Tuesday in Proper 4 - June 6, 2017
You remember the joke about the clergy from different denominations and how they handle the money collected in the offering plate. The Baptist minister has a piece of tape drawn across the floor in the middle of his office. Each Sunday he stands over that line and takes all of the money collected in the offering plate and throws it up in the air, and the part that lands on one side belongs to him and the part that lands on the other side belongs to God. The Methodist minister has a hat that he places on the floor of his office, and when he throws the money up into the air, the part that lands in the hat belongs to God and all the rest belongs to him. The Episcopal clergyperson takes all of the money in the plate and throws it up into the air and yells, "Ok, God! Keep whatever you want!"
How do we know what belongs to God and what belongs to us? How do we decide how much God wants us to use for ourselves and how much God wants us to give back to his work in the world?
Occasionally, I am asked to serve as a stewardship consultant for other parishes. When I go and visit them, I do and say the same things I do and say in our parish. I talk about sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits giving as a way to deepen our faith by strengthening our relationship with God. I talk about the tithe (10%) as the biblical and canonical standard for Christian giving. Whenever I do, someone always asks me the same question: "Is that before taxes or after taxes?" They usually have a smile on their face when they ask it, and I always smile in return when I say, "It's up to you, but I trust that, if you can work toward the tithe as an after-tax reality, God will grab ahold of your heart and bring you the rest of the way."
Sometimes people point to today's gospel lesson (Mark 12:13-17) and Jesus' reply to a question about paying taxes as a teaching for today, suggesting that "rendering unto Caesar" means that we only tithe our after-tax income. And maybe that's true. Maybe that's what Jesus meant. Surely it was a clever answer to the trap that the Pharisees and Herodians had set for him. There was a political and religious controversy underlying their question. The emperor, of course, was a self-proclaimed semi-divine leader who taxed the residents of Palestine as his subjects. That entire system was a direct rejection of their faith, and supporting the empire with their taxes was a way of submitting to that unholy arrangement. More than that, the coin itself contained an image of the emperor--a graven image--that itself was a direct violation of the third commandment. So this was in effect a double-trap. Would Jesus, a rabbi who was popular among the Roman-hating populous, advocate supporting the unholy Roman Empire by using an unholy currency?
Typically, I think of his answer--"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's"--as a careful, fence-straddling, practical response to their trap. In effect, he separates the two worlds--political and religious--and imagines two different allegiances, two different currencies, and two different responsibilities for the faithful Palestinian Jew. But I'm not so sure their amazement was because of his crafty answer. I'm starting to wonder whether they were dumbfounded by the sharpness of his teaching.
What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to us? Doesn't everything belong to God--absolutely everything? Those who heard him would have known that. In 1 Chronicles 29, King David declares the praiseworthiness of God, saying,
Even that unholy coin with its graven image of the pretend-divine emperor whose very image was a mocking of God and God's laws belonged to God. When Jesus held up the coin and said, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's," wasn't he calling into question the presumption that anything really belonged to the emperor? John makes this point clear in his gospel account when Jesus, later in his life, stands condemned before Pilate and says, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above." I wonder when Jesus says that famous line, "Render to Caesar," whether he is challenging his hearers to wrestle with the truth and recognize that, despite all appearances, even the Roman currency isn't really Rome's. If so, one might think that Jesus is rejecting the tax system altogether, but I think it's even more difficult than that. I think he's calling us to recognize that absolutely everything--even paying our taxes--must become an expression of our faith--faith that God is the true source of all things.Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. (1 Chron. 29:10-14)
Everything belongs to God. Absolutely everything. That itself is a statement of faith. Can you see it? Can you believe it? Can you see and know that every blade of grass, every sunrise, every drop of rain, every harvest, every penny, every investment, every account all belongs to God? That's where we must begin. We must see Jesus holding up the coin and recognize that no matter whose head and title are upon it, no matter whose name is on the paycheck, no matter whose name is on the account, it all belongs to God. That changes everything. It changes how we approach our work. It changes how we pay our bills. It changes how we save for our kids college education. It changes how we plan for retirement. All of it becomes an expression of God's bounty, and we then feel the call to use it all for God's glory--not just 10%, not just our after-tax income, not just what we have left over, but all of it. It already belongs to God. You're just borrowing it. How are you using it to honor the one who has given you all things?