The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 18, 2020
A mother who took suddenly ill sent her little girl to church by herself. She gave the child ten quarters. She told her to first put one in the church offering plate and then on the way home to use the remaining nine to treat herself to a snack. The girl, with eager anticipation, skipped out the door. In her happy haste, however, she tripped, and the ten quarters flew out of her little purse. One landed on its side, rolled eight feet, and fell down a grated sewer drain. With the most pious of looks, the girl raised her eyes to heaven and prayed, “O Lord, what a shame! There went your quarter!”
One day she’d learn that her every quarter and her very self belong to God.
The Israelites had to use their every quarter to pay the burdensome tax Rome unjustly imposed, and they greatly resented that reminder of their loss of self-sovereignty and freedom. And some of them wondered whether they were betraying God by giving the emperor what they believed God meant them to have.
One day, during Holy Week, representatives of two groups antagonistic to Jesus, the Pharisees and the Herodians, attempted to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. They tried to corner Him in a no-win position in which, one way or another, He’d alienate folks who would as a result turn on Him. Before an attentive crowd at the Jerusalem Temple, they put Him on the spot and asked Him whether it was “lawful” – that is, in line with God’s will – to pay the tax to Rome. They figured that if He said No, He’d anger the Romans and be branded a fomenter of rebellion; and that, if He said Yes, He’d anger many of His supporters and be branded a morally compromised, if not traitorous, collaborator.
Jesus escaped the trap by giving a profound response whose meaning was not immediately obvious. Jesus gave that initially ambiguous answer, not to be cleverly evasive like a politician, but to redirect the discussion on to the fundamental question at hand: Who owns their quarters in the first place (and everything else for that matter)? Jesus saw that, once you settle that foundational issue, you can settle all subsequent issues.
Jesus asked for one of the coins used to pay the Roman tax. Since Rome only accepted payment in Roman currency, Jesus was handed a silver denarius which on one side bore the image of Tiberius Caesar and on the other the emperor’s title as a deity. After drawing attention to that image and those words, Jesus by an indirect means prompted people to recall a fundamental fact about reality, in light of which all decisions are to be made. He said, “Give…to the emperor the things that are emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In that maxim lays a sharp challenge.
For think of this: If we give to God the things that are God’s, is there’s anything left to give to the emperor, except what God tells us to give him? When we get clear that God alone is the Owner of everything and the supreme authority over everything, we get clear about what we owe everyone and everything else!
“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” Jesus believed and taught. All things are God’s: every nation and culture, all politics and people – including the emperor! For every human being belongs to God, as indicated by their bearing the image of God as much as that coin the image of the emperor.
If we keep in mind that all that we are and all that we have are God’s, we can discern what is due the emperor or anyone else. As we listen to the Owner of everything, we learn what of God’s money and blessings we are to pass on to others. And despite the illusionary claim his image may make on our coins, the emperor never comes to own any. Even when we give him our coins, they retain their identity as God’s coins!
So Jesus sidestepped the immediate issue to address the underlying issue: Who owns our things…our time, talents and treasures…our opportunities, abilities and assets? Jesus turned a trick question into a teaching opportunity, and helped us take a second look at how we view what we think of as ours. What is “ours” came from God, will return to God, and in between remains God’s personal property.
If we acknowledge this, we live differently. We handle what is “ours” as a sacred trust and take care of it responsibly and rightly. It is as when we borrow a close friend’s car. We drive it gently and safely so as to return it in perfect condition, and we fill its gas tank at the end so as to express our gratitude for getting to use it.
If we stay aware that all that we have and all that we are belong to the God we love, we strive to be a good and faithful steward of God’s stuff. We remember it’s only in our temporary possession by God’s temporary delegation of it to our responsibility, and we manage it conscientiously to show our appreciation for the honor of being its caretaker and to employ it in the service of God’s priorities of love, justice and witness.
Jesus doesn’t give a formula by which to decide what to do with what we have. But He does give a fundamental truth in light of which to decide what to do in any given context. We know we are to treat what we have as a trust, mostly to give on to others in His name.
When we give God His own, we gain the wisdom to utilize everything fairly and generously for His purposes.