A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved
20th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 18, 2011
Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=470022615
What’s yours? What’s mine? As far back as we historians and archaeologists can peer, people have argued about this. In the Ten Commandments, we’re told not to steal things and not to covet something that belongs to someone else. Torah, the original law for God’s people, contains endless specific rules about ownership. Some historians believe writing originated as accounting for stored grain, a way to keep straight what belonged to who. But what’s yours and what’s mine takes on an even greater importance when we ask the fundamental question: what’s God’s?
The Real Issue
That’s the issue Jesus raises in the story we read today. The issue is very partisan, very political and some enemies are hoping to trap him, the way politicians do to each other. What’s gone on in their country in the last few years has caused division, hatred and even violence. Years before, the Romans had taken over Judea and installed Herod as King. He was widely hated and depended on Roman support just to stay alive, let alone in power. The Romans had introduced a head tax, called a census. But this census wasn’t like the counting we do, it was a tax on every person. In just a few weeks when we read the story of Jesus’ birth, we’ll hear about this tax again because it was precisely to be counted for the tax that Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem. The tax had to be paid in a Roman coin called a denarius. A denarius was worth about a day’s pay and it had an image of the emperor on one side and an inscription saying he was divine on the other.
For a people whose deepest heartfelt religious expression was the Shema Yisrael, the prayer that says, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, and who believed there were no other Gods and who further had been explicitly told in the commandments not to make images—well, it was unthinkable to have such a coin. So there was division: the Zealots who refused to pay, the establishment who wanted to overlook the religious issues and pay up, the Pharisees who were in between.
Now they set a trap for Jesus by asking a question with no obvious easy answer. “Tell us, is it lawful to pay this tax?” If he says, “No!”—he will be arrested, branded an outlaw, though a popular one; no one likes taxes and this tax was particularly hated. It’s the answer his followers want to hear, it’s the answer the crowd hopes to hear. But in giving the answer he will convict himself. If he says, “Yes,” he will be seen as a coward who compromises with power, afraid of the Romans, and he will lose the faith of his followers. “Just another appeaser,” they’ll say.
Now there is quiet as the question hangs in the air and then, his answer, which obviously surprises them: “Show me the coin”. He’s caught them at their own game—because they produce the coin, showing they have already violated Torah, just by having such an image. Now he takes the coin, looks at it, perhaps turns it over and looks up, asking, “Whose image is on the coin?”—everyone knows the answer: Caesar. And finally: his answer: “Then give Caesar what is Caesar’s—and render to God, what is God’s.”
We Belong to God
What’s yours? What’s God’s? We bear God’s image—we belong to God: that’s the view of the whole Bible. One of the Psalms says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” [Psalm 24:1]. At the other end of the Bible, when Paul writes to Philemon and asks Philemon for a favor, he points out that Philemon owes his various life to the same God Paul represents. So the question of what is yours has a surprising answer: what is yours is yours as a steward for God since you yourself, each one of us, belongs to God. We are God’s living treasure. What’s God’s?—we are, every single one of us.
What’s Caesar’s? We don’t live alone, we live in a community and we need its assets. Water, power, sewer: our lives together are unthinkable here without them. Many of you know Jacquelyn and I have a sailboat and we sometimes cruise on it. When you live and sleep on a boat for days at a time, you learn just how many services you take for granted. Power?—it comes through a wire from a battery, and if you don’t charge it, there isn’t any. Water?—it comes from a tank that has to be filled periodically. Sewer?—well, yes there is that and we’d probably rather not think about it.
Taxes have become a partisan issue, with one party endlessly claiming to want to lower them, one wanting to provide better services which may cost more. Surely we owe something to our community. All the things we use, all the things we need, don’t magically appear, they are bought and through our taxes we buy them. We forget that often and take those things for granted. We’re like the waiter a friend talked to once in the south. She’d never had grits but of course in the south, grits just come with breakfast. So she asked the waiter, “What exactly ARE grits?” He looked at her as if she was crazy and replied, “Well, ma’am, grits is grits.” Trying to make herself clear, she pushed on: “Well, where do grits come from?” He thought for a moment and then said, “They come from the kitchen.” Of course, grits, like everything else, do not magically appear in the kitchen. Everything comes from somewhere and everything from your the water you drink to the light you turn on depends on a whole community sharing the cost together through their taxes.
Politics is the name for how we make decisions about how to balance community needs with individual payments. “No politics in the church!, is a tradition here. But historically, Congregationalists have been deeply invested in politics. Some of the first Congregationalists were imprisoned because the idea of a covenant community where people voted threatened England’s monarchy. Later, another generation of Congregationalists and Puritans led a civil war in England that ended with the execution of the king. Congregational Churches in New England were a school for civic participation and the tradition of a town meeting comes from Church Annual Meetings like the one we’ll hold today. Later, following the lead of the Society of Friends, Congregationalists became heavily involved in the movement to abolish slavery, one reason you’ll find few of our church in the south.
So trying to avoid politics, most preachers veer off at this point and focus on what we owe God. But it’s fair to ask here: what do we owe Caesar? What do we owe our community? Notice how Jesus connects what we owe our community—what is Caesar’s—to what we owe God. “Give Caesar, give God what is God’s.” Now the Psalms and the Torah are clear: the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. We are made in the image of God, we are God’s and from the beginning, Genesis says, we were given a mission of caring for creation, including our community. In fact, we are the point at which earthly things like empire and nature meet God. We are the bearing on which the two mate and rub against each other. Our task then, is to take to God the needs of creation and bring to our community God’s Word.
Bringing Our Community to God
We bring our community to God through prayer. So many of us have experienced recently the bitter divisions of a politics driven by a secular push for power. I wonder how things would be different if instead of scoring points, we offered prayers. I wonder how things would change if instead of shouting insults we said a prayer. Of course, a prayer isn’t just words. If you pray for the terrible pandemic to stop, wearing a mask, staying apart, are ways of making your prayer concrete. If you pray for someone insulting you instead of conjuring a better insult, you can’t post your response on Facebook or Twitter. It takes faith to pray and the results aren’t always evident; faith is not faith that demands immediate visibility.
We bring God to our community through our lives, through living in the light of the Gospel. That means sharing ourselves in the community. Voting, for sure; after all, what is a vote except you sharing your best thought toward the advancement of our whole community. Demonstrating the mind of Christ, as we’ve been talking about, living in a humility that listens to others, values others, and refuses to let the world’s boundaries keep love from spreading.
“Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s”— that’s what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the disciples and it’s what he says to us today. We are God’s living treasure. If we bring our community in faithful prayer, the whole testimony of the gospel is that God will hear and heal. If we will faithfully, prayerfully, hopefully give God what is God’s, God will work with it like a baker making bread; that God’s spirit will come into it like yeast and raise it up until all God’s children are fed and realize the wonderful love of God.