Today’s gospel lesson is one of those funny lessons in the Bible that is often quoted, but frequently misconstrued. Jesus’ says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” As one scholar points out, “Some people point to this passage as proof that God and politics should be kept separate — that things like taxes have absolutely nothing to do with one’s theological commitments. Others say that this story proves that religion is a matter of the heart, and that Jesus doesn’t really care about mundane things like what you do with your money. And some have cited this passage as proof that Jesus taught that the law is the law, and our duty as Christians is to support the government no matter what.”[i]
All of these conclusions are based in modern assumptions, and ignore the context within which Jesus says these words. Jesus is not laying out a treatise of how his followers are to navigate the tensions between church and state. What Jesus is doing is navigating the various factions that would much rather have him eliminated than hear the real meaning of his words. The Pharisees and the Herodians have little in common. In fact, they are pretty much enemies, with the Herodians being dedicated to King Herod and the Pharisees being dedicated to Jewish Law – including being opposed to paying the tax to Caesar for religious reasons. But despite these divided loyalties, the Pharisees and Herodians are united in their desire to remove Jesus from the scene.[ii] And so they play this game, trying to trick Jesus into either angering the state or angering the faithful – either way cursing Jesus. What they had forgotten is how clever and insightful Jesus can be. And with this one response, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus answers a trick question much more broadly than the answer that either the Pharisees or the Herodians were hoping for.
Jesus is not really talking about the separation of church and state today. He is not even really talking about taxes. Jesus is talking about a new perspective on the whole of our lives – a way to think about money certainly, but also a way to put all things in perspective. Now I do not know about you, but I am kind of a visual learner. I need to see something in writing or have something in a chart or spreadsheet to really grasp a new idea. So let’s take Jesus’ statement, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and make a mental pie chart. Are you ready? First, let’s put our taxes pie piece in the chart. What is that, like twenty percent, right? So now we have a pie chart that leaves about eighty percent. From that, let’s take our pledge out. For ease of argument, let’s say you subscribe to giving a tithe, so we will take ten percent out. That leaves us with seventy percent with which to play. But Jesus says that the things that belong to God should be given to God. If we have jobs or we go to school, our ability to do those things belongs to God. So, we have to give that back to God. That probably leaves us with about fifty percent in our pie chart. Our good health is all owed to God as well, so now we are down to about forty percent. Those friends and family that we hold so dear – those are also gifts from God. Now we are down to about thirty percent. And let’s not forget about food, shelter, and clothing. We just dropped down to about fifteen percent. Then there is the air we breathe, and God’s own creation upon which we rely. Now we are down to about five percent.
Whew! We have five percent of our “stuff” that belongs to us. But wait – Jesus did not say, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s…and then keep the final five percent for yourselves.” Surely Jesus knew we would need a night on the town, or a moment to just be self-absorbed, and not think about those suffering around the world. But here is where the rub is in our lesson today. The reason why the Pharisees and the Herodians leave Jesus amazed and go away is because they are shocked into silence. If Jesus answers that the people should not pay the tax, the Herodians will be able to call him a seditionist. If Jesus tells the people they should pay the tax, the Pharisees will be able to accuse him of not following the law of God because the use of the coin alone, which claimed Caesar’s divinity, was blasphemous. Not to mention the fact that Caesar was oppressing the people. If Jesus says they should pay the tax, surely the people of faith will turn on him.[iii] But Jesus answers with “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The reason Jesus is able to send the people away amazed is because Jesus point out one even trickier, harder truth – everything we have – our tax money, our tithe, our jobs, our health, our family and friends, our food, shelter and clothing, the very air we breathe – everything belongs to God. What Jesus is really saying today is that our question – and yes, this is our question too, not just the question of the Pharisees and Herodians – our question today is laughable. We can make all the pie charts and balance sheets we want. The pie chart really only has one big piece – and that piece says, “God’s.”
This past week, my daughter and I were talking about the prayer rocks that we got from the Stewardship Committee last week. If you have not received yours yet, there are some in the back. The idea is that when you received your pledge card and stewardship packet, you would have a tool to help you prayerfully consider your pledge for the coming year. The rock is meant to be your tactile way of praying about your pledge this year. The other nice thing about the rock is that the rock is also a conversation piece. That is how my daughter and I had a prayerful conversation this week. We were comparing our rocks – both of ours says “love” on the rock, but hers is more oblong and black, while mine is rounder and grayer. When my daughter asked me what we were supposed to do with our rocks, I told her that the rock was supposed to help us think about what we wanted to give to God this year. I suggested she decide on a coin that she could take to church every Sunday. Instead, my daughter told me she wanted to give a can of food every Sunday. See, I wanted her to understand the connection of our money with God. But perhaps my daughter understood the bigger statement of Jesus today – that everything, including the food on our shelves, belongs to God. So we compromised, agreeing that she could do both. Because she was right – our money, our food, our livelihood all belongs to God. Our poor pledge coordinator is going to have to figure out how to calculate that pledge when we turn in our card on November 2nd.
I joke, but I think our pledge card this year might be some hybrid of our ideas. The adults of our family will certainly be putting on a tithe. The children in our family will have to calculate a dime or nickel times 52 weeks in the year. And our cupboard will have to sacrifice 52 items as well. Normally once a month or so, our family goes to Costco and gets a packet of something to put in our food drive. But I like my daughter’s idea better – because my daughter’s idea reminds us that the food on our shelves – our food, not food bought for others – belongs to God. And as Jesus reminds us today, we are to give to God the things that are God’s. Amen.
[i] Lance Pape, “Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2201 on October 15, 2014.
[ii] Marvin A. McMickle, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 191.
[iii] Susan Grove Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 191, 193. Other resources explain this duality as well.