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Sermon: Only a test

Only a Test

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA 10-22-2017)

I have a suggestion for the next time you have guests over for dinner. Invite everyone at the table to offer their thoughts on taxes and then sit back and listen. It might result in a calm, serene, respectful conversation that does not last long because everyone agrees with each other. If so, you will have witnessed a miracle at your dinner table. Whether in colonial Boston, first century Palestine, or 21st century America, mention taxes, then stand back and watch the fireworks explode.

In the text for today, the always tame topic of taxation is raised by two groups, the Herodians and the Pharisees. These two Jewish groups active in the time of Jesus agreed on almost nothing, except that Jesus had to go. The tax in question was the infamous imperial tax paid by Jews as tribute to Rome, a head tax with no benefits for the Jews under Roman occupation. It was a tax that could not be hated more by occupied Jews and you can understand why.

Jesus has the taxation conversation not over a lovely dinner with friends, but out in the public square when he is accosted by the false praises of his opponents. They ask him to answer a pointed question about taxation, the answer to which even his questioners disagree.

Before Jesus answers their question, he asks them for a denarius, a coin worth a day’s wage. Imprinted on the face of the coin, or in the Greek, the “icon,” was the face of Caesar, with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.” Jesus, then, asks them a question: “Whose image is on this coin?” The questioners respond, “Caesar.” ”Well, then, says Jesus, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”

This answer from Jesus seems straightforward enough. Maybe Matthew has finally served up a simple and straightforward parable-like saying from Jesus. Some think so. They read this text and say that Jesus is merely playing a word game with those who are out to get him. If Jesus answers, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he will be perceived as someone who is in the pocket of the Romans, just like the Herodians. If Jesus answers in the negative, then the Romans will string him up for sedition. So, instead, Jesus proves himself a skilled debater and turns the question on the questioners. It is a simple game of wits and he outwits his opponents.

Others read this text as equally straightforward and simple, as a battle cry for the strict separation of church and state. Simply put: pay your taxes to the state and pay your tithe to the church.

Actually, I doubt either conclusion begins to probe the depths of this exchange. In his brilliant commentary on Matthew, Tom Long writes, “Whether we call it taxation, tithing, or stewardship, there is the temptation to compartmentalize life (‘I set aside this part for God, and the rest belongs to me and to Caesar’). What Jesus says is that, although we may have to live under this or that Caesar and we may have to plunk down this or that tax, we never belong to Caesar. We belong, body and soul, to the living God, and we are to render to God what is God’s” (Tom Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, pp. 251-252). In other words, what belongs to God? Everything.

What then belongs to Caesar? Absolutely nothing.

Tucked inside the Presbyterian Book of Confessions is a catechism written in the 16th century. A catechism was a question and answer technique to teach the faith to children and all those who could not read. The Heidelberg Catechism begins with a question and answer which frames all the questions and answers that follow: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” That is the opening question, to which the catechumen is taught to respond: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

Centuries before the Heidelberg Catechism was written, the prophet Isaiah spoke this word of God: “Can a woman forget her nursing child? . . . Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:1`5-16). The exchange between Jesus and his opponents is not really about the merit of taxation. It is about the merit of remembering that we belong to God, body and soul. It is about remembering that you and I walk around stamped with an imprint of the divine. That is what we celebrate each time baptismal waters flow. Or, as Richard Spalding says so beautifully, “Baptism is the watermark of our true currency . . . We bear God’s image—as the palm of God’s hand bears ours.” (Feasting on the Word, p. 192).

“Give unto God,” says Jesus. Why? What in the world does God need from me or from you? According to this fascinating exchange in Matthew’s Gospel, it has nothing to do with what God needs from us. It has everything to do with our living into the joy of belonging to God, not our religious self or our spiritual self or our benevolent self or our political self or our philosophical self. It has everything to do with our living into the joy of belonging to God, body and soul.

Living into the joy of belonging to God takes so many forms. It can be giving more to the ministry of God’s people, the church, than what seems prudent or spending hours hammering at Habitat when we have plenty of work to do at home or building homes in Reynosa when we have to take time off work to do so or assisting developing countries to build better buildings when we need better buildings right here. It can be advocating to elected leaders on behalf of those denied basic health and mental health care or singing in the Cove Choir or serving on the Cove Session or lighting candles or preparing communion or giving an extravagant welcome to everyone who joins us to worship God in this sanctuary. “Give unto God what belongs to God.” In other words, give God all that we are heart, soul, mind, and body with unreserved joy.

The question the Herodians and Pharisees ask Jesus was only a test and a test intended for Jesus to fail. The real test, then and now, is how you and I will live into Jesus’ answer, “Give unto God all that belongs to God.” How will you and I embrace our own God given image every single day, every waking moment, always remembering to whom we belong, knowing that the giving of ourselves is never a matter of carving out leftovers for God; it is always joyfully and gladly, sacrificially and generously living into our God given image, an image that has more life, more vitality than any ever imprinted on any coin.

To whom do you belong?

AMEN

I have a suggestion for the next time you have guests over for dinner. Invite everyone at the table to offer their thoughts on taxes and then sit back and listen. It might result in a calm, serene, respectful conversation that does not last long because everyone agrees with each other. If so, you will have witnessed a miracle at your dinner table. Whether in colonial Boston, first century Palestine, or 21st century America, mention taxes, then stand back and watch the fireworks explode.

In the text for today, the always tame topic of taxation is raised by two groups, the Herodians and the Pharisees. These two Jewish groups active in the time of Jesus agreed on almost nothing, except that Jesus had to go. The tax in question was the infamous imperial tax paid by Jews as tribute to Rome, a head tax with no benefits for the Jews under Roman occupation. It was a tax that could not be hated more by occupied Jews and you can understand why.

Jesus has the taxation conversation not over a lovely dinner with friends, but out in the public square when he is accosted by the false praises of his opponents. They ask him to answer a pointed question about taxation, the answer to which even his questioners disagree.

Before Jesus answers their question, he asks them for a denarius, a coin worth a day’s wage. Imprinted on the face of the coin, or in the Greek, the “icon,” was the face of Caesar, with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.” Jesus, then, asks them a question: “Whose image is on this coin?” The questioners respond, “Caesar.” ”Well, then, says Jesus, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”

This answer from Jesus seems straightforward enough. Maybe Matthew has finally served up a simple and straightforward parable-like saying from Jesus. Some think so. They read this text and say that Jesus is merely playing a word game with those who are out to get him. If Jesus answers, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he will be perceived as someone who is in the pocket of the Romans, just like the Herodians. If Jesus answers in the negative, then the Romans will string him up for sedition. So, instead, Jesus proves himself a skilled debater and turns the question on the questioners. It is a simple game of wits and he outwits his opponents.

Others read this text as equally straightforward and simple, as a battle cry for the strict separation of church and state. Simply put: pay your taxes to the state and pay your tithe to the church.

Actually, I doubt either conclusion begins to probe the depths of this exchange. In his brilliant commentary on Matthew, Tom Long writes, “Whether we call it taxation, tithing, or stewardship, there is the temptation to compartmentalize life (‘I set aside this part for God, and the rest belongs to me and to Caesar’). What Jesus says is that, although we may have to live under this or that Caesar and we may have to plunk down this or that tax, we never belong to Caesar. We belong, body and soul, to the living God, and we are to render to God what is God’s” (Tom Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, pp. 251-252). In other words, what belongs to God? Everything.

What then belongs to Caesar? Absolutely nothing.

Tucked inside the Presbyterian Book of Confessions is a catechism written in the 16th century. A catechism was a question and answer technique to teach the faith to children and all those who could not read. The Heidelberg Catechism begins with a question and answer which frames all the questions and answers that follow: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” That is the opening question, to which the catechumen is taught to respond: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

Centuries before the Heidelberg Catechism was written, the prophet Isaiah spoke this word of God: “Can a woman forget her nursing child? . . . Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:1`5-16). The exchange between Jesus and his opponents is not really about the merit of taxation. It is about the merit of remembering that we belong to God, body and soul. It is about remembering that you and I walk around stamped with an imprint of the divine. That is what we celebrate each time baptismal waters flow. Or, as Richard Spalding says so beautifully, “Baptism is the watermark of our true currency . . . We bear God’s image—as the palm of God’s hand bears ours.” (Feasting on the Word, p. 192).

“Give unto God,” says Jesus. Why? What in the world does God need from me or from you? According to this fascinating exchange in Matthew’s Gospel, it has nothing to do with what God needs from us. It has everything to do with our living into the joy of belonging to God, not our religious self or our spiritual self or our benevolent self or our political self or our philosophical self. It has everything to do with our living into the joy of belonging to God, body and soul.

Living into the joy of belonging to God takes so many forms. It can be giving more to the ministry of God’s people, the church, than what seems prudent or spending hours hammering at Habitat when we have plenty of work to do at home or building homes in Reynosa when we have to take time off work to do so or assisting developing countries to build better buildings when we need better buildings right here. It can be advocating to elected leaders on behalf of those denied basic health and mental health care or singing in the Cove Choir or serving on the Cove Session or lighting candles or preparing communion or giving an extravagant welcome to everyone who joins us to worship God in this sanctuary. “Give unto God what belongs to God.” In other words, give God all that we are heart, soul, mind, and body with unreserved joy.

The question the Herodians and Pharisees ask Jesus was only a test and a test intended for Jesus to fail. The real test, then and now, is how you and I will live into Jesus’ answer, “Give unto God all that belongs to God.” How will you and I embrace our own God given image every single day, every waking moment, always remembering to whom we belong, knowing that the giving of ourselves is never a matter of carving out leftovers for God; it is always joyfully and gladly, sacrificially and generously living into our God given image, an image that has more life, more vitality than any ever imprinted on any coin.

To whom do you belong?

AMEN

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