Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Give it back

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The 29th Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2017)
Matthew 22:15-22 “Give it back”

Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

Jesus is in a tight spot here. Do you remember the character from the Star Wars movie, Admiral Ackbar? He was famous for his line, “It’s a trap!” when the rebel fleet was attacking the Death Sar. That’s Jesus’ situation in his debate with the Pharisees and the Herodians, “It’s a trap!”

Jesus is trapped between these two opposing camps. The Herodians are colluders with the Romans, the Pharisees are the religious leaders of the Jewish people and are generally against the Roman empire, but the one thing they can agree on is disagreeing with Jesus. What’s that saying? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They try to trap Jesus with this sneaky and underhanded question about paying taxes to Caesar, specifically a tax that amounts to a poll tax. If he answers yes, then he angers the Pharisees and the people for whose loyalty Jesus was competing. If he answers no, then the pro-Roman faction could have him arrested, tried, and executed for sedition. Can you imagine being in a bind like that?

Here’s what he does. Now let me say how much I love Jesus in these moments, particularly in Matthew’s gospel when he’s got so much of an edge to him; gumption is one way of putting it. “Sensing their malice,” as the text puts it, Jesus sees the bear trap and turns it right back on them. “Oh, you hypocrites,” Jesus says, “Bring me one of those coins that I’d have to pay taxes with.” So they dig in their little coin purses or the pockets of their tunics and produce a denarius, which has the emperor’s image stamped upon it. They hand it to him.

But here’s thing… they’re not supposed to have that coin in their pocket!

If you had a Roman coin in your pocket, that meant that you were not only doing business with the occupiers, but as a First-Century Jew, you were also engaging in blasphemy by having in your possession an object with a graven image, which the Jewish people were explicitly told not to have, especially given the fact that Caesar claimed to be divine. Gotcha!

If you’re looking for a detailed tax policy or nuanced discourse on the relationship between religion and civil government, Jesus’ little trick isn’t the best place to look. Other interpreters have taken his comment, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” to imply a separation between church and state (that came later). That line of reasoning doesn’t work, simply because “Give back to God what belongs to God” encompasses… well, everything. Caesar is fooled into thinking that because his face is on it, that means he’s truly in charge. Not so with the living God.

What Jesus does here for the Pharisees, for the Herodians, and for all of us as well is to interrogate our allegiances. Where is our ultimate allegiance? Do we proclaim loyalty to God with our lips while keeping Caesar in our pocket, so to speak?

These are questions that run far deeper than whether you stand or kneel during the national anthem, although the same tensions are there. “Caesar” is larger than one person and more timeless than a empire so long ago. Caesar, the emperor, Rome, all of that was true to the world behind the New Testament and is true for us today. Empire is a symbol that stands in for all those domination systems, all those power structures that seek to rule by threat of death, by exploitation. The Reign of God, on the other hand, is what truly offers peace and life. The truth is that all of us live with entangled loyalties to both.

In other words, as much as we try to live righteously, as much as we aspire to be God’s people of loving justice, we all have “Caesar in our pocket.” It’s a trap. The money in our 401ks; the carbon we burn; the racial, gender, sexual, abled privilege we rest upon; all of that has Caesar’s face stamped upon it.

So what does one do? How do we express our allegiance to God?

Give it back.

Jesus put it well, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

It’s what the church came to call stewardship: offering back to God what already belongs to God. That’s our money (with dead “Caesars” on it or not), our energy, our time, our intellect, our imagination, our prayers, our space, all resources seen and unseen. Not to donate these things (that’s non-profit language there) but to offer them in faith as an expression of allegiance.

My colleague Delle McCormick, who serves as the pastor to Rincon Congregational United Church of Christ, shared a Spanish saying with our preachers’ group this week: “Gastar la vida a favor de vida. In English it’s “to spend your life on life.” That’s Stewardship—spending what we have on what is ultimately life-giving, justice-affirming, love-generating.

It’s inevitable that Caesar, in his many forms, takes his cut. It’s also inevitable that we have to use Caesar’s coin to do what we need to do and feel called to do this side of heaven. But we can give some of it back. It all belongs to our Creator anyway.

Some days I like to think of what we do here around St. Mark’s as taking a little from Caesar and giving it back to God. We have the opportunity to take power (from TEP and other kinds) and leverage it for the Reign of God. Hungry people are fed, frightened people are comforted, beauty is created, children are nurtured, sound policy is advocated for, the gospel is proclaimed in word and deed. All that pours into that—dollars, person-hours, property—all of that is life spent on life, all of that is rendered unto the One who generously gave it in the first place.

A few of us were at our Presbytery (our regional church district) meeting yesterday down in Green Valley. A member of Valley Presbyterian Church talked about a solar program that his and other congregations are starting. Conserving energy, using the sun God gave us. Giving a little bit back to God and taking it from Caesar’s petroleum-based economy.

Mark Adams from Frontera de Cristo was also there talking about their efforts at Cafe Justo y Mas, the coffee shop in Agua Prieta that’s a partnership of Frontera, Cafe Justo, and CREEDA, a drug and alcohol rehab ministry. Mark and the others do so much “rendering unto God.” He told a story about a friend of his. As they do with CREEDA, some of the participants were on a job out in Agua Prieta doing some construction work. Someone had left a bunch of tile there in a pile to be thrown away, all these broken pieces of tile. Some of the folks at CREEDA decided to take that tile and make a breathtaking mosaic out in front of their building. Mark’s friend said, “That’s what the world things of us—broken pieces of garbage—but God takes us and makes something beautiful and whole.” Give it back to God, who discards nothing.

I’ll close with a story. Elizabeth, my spouse, in addition to serving as a pastor at another church, is the coordinator of a visitation program to the Eloy Detention Center, a detention facility for immigrants authorized by our government and managed by Core Civic, a for-profit corporation. Talk about Caesar… Elizabeth’s group got to do something pretty monumental this week: they got to bond somebody out of that awful place. How the system works is that people are here in the US seeking asylum, they are mandated to be detained in these mostly for-profit centers, and when they appear before a judge, they’re given exorbitantly high bonds. Upon hearing of a relatively low bond ($3000 in this case) an individual put forward the money to pay this person’s bond. The idea is that, when a person’s case is closed, that money will be recycled and be used to help someone else be released. Because it’s a long process, this person was unable to go do this herself, so Elizabeth went on her behalf.

As Elizabeth was processing the paperwork with the official there, he said to her, “And don’t forget, Uncle Sam is going to want a portion of what you get back” and laughed as if his hands were clean of all this. This little transaction happened right under one of those standard photos of the President. You know the ones: suit, tie, American flag, the works. Well, Elizabeth was standing there under the photo of the 45th President, who was more or less scowling in the frame down at her, and she couldn’t help but think, “Here we are using money minted by the Federal Government to free someone from a corporation that keeps someone locked up for the Federal Government… right here, right under Caesar’s face.”

Gastar la vida a favor de vida. Spend your life on life.”

Or as Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”