of issues, what about “me” time?  Or for a couple, “us” time?  How does all this balance out when we talk about our allegiance?


With Jesus’ statement about giving to the emperor and giving to God, he acknowledges that God’s law allows Caesar to receive that which bears his image.  That which “bears Caesar’s image.”  Look at our own money.  The images on all of it represent our forefathers and political leaders.   But at the same time, Jesus places that action within the greater context of life.  What bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar, but those who bear the image of God should give to God that which belongs to God. 


So what belongs to God?  Psalm 24 says it like this: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”  The earth and all that is in it belong to God!  Does that include the emperor?  Does that include the Pharisees and the Herodians?  Does that include people who don’t look like us, who don’t believe like us, who don’t agree with us?   The psalmist says: The earth.  All that is in it. The world. And all those who live in it.  Jesus’ command was to give to God that which is God’s.


Let’s look at some specific parts of life that should belong to God.  Money.  The Bible speaks about money and resources in hundreds of places.  One of the recurring themes in these is the idea of giving to God first.  That is a Stewardship message directly from God.  In Exodus we read, “The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God.” As we make decisions about how we spend and save and invest our money, we should be thinking in terms of showing our allegiance to and love for God first by returning to God the first fruits of our labor, as opposed to paying everything else and then, if there is anything left after the bills are paid, giving a few dollars to God.


Work should also belong to God.  There are thousands of different jobs just among our community. If you find yourself working a job where every day you have to close your eyes to the things about the job that are displeasing to God, it’s probably time to look for a different job.  If you find yourself in a job, paid or volunteer, where you must routinely neglect your duties as a wife or husband, or as a mother or father, because the position requires somuch of your time, it’s probably time to make a change.  But if you look forward to each day, whether you go to a paid position or volunteer work, chances are you’re serving both humankind and God…and that is a blessing.


And what about family?  Do you spend time with each other?  As it is written in Exodus, can you say without reservation, “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD”?    For those who have spouses, do you share meals together?   Or does the TV, a cell phone, a computer, outside activities, take you away from each other more than they should?   Do you worship together?  All those things speak to how you understand just what belongs to the Lord.


Benjamin Franklin spoke about the certainty of death and taxes.  Surely Jesus would amend that list to the certainty of God’s love and sovereignty in our lives.  If we give to God all that is God’s, our actions will show the world who we are…and whose we are.

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