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.
You may have noticed that it is officially fall in Savannah, Georgia. I know the calendar says fall began a month ago on September 22, but it didn’t feel like fall to me until the first night that I needed a sweatshirt and two blankets to sleep comfortably. Even in our subtropical climate, I need just a little chill to feel like it is a new season.
Fall is marked by this changing weather; by pop-up Halloween stores; pumpkin-flavored everything; and, in the church and non-profit world, pledge campaigns. It’s the delightful time of year when public radio is interrupted by seemingly-endless petitions for donations and every charity you have ever even thought about sends you a letter asking for your financial support.
In some significant ways, the parish church is no different. We need the support of our dedicated members to keep the lights on and to pay salaries, and all the other mundane tasks of maintaining the local parish.
But, of course, our motivations differ in ways that are equally significant. The Church’s interests are far greater than simply maintaining buildings and supporting declining institutions. The Church is interested in glorifying God and nourishing the souls of God’s people. So when we ask you to give each year to support the work of the parish, we aren’t asking just to help ourselves. Giving helps you too.
Giving our our money, time, and talents are essential parts of a healthy, well-rounded spiritual life. Spirituality is not all pie-in-the-sky. It’s not just about the afterlife. It affects every part of our selves, souls, and bodies here and now. We know that God cares about the material world and the stuff that we own and use because God chose to become a human being: Jesus Christ, the Word of God become flesh.
This is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel lesson. The Pharisees and Herodians go to Jesus with an insincere question. They are trying to trap him in a corner by asking him a really difficult question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This was a trap because neither answer was safe. The expected answer might be, “Yes, pay your taxes.” But the problem was that the Roman government was brutal toward the Jews, charged exploitative tax rates, and used those taxes to maintain the military police and expand the empire with conquering missions and wars. Taxes were a very concrete representation of the Jewish people’s oppression. They weren’t a free people, and taxes were the clearest sign of their bondage to Rome. So if Jesus said that paying Roman taxes were completely aligned with his Movement, it would have been deeply unpopular and caused him to lose many followers. Remember that at least one of the twelve apostles was a rebel called Simon the Zealot.
But on the other hand, if Jesus went around preaching that Jews should evade their taxes, he would have sparked the ire of the Roman government. You know how strict the IRS can be with tax evaders in the United States. Imagine that to the nth degree in ancient Rome, where most Jews were not citizens and were not guaranteed basic human rights. Preaching against taxes was one way to get yourself arrested and crucified. In this case, Jesus didn’t want to give in so easily.
So in typical form, Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question with a question. “Whose image is this? And whose title?” (Matt 22:20, my translation). The coins have images of Caesars and Presidents on them. They are useful for handling the necessary but ordinary things of the world.
But what is the Image of God? The Image of God is something more valuable than any coin, than any silver or gold. Human beings are God’s Image! So Jesus famously concludes, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). The Images of God are all of us. Every human person bears the Image of God in her body, soul, and spirit.
Jesus wants more from us than simply our money. Jesus asks you for your whole life. Give back to God everything you have received. As we sometimes say as we receive the Offering before Communion: “All things come of Thee, O Lord; and of Thine own have we given Thee” (1 Chronicles 29:14).
The whole Christian life is centered on giving back to God from the gracious gifts God has given us. So this fall, the Church is not just asking for you to give us money. We’re calling for total life transformation. We’re asking everyone to look at Jesus and prayerfully consider re-committing to him in everything we do.
There are some concrete steps we can take to renew our whole spiritual lives as we prepare for 2018. In this link, you will find an updated version of the Spiritual Life Pledge that we introduced last year.
The opening section reminds us of the vows we made at baptism, our inauguration into the Body of Christ. The second section invites us to consider the financial contributions we will make to St. Matthew’s in 2018. The final section invites us to look at the various ways that we give to the parish with our time, energy, and talents.
This is an opportunity for reflection and prayer. It’s a chance for each of us to turn back toward Jesus, to say yes to the Holy Spirit’s call to grow in our faith in the coming year. It’s an invitation to accept the grace of God through the simple disciplines of generosity. Jesus is calling. You are the Image of God. Give to God what is God’s. Amen.
Davis, D. Mark. "The Structure of Entrapment." Left Behind and Loving It. Blog. Published 15 October 2017. Accessed 21 October 2017. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-structure-of-entrapment.html.
Nuechterlein, Paul J. "Proper 24A." Girardian Lectionary. Blog. Published 20 October 2014. Accessed 19 October 2017. http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper24a/.