First Reading Exodus 33:12-23
Second Reading 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Gospel Reading Matthew 22:15-22
Sermon: “So What Belongs To God?”
Have you got a coin in your pocket or purse? Take it out for a moment and have a close look at it. On the front, the “heads” side, you will likely see an image of one of our past presidents. I’m holding a quarter, so its George Washington. If you have a Penny, then you’re looking at Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt’s if you have a dime or Jefferson if its a nickel. But all of them are inscribed with the name of our country, the amount of money represented and a phrase or two which express things we hold dear and true. Most of our modern coins say “Liberty” and also in “God We Trust”. Coins from all over the world have various inscriptions, usually In praise of the country or a specific leader. Coins from the Roman Empire of Jesus day had the image of the emperor.
Many we have found from that era have this inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.” As you might imagine, this was a big problem for the devote Jews of the day. They were required to pay their state taxes with those coins bearing the image of one claiming to be a god. These coins spoke both of Roman oppression and blasphemy against the one true God. No wonder the temple offerings were not accepted with that coin. Instead they had to be exchanged for Shekels.
This is the background for the episode that we read from Matthew this morning. The Pharisees and the Herodians, (these are strange colleagues by the way – normally they disposed each other) they have come to try and catch Jesus in a trap. Although we wouldn’t normally expect these two groups to get along very well, they are united in their efforts to get rid of Jesus. The trap is simple: First, butter Jesus up with some hypocritical flattery: “Teacher, we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favorites.” Ironically, these words though spoken insincerely and with malice, do speak truth about Jesus. He does teach Truth about God and he doesn’t play favorites, just as Acts teaches God doesn’t: recall Peter’s words in Acts 10:34-35 NLT “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.” The same can’t be said of these hypocrites who pretend to praise him.
They go on to pose a “no good answer” type question to get him in trouble one way or another: “Tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It’s that kind of “do you still beat your wife type question” isn’t it. If he says yes, as the Pharisees hope – it IS right to pay taxes, then the people would view him as a Roman sympathizer and collaborator. If rather, as the Herodians hope, Jesus says it’s NOT right to pay the tax, then they get to accuse him of sedition against Rome. No matter which way he answered, they thought they had him trapped.
Jesus sees right through them, calls their bluff by naming the question as a trap straight out. He then answers in a much broader way than the question intends and in so doing challenges his questioners and us as well. Jesus first asks them for a coin and they produce the Roman denarius. Jews were supposed to avoid graven images; A few years earlier, The citizens of Jerusalem had told Pilate that they would rather die than allow the imperial standards bearing Caesar’s image into the city. Most dramatically, this coin and the attendant tax had incited a revolt a quarter century earlier. I think there must have been some chagrin at producing that blasphemous coin inside the temple itself. Now Jesus asks them “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
When they answer Caesar, he tells them “Well, then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” Some other translations put it: ““Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In so doing, he says clearly that he is neither a seditionist nor a collaborator, he is God’s man. However, if we were hoping to have guidelines as to how best to navigate all through the competing loyalties that claim us, we find we still have a lot of work to do.
It seems the key question then is what belongs to whom? What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. It’s both an easier and yet a tougher question than it seems. So let’s ask each other some questions – What determines ownership? On casual reading, Jesus seems to imply that Caesar owned the coin because his picture was on it, but that not quite true now is it? Certainly the coin represented value in the emperors realm, just as our money does in ours. It is the system that gives it value – a $100 bill is just a piece of paper without the Federal reserve behind it. So no – the coin doesn’t belong to Caesar, but it is tied tightly to his government. So what makes something ours? It could be several things right? Perhaps we made it, perhaps we bought it, perhaps it was given to us?
Scripture and in particular Psalms, has a lot to say about the subject: Consider just a few things the Psalmist has to say about the subject:
Psalm 24:1-2 NIV
 The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;  for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.
Psalm 50:9-11 NIV
 I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens,  for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.  I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine.
Psalm 100:3 NIV
 Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his ; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
We see from first principles that all belongs to God for God created all that is. We humans are doubly God’s since God created us and has redeemed us from the power of sin and death by the blood of God’s son Jesus the Christ. God put us here to love and care for God’s creation and to love God and love each other and serve God. That is why we are here, whether we acknowledge and love God. But what about old Caesar or his more modern counterparts? What do we owe them? Well, Paul tells us in Romans 13:1-7 NIV  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. …  This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
All belongs to God. It turns out the even Caesar is working for God. God ordains that governments and other organizations exist to serve God’s purpose – knowingly or otherwise. God is simply sovereign without peer. An ancient interpretation of this passage from one of the early church Fathers named Tertullian reminds us that, like that coin that bore the image of Caesar, we too bear the divine image of our maker – God. He suggests therefore that we are God’s coin and that really changes how we look at this passage. Jesus reply challenges us to give to God what is God’s. And we we belong to God – matter of fact, all is God’s. The question Jesus would have us wrestle with is how are we going to behave with all the blessings that God has entrusted to our care?
Now the view from way up in theological heights may be inspiring, but to be useful we need to bring it down to the nitty-gritty where we live. So where does this overarching look at things leave us and our seeming tangle of competing priorities? So many things ask us to render them their due: things like our government, family, jobs, kids sports, grandchildren, a host of volunteer organizations, maybe even church once in a while – all demand their fair share. Even our own bodies demand attention – food, exercise, sleep, illnesses, recreation and the like. Most of these things are good in some way, but the priorities are difficult sometimes. Not only are there demands on our time but our money too. Endless requests come in – I get several calls or letters a day from some organization or the other wanting support. How our we to balance and discern the best way from all the other good ones – not to mention the ones we really ought to know better than to waste resources on?
Jesus gave an answer in the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 6:33 NIV “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” First things first. That’s a good place to start. Christians may rest in the knowledge that this world is God’s and that one day all will be brought back into its original divine order. Until that day, we must avoid the trap of either excessive anxiety or apathy. We have some important “rendering” to do for our God.
Speaking of rendering service to God, I continue to be proud of this congregation in the loving way in which it conducts its affairs. Together, we have given back to God in amazing ways this year. We have contributed well to this community and to the wider mission of the church. Thousands of dollars flow from this congregation to the Food bank, to the Younglife ministry, to the elementary teachers for needed extra supplies and so much more. Families and individuals about to get in trouble with their utility bill find sudden and quiet relief, older folks have much appreciated food delivered to their door from Meals on Wheels. We have fed City employees to that them for their work. Over $10,000 a year – almost a third of our budget goes outside our walls to help and heal and support.
We have done this as well as come close to finishing the basement repairs after the flood a year and a half ago and continued a slow but steady modernization of our technology that allows us to worship and learn in this technological age. It has been a particular blessing in these last months as we try to stay free of the Corona virus that has so disrupted our society. Yes, we have tapped some reserves to do so, but we have been faithful. Those reserves were donated in years past by folks who wanted their legacy to continue serving even after they had finished their earthly lives. It’s getting close to church budget season again and I hope you will prayerfully consider your giving to God – of your time, talents and financial resources. All are needed and Jesus says we are to “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” And of course it’s all God’s anyway, which he has entrusted us to use in accordance with his will.
How we order our priorities says much about our relationship to God and none mores than our financial priorities. Jesus spoke truly when he said (Matthew 6:21) “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I encourage you to continue our faithful journey and to invite others to come and learn of God’s great love. It is our joyful response to give back to God in return for all God has given us. If we keep that relationship first and foremost, then we will not be trapped in confusion, but live in love.