October 19, 2014
They say that there are a couple of things you really shouldn’t talk about …
a couple of things people find too personal…
a couple of taboo topics in social gatherings, in families, and especially in church.
They are: sex and money.
Yesterday I was at a church workshop about sex.
And today’s gospel reading is about money.
Breaking two taboos in one weekend!
(That’s got to be some kind of a record!)
But here’s something I learned…
the faith message about sex is a lot like the faith message about money.
(And the message isn’t “Don’t have either of them!”)
The message for people of faith is to think of both sex and money
in relationship to our values:
things like respect and joy and love and generosity and delight.
And then recognize that being a Christian – having these values – means something to us.
It affects our behavior.
It affects our behavior around sex.
And it affects our behavior around money.
In fact, the message of the gospel reading today,
is that it affects all parts of our lives.
Matthew says that some disciples of the Pharisees
and the Herodians for good measure decide to entrap Jesus.
Over time, it’s been lost just who the Herodians were,
but from their name we know they were sympathizers with Rome.
The Pharisees and the Herodians wouldn’t have much in common.
The only thing they have in common, it seems,
is their desire to entrap Jesus.
So they team up and ask him a question in the midst of the crowds gathered around him.
They ask Jesus,
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Now a word about the taxes they’re talking about.
It’s not ordinary taxes but imperial taxes they’re questioning.
In first century Palestine, Jews paid a number of taxes:[i]
temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes among others.
This imperial tax was particularly loathsome
because it was given to Rome to support the Roman occupation…
Yes, the Jews had to pay a tax to support the government which was oppressing them.
One denarius a year.
So Jesus is trapped with a question…
“Is it lawful to pay this imperial tax or not?”
What’s the trap?
If Jesus says, “Yes,” the taxes are lawful,
then this crowd that is gathered around him,
which has been so hopeful as they heard his teaching on behalf of the poor and oppressed,
will give up on him.
If Jesus says, “No,” the taxes are not lawful,
then he’s committing sedition and he’ll be arrested.
Here’s how he answers:
“Let me see a denarius…” the coin used to pay the tax.
(Notice that Jesus doesn’t seem to have a denarius himself.)
“Whose head do you see on it? What’s inscribed there?”
Well of course everyone knows the denarius has the image of the emperor imprinted on it.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.”
And the people are amazed….
What is so amazing?
Well of course they know their Scripture and in Genesis, chapter 1
God creates humanity in God’s own image.
It’s right there: Genesis 1:27.
What belongs to God?
Why, we do of course!
All parts of us.
And not just we humans…
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” says Psalm 24.
There are biblical passages about tithing…
giving 10% to God…
but this is not one of them.
This passage is not about giving 10%, or 20%, or 30%…
This passage is about giving everything…100% back to God.
It’s about the fact that being a Christian matters in all the ways we live our life.
It affects how we think and act about sex and money,
and politics and family and work and school and friends and sports and vacations.
Being a Christian gives our lives a deeper meaning and a different purpose.
It’s not just a set of beliefs – it affects our behavior…
not just on Sunday morning, but all of the time.
The fact that all of us belongs to God
means that when we look at our checkbook or our credit card statement,
we can think about whether our purchases and our giving line up with our values.
The fact that all of us belongs to God
means that when we look at our calendars,
we can see whether the way we’ve spent our time lines up with what we consider truly important.
Being a Christian means that whatever we do,
wherever we go,
whatever we say,
whatever happens to us,
we belong to God.
Princeton Seminary Professor Kenda Creasy Dean
has done some great work in a study about faith with over 3000 American teenagers.
She says not surprisingly,
what she found is that the most important factor
which determines whether or not teens will continue a life of faith,
is not whether they have enough information about their faith,
whether they know the Bible stories, or memorize the catechism…
The most important factor in whether or not teens continue life of faith
is whether or not they learn that faith is a way of living,
more than a way of believing.
In fact, she says that youth whose parents make one radical act of faith in front of their children:
- it may be spending a summer building wells in Tanzania;
- it may be turning down a job promotion because it would conflict with family time.
Youth whose parents make one radical act of faith in front of their children,
and then make sure their children know it’s because of their faith,
convey much more to their kids than any number of sermons or mission trips.[ii]
Her study was about teens.
If there a similar study about adults in our world,
I would guess the findings would be the same:
I would guess that the most important factor
which determines whether or not individuals in our community
walk into a church or stay in a church or even have a positive feeling about church,
is not what they learn from a co-worker about church doctrine and beliefs,
it’s what they see in the way that co-worker lives.
It’s about 100% of the time.
Faith is not what we believe.
Faith is what we live.
And so we give back to God what belongs to God.