Sunday, October 19, 2008

Proper 24 Year A October 19 2008

Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." 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." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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Nobody likes to pay taxes, as the current “hot story” in the news these days shows. Whether we are Joe or Josephine the Plumber, we like to keep everything that we work hard to get. Giving the government our hard earned money seems to be so wrong, when we look around and see that a few of the people who are receiving that money don’t seem to deserve it at all.

I find it kind of funny that the story of Joe the Plumber and the question he asked Senator Obama about taxes should occur just before we read the story of Jesus and the question asked about taxes by the Herodians and the Phariesees. While Joe the Plumber is understandably concerned about whether, if he is successful in purchasing the business he is thinking about buying, he will have to give more of the money he earns to the government under Senator Obama’s plan, the Herodians and the Pharisees had something entirely different in mind: putting Jesus in between a rock and a hard place.

We don’t hear much about the Herodians in the gospels. They are mentioned only three times: once here in Matthew and twice in the book of Mark. To understand the dilemma that Jesus was presented with, you have to know that the Herodians were completely supportive of Roman rule in Israel.

So by bringing the Herodians along when the Pharisees wanted to ask Jesus about paying taxes, they wanted to trap him. If Jesus said it was not lawful to pay taxes to Rome, he would be incriminating himself with the Herodians, since he would be rejecting Rome’s claim of authority over Israel. If Jesus said it WAS lawful to pay taxes, then he would be losing the support of those who opposed the Roman subjugation of Israel.

But Jesus confounded these aims by simply saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." This reply, the gospel narrative says, amazed both the Herodians and the Pharisees. Why?

Listening to these words as our translation reads would make you think, initially, that Jesus had pretty much said that it was lawful to pay taxes. However, though “Give therefore” is what our translation says, the actual words of the gospel translate into something more like, “Give back”. Give back to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give back to God the things that are God’s.” To the emperor belonged the shiny gold coin with his picture on it, since to obtain that coin meant that you had dealings with Rome. At some point, Rome will want its coin back. Give back to God those things which belong to Him. It was a brilliant answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians; foiling their aim in discrediting him before the crowds that followed him so avidly.

“But,” you argue, “Doesn’t everything we own come from God anyway? So giving money in the form of taxes to the government would be diverting that money from God, wouldn’t it?”

Not necessarily. The Pharisees, for instance, would have thought as much, and scrupulously paid all the tithes required by Levitical law: tithes that would amount to as much as 30% of their income. In the eleventh chapter of Luke, verse 42, Jesus rebukes them: "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

Jesus’ kingdom, as he pointed out on another occasion, is not of this world. Money is not the coinage traded there, but justice and the love of God. What God wants most is we ourselves. We belong to him and we should give ourselves back to him.

So where does that leave us and our money? Obviously, God is aware that we must submit ourselves to government and that taxes are as certain as death, as Benjamin Franklin said. But what about tithing? Does God want our money too?

You can spend a lot of time online, investigating the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of the idea of tithing in the church today: some sites will blithely tell you that tithing is what God requires of you in order to obtain “favor” and some sites will give you strong scriptural evidence that tithing was meant for Israel only under the Law and that we, as free Christians, do not owe our church anything whatsoever.

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. We are not, indeed, required to tithe to the church as the Israelites were required under Levitical Law. We live under grace and do not need to give a scrupulous 10% of our income to God in order to obtain favor. If a church implies that, there is something very wrong and you should hang onto your wallet tightly as you back slowly out there door. God’s favor is not something you buy in church.

I don’t think God is up in heaven with a calculator, watching our incomes with a gimlet eye, making sure we tithe exactly 10% of our income. But God does want us to give back to him that which is his. And that would definitely include ourselves, in the form of worship and praise performed in this building.

So here we are in this building, our church. It is a good building, comfortable to sit in. It gives us a place to gather together to worship. Certainly, we don’t need anything elaborate to do that, but it is a beautiful space in which to worship our Creator. Unfortunately, it costs money for the electricity to keep the lights on and, as we are all very much aware of in the summer, the fans running. In the winter, it costs money to heat it. It costs money to mow the grass in the summer and plow the snow in the winter. It costs money to buy the candles for the altar, to have the building cleaned, to copy the pew bulletin and to pay the musicians who play the hymns we sing each Sunday.

This is the time of year we begin to think about our pledge and how much we can afford to give to the church. Some of us can afford to pay 10% of our incomes. On the other end of the spectrum, some of us struggle to find something to give each week. Some of us give generously with our money and some of us give generously with our time and effort: serving at the altar, setting the liturgy, paying the bills, pulling the weeds, and something that will be very important in about 20 minutes: making the coffee and baking muffins or buying donuts. Some of us do both, giving time and money. It is that giving of time and money that makes our church community work, that keeps the lights on and the heat piping out of the registers, that keeps this space comfortable and beautiful for us to worship God in each Sunday.

And I have to say, as Scottie said in Star Trek: The Voyage Home, “Is that worth somethin’ to ye?”