Sermon on giving to Caesar and giving to God

October 19, 2014

Sermon for Sunday the 19th of October 2014 by Mark Koonz, Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Walla Walla.  Biblical Text:  Matthew 22:15-22

           Not too many years ago the Wall Street Journal hired financial and business experts to do an analysis of government management and financial efficiency, and the study concluded that at least 50 per cent of tax revenue is wasted through inefficiency.  In other words, if these government agencies had to compete in the real business world they would have gone under due to mismanagement of time and resources.  This is disturbing to any tax payer.  We don’t want the government to get the use of only 50 cents on every dollar we pay in taxes.  The money would have been better spent if left in our own pockets and savings accounts.  What a shame!

            Yet in Jesus’ day it is fairly certain that the public never benefitted from 50 per cent of the taxes they were forced to pay.  So much of their money went right into the private hands of the King and his family.  A little bit went to build a bridge here or a work project there, but much of it went to purchase additional olive groves, vineyards and farmland, or to send gifts to Rome to buy Caesar’s favor.  During Herod the Great’s lifetime he accumulated enormous wealth.  He did rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, but he taxed the people so heavily that he became wealthy at the same time.  His taxes were so onerous that many hard-working Jews were kept on the edge of poverty.  So our concern about government mismanagement of our tax dollars is a very old concern.

            In our biblical passage two diverse groups merged to confront Jesus and entrap him.  The Herodians were people who supported the family of King Herod the Great, for his sons divided his kingdom and gave favors to their allies.  Therefore these people indirectly supported Roman rule, for the family of Herod only ruled over the Jews by Roman permission.  On the other hand a lot of Jews wanted to overthrow Roman rule and become free and independent.  The Pharisees were a renewal movement within Judaism, and they did not generally approve of the Herodians, the servants and sycophants who attended the king’s court.  The Pharisees promoted high moral living and ethical conduct, which many court attendees and tax gatherers flouted.  Yet they overcame their objections to the Herodians in order to work with them to entrap Jesus.

            They asked, “Teacher [Rabbi], we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  You aren’t swayed by men because you pay no attention to who they are.”  At this point there is no flattery, but the statement of a bald fact.  Jesus was impressed by no other man, and never showed deference to anyone or gave flattery to win favor.

            “Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

            This was a question about the poll tax.  Every Jewish man had to pay this once a year regardless of whether he was rich or poor.  There were other taxes for trade and commerce.  But this one had to be paid once a year with a coin bearing the Roman Emperor’s image.  The coin also referred to the emperor as “son of God.”  Both the image and the words were offensive to most of the Jews, but they had to use this coin – the denarius – once a year; the rest of the time they were allowed to use bronze coins without human images.  Making human images were forbidden by the Ten Commandments, as most Jews interpreted the commandments, and that is why Jews did not put the images of kings on their coins.  Yet the Romans forced them to use Caesar’s image once a year.

            If Jesus spoke in favor of the tax he would probably lose the support of many Jews.  Yet if he spoke against the tax, then they could report him to the Romans as someone inciting the people to rebellion.  Either way, they hoped to divide Jesus from many of the people who were sympathetic to him.

            But Jesus chose to expose them as hypocrites.  The word for hypocrite comes from ancient Greek drama, when actors used large clay masks to indicate the mood of a character in the play.  In an amphitheater people seated high up could hear well, but not be within visual range of the actor’s face – so masks were used to indicate smiles and frowns and tears.  A hypocrite is someone who wears a mask, but not a clay mask in a drama.  His mask is his ability to hide his true feelings or intentions.  Every governor, congressman, or president worries about the people around his or her powerful office.  Who are my true friends?  Who just pretends to be my friend?  Who is just using me to get something?  Who smiles and shakes my hand, but secretly hates me and will sell information to a journalist?  In other words, who is a hypocrite who can mask and hide his or her true character and intentions?

            ‘“Show me the coin used for paying the tax.”  They brought him a denarius.’

            Immediately Jesus exposed their hypocrisy.  They claimed to be offended by this tax, because of the necessity to use this coin, so much offended that they weren’t sure they were obeying God’s law by using it.  Yet when Jesus asked to see it they had it within reach, right in a coin pouch hanging on their belt.  They were using it after all.  Hypocrites!

            ‘Jesus said to them, “Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.  Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  When they heard this they were amazed.’

             Jesus said so much in these few words.  The question was whether paying this tax was lawful according to God’s law.  As R.T. France pointed out, the question was basically, ‘Is it permissible for God’s people to use this expression of allegiance to a pagan emperor?’  Whatever else paying taxes is, it is an expression of loyalty to one’s nation. 

Jesus widened the perspective by talking not just about one tax but about loyalty and obedience.  Here he says “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”  A better translation is the old King James Version’s use of the word “render.”  “Render” means to give back.  Something was loaned to you and now you must give it back.  Jesus said “This is Caesar’s coin, give it back to him.”  With these words Jesus indicates that basic allegiance to a human government or nation is not incompatible with loyalty to God.

Taxes can be paid, should be paid, because the government has a place within God’s plan, at least until the end of the age.  In the history of the Bible, from the book of Judges to Paul’s letters, it was maintained that there was a legitimate role for government.  The primary purpose for government was to protect the people of the land.  This was by providing protection from armed attack by marauding nomadic tribes or neighboring armies.  From within a king or government protected against bandits on the trade routes and suppressed criminals who committed murder and thievery – theft of food or money could cause the victim’s family the horror of starvation (Romans 13:2-4).

Another good purpose for government was to provide sound money for trade.  Some Roman emperors devalued their currency and caused hyper-inflation, which always hurts the poor.

            The third purpose of government, and one highlighted in the Bible, is to maintain law courts free of corruption, where people can find justice.  The law of Moses forbade favoring the rich or taking a bribe, but it also forbade favoring the poor man simply because of sympathy for the underdog (Exodus 23:1-3).  Every case was to be weighed based on testimony and evidence, and the guilty were to be punished and the innocent protected, especially if the victim were a widow or orphan who had no champion. 

            These are legitimate uses of government, and without these three provisions there could hardly be a society worth living in.  Jesus did not go into detail.  He did not discuss the question what is the proper role of government.  Nor did he say that a government should do all other things that people can just as easily do for themselves.  He did not discuss tax rates and set a limit.  He did not encourage tax rates that are so high they are a method of confiscating wealth, which is no different than legalized stealing and another form of suppression.  Just as Herod taxed too high and impoverished the people, so other governments in history have impoverished their own people.  But Jesus did not go into a long discourse on these problems, even though he knew all that had happened since the prophet Samuel first warned that if Israel made anyone a king they would bear a heavy tax burden (1 Samuel 8:10-18). 

            Later a book in the New Testament would be written about the problem of a human government usurping God’s place.  The book of Revelation addresses the problem of the Roman Empire committing the evil of demanding that the emperor be given the highest allegiance.  No Christian can do that, because our highest allegiance belongs to God.  The same problem would arise again in Hitler’s Germany, Lenin and Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s China.

            This past week the mayor of Houston, Texas, demanded that all churches submit copies and recordings of their pastors’ sermons.  She lives the lifestyle of a lesbian, with a high profile as a holder of city office, and wanted to see if any sermons mentioned her by name or discussed the topic of homosexuality.  Whether the demand is hers alone or is backed up by a court order, neither she nor any judge has the legitimate constitutional authority to make such a demand.  The demand not only infringes on the right to free speech, it also attacks the moral authority of every pastor to preach and teach according to the dictates of the Bible.  This is a direct attack on the Christian religion.  Every pastor in Houston should oppose this order and promote a public outcry.  No government can tell us what we are to teach and preach in Christian congregations.  Our highest loyalty is to God, through Christ Jesus our Lord, and no human government can be given comparable allegiance.  Human government can be respected within our respect for God, but not in opposition to our respect for God.  There is a much greater issue in Houston than what we personally think of the mayor’s lifestyle, which is a side-issue.

Jesus knew governments could abuse their rightful purpose. What he did indicate, however, is that human government can have a legitimate place in a world broken by sin, confusion, and ethical corruption.  Because governments have a basic and necessary role to play, something is owed to them.

 But Jesus did not stop there.  Something is also owed to God.  “Give back to God the things that are God’s.”  What is owed to God?

Some preachers say that this is a reference to tithing.  Tithing was discussed in the Old Testament, but hardly at all in the New Testament (Hebrews 7:1-10 mentions that Abraham paid a tithe offering to Melchizedek).  The tithe was ten percent of a farmer’s harvest, or ten per cent of one’s income from trade.  There were other offerings too, but this was paid once a year to the priests.  According to the Law of Moses the priests were holy, that means “set apart” from other people.  They were not allowed to engage in other occupations.  Yet there were so many by Jesus’ day that they could only work at the Temple, on a rotational basis, about two weeks out of the year (maybe every other year?).  How were they to support their families if they were not allowed to engage in other trades like making shoes or farming wheat fields for market?  The answer is they lived off of the nation’s tithes.

Some read the New Testament and say that it does not teach tithing, so Christians do not have to tithe.  Others read that Jesus said, “Give back to God the things that are God’s” and believe he was referring to tithes and offerings.  It is certainly true that the Jews he spoke to were supposed to pay a tithe.  Should this hold true for Christians today, even though we don’t support a priestly group of families associated with the Temple sacrifices?  We do need to support Christian orphanages in India and Africa, and our local Christian Aid Center which helps poor families, and food banks and Helpline.  No congregation can worship together unless we have income to pay our light bills.  Should we practice tithing?

Let me tell you a story.  When I was younger I worked for six months at an institution in New Jersey, serving as the executive secretary to the director while she was on maternity leave.  While I could type and file, up to that point I had never transferred a phone call.  The director was rarely in his official office, because he had a hideaway office elsewhere in the building.  Yet one day he came in and gave me a phone number to call Sir John Templeton’s secretary in the Bahamas.  He and Mr. Templeton served on the same board of trustees, and something needed to be discussed prior to an upcoming meeting.  He needed to know when he could talk with the great man on the phone.

When I dialed the secretary’s number it was answered, surprisingly by a man’s voice.  I said that my boss wanted to make an appointment to speak with Mr. Templeton, and the man said “I’ll take the call.”  Then I realized that although I had dialed his secretary’s number, Mr. Templeton had answered her phone.  I quickly motioned to my boss to come to my phone, because I did not know how to transfer the call without losing Mr. Templeton (a skill I lost no time in learning!).

A week later I returned to my desk from an errand and was surprised to see the director speaking on my phone.  There was a smug glow on his face because he had startled someone who expected to get me, not him, on my phone line.  “Well, if Sir John answers his secretary’s phone in her absence, so can I answer my secretary’s phone.”  What an amazing change for a man who would not have deigned to do so previously!  This was an indication to me that he had tremendous respect for Mr. Templeton.  I made it a point to learn more, and found some interviews with Sir John Templeton.  Who was he?

He was a world-famous financier, a billionaire committed to philanthropy.  He was tremendously respected on Wall Street as an astute investor, a man who knew more about foreign markets than virtually anyone else.  But he was also known as a highly ethical person.  He managed mutual funds that small investors, blue collar workers, school teachers, farmers, and average people could invest in.  He grew their money so they could send their children to college or establish a secure retirement.  He saw his talent as a talent on loan from God, a stewardship to be used to help other people.

Templeton recommended that people practice tithing, giving ten per cent of their income away each year.  He said, if you cannot start with ten per cent, then give five.  If not five, then give two or three at first, but practice giving a percentage away.  Some day you may be able to give ten or twenty percent, practicing a double-tithe.  He led by example.  But he would also say that when people took his advice and practiced tithing, he observed that within seven years they were wealthier and happier people.

How can that be, Sir John?  He would answer something like this:  They are wealthier because they become better money managers of the other 90 per cent.  They are happier, because they are not just living for themselves.  In giving to others they are living also for the sake of other people, or participating in organizations that do good for other people.  Practicing generosity opens up a greater capacity for happiness.  This is a spiritual law of life. 

[Later Sir John Templeton published a book titled “Discovering the Laws of Life,” in which he made these same observations and recommendations about tithing].

So what was Jesus doing?  Was he reminding people there was a good reason to tithe?  Was tithing on his mind when he said, “Give back to God the things that belong to God”?

I think he meant so much more than tithing.  What is owed to God?  Only a tithe?  Only ten per cent of our income?  No, because all we are and all we have belongs to God.  Our very life is on loan to us.  Not one of us chose the day of our birth and not one of us can extend our life beyond one human lifespan.  Life is a loan from our Creator God.  And all we have is on loan to us, our finances but not only our finances.  Our human abilities, intelligence, and physical energy.  Our time and the ways we choose to use our time. 

We will answer to God for everything.  Not what we do with ten percent of our money, but what we do with one hundred percent of our money.  We will not answer to God for what we do with ten percent of our time, but for what we do with one hundred percent – our entire life.  You see, everything belongs to God.  We owe God all of our human life, each one of us, and we owe God the use of our time and intelligence.  We are not meant to live only for ourselves.  One way we give back to God is by serving others.

Yet giving back to God is not only about money or deeds of kindness.  It is also about our attitude.  We owe God gratitude, a thankful and grateful heart.  We owe God a morally clean life, a life filled with honor and integrity, a life full of ethical business practices.  In short, we owe all these righteous responses.  But somehow we tend to forget why we should give ourselves back to God.  Life is not always easy, and we do not always find the best way to show gratitude to God.

We forget that God has given everything to us, including the treasure of His heart.

“For us and for our salvation” God’s own dear Son left heaven and came to earth.  He lived among us and suffered and died for us.  He rose from the dead to give us the hope of both forgiveness and eternal fellowship with God.  God has promised the fullness of this treasure to us, and that is why we can “give back to God the things that are God’s” with joyful praise.  

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