Monday, October 16, 2017

Where Does Value Come From?

This Sunday's gospel lesson comes at the perfect time for clergy who are looking for an excuse to talk about stewardship. It's Jesus' famous exchange with the Pharisees about paying taxes (Matthew 22:15-22), in which Jesus ultimately says, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." There are, of course, two problems with that: 1) successful stewardship campaigns are not built in a day and 2) good sermons are not based on a conclusion that comes before the text is studied. If you're surprised to discover that this week's gospel makes for a good stewardship sermon, you'd probably be better off preaching on one of the other lessons. We must sit with this gospel lesson long enough to see what comes from it. Jesus did not have a parish's annual giving appeal in mind when he spoke these words. They may help inform such an appeal, but it will take more than a week's pondering to get there.

Dig deeply into the context of this gospel lesson. Start by reviewing Matthew 21 and 22. Notice that this exchange happens after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, after the cleansing of the temple, and after three parables about the kingdom of God. This passage isn't about taxes or tithes. It's about authority. Matthew's editorial comments help us get to the heart of the matter: "The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said." Jesus isn't talking about money, and the Pharisees aren't interested in what he has to say. This is a trap. There is no right answer. If Jesus says that faithful people shouldn't pay taxes, the Pharisees will label him as an anti-Roman seditionist and hand him over to the secular authorities for punishment. If Jesus says that everyone must pay taxes, the Pharisees will label him as an anti-Jewish sell-out and use a smear campaign to undermine his popularity with the crowds who are looking for someone to galvanize their anti-Roman sentiments. If we attempt to mine Matthew 22:15-22 for a teaching on the tithe, we're likely to come up empty handed. It just isn't here. To get to that point, we've got to go deeper--beyond the context of this passage while remaining faithful to it.

What is the real issue here? It's all about authority. Whose authority will we respect? The religious elites? The traditions of our people? The government? The Bible? The Constitution? The Pharisees approach this encounter with the assumption that we cannot be faithful both to sacred and secular. In their minds, we must choose. Will we be loyal to God or to the government? But Jesus rejects the premise behind their question. He's not interested in answering their question as they have asked it. He wants them to go deeper. Instead of allowing them to force him to answer an unanswerable question, he forces them to confront the unanswerable premise behind their question: "Whose head is this, and whose title?...Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." In other words, you decide.

What gives a coin its value? What makes a $20 bill worth $20? Is it the face printed on it? Is it the government behind it? Is it the collective agreement of our society? Is it the fact that you can buy 4 value meals at Wendy's with it? According to the Federal Reserve, it costs around 11 cents to make a $20 bill. Does that mean it's actually worth only 11 cents? A penny costs 1.5 cents to make. Why isn't it worth more than a penny? What happens if the confidence in the government whose name and imprint are backing the bill disintegrates? What is a $20 bill worth then? Perhaps real value comes from somewhere else.

Where does the true value of anything come from? That's the question Jesus forces us to ask ourselves. The Pharisees want him to choose between God and Rome. The choice itself implies that Rome's authority, identity, or value come from somewhere other than God. No, the unholy, ungodly Roman Empire and the semi-divine Emperor whose likeness is on the coin are not aligned with God's kingdom. In fact, it's pretty clear that they are directly opposed to it. But the persistence of the Roman occupation and administration of Palestine does not negate God's authority. Our faith requires us to see God at work beyond the institutions that seem opposed to God's reign. We "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," but we always remember that everything--even the forbidden coin with the graven image of the enemy of God's people on it--comes from God.

What does that mean for stewardship? Well, it means a lot. But it's not as simple as a first look at the lesson provides. I'm preaching on stewardship this Sunday, but I'm not using this gospel lesson to remind people that they need to give to their church before they pay their taxes to Caesar. That misses the point. I hope the sermon will embrace an even bigger understanding of where all good gifts come from and our faithful response to that generosity. But, as I've written here, that's going to take some work.

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