6‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
The Question about Paying Taxes
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So
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.17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius.20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’21They 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.’22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Here we have another confrontation between the religious authorities and Jesus and we now see Jesus getting quite testy with these people who won’t listen to what he says and beginning to call them out. This must have been an important story for all three of the synoptic Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, for they offer this story using nearly identical language. Given that, we may have here the actual words of Jesus and for me that is very exciting. But why was this story so important to the early church and why should we consider it important for us in the 21st century.
First of all the significance to Jesus’ audience was very evident in the way Jesus responds to these supposed authorities, we see that he is losing patience with them. They won’t hear what he is really saying and so his temper is getting short, he doesn’t have much time after all and he knows it. But it is in the way he answers the question that turns the tables on the Pharisees. He asks for a Roman coin, for that is what Roman taxes were paid with and they produce one. On the surface this seems like a normal thing to do, except, the only coins allowed in the temple were temple coins. The reason being under Mosaic Law the Jews were not allowed to have graven images and the image on the coin produced is Caesars, who claims to be a god. The religious leaders are now the point of a joke, they are shown to be what they really are, people who crave authority at the expense of what they believe. By having the Roman coin in the temple the Pharisees have been discredited in front of Jesus’ disciples and the crowd.
However, it is the answer Jesus gives the Pharisees that has the greatest significance for us today. In his answer Jesus told the Pharisees, and the crowd, that it was alright with him to pay taxes, if Rome wants its coins, if that is what they value, then give them to Rome. But, give to God what belongs to God!
Now there is the answer that raises the greatest of questions, what belongs to God? The answer of course is everything, including ourselves and everything we have! If we look at the Book of Job from chapter 38 through 41, you will hear God outlining just what does belong to God, it is rather specific and to the point. So why do we, today, have such a hard time giving back to God what belongs to God.
I think one of the reasons is we’ve allowed our monetary emblems to become a symbol of authority and power. Who has the most, is the most powerful.
Michael Raschko in his book A Companion to the Gospel of Mark talks about this scripture as it is written in Mark and he says that “Authority and power do not exist for their own sake. They exist for the sake of bringing life to other … we are to use authority for the others. Authentic power gives life to others.” How we use the abundance we are gifted with determines our real power, that’s an interesting concept and one we all wrestle with every day.
It is in what we do with our money that determines in what way we use power. Do we use it only for self-absorbed matters, gathering more and more stuff, or do we use it in such a way that we have enough and those in need also have enough. One of my passions is helping the homeless and indigent so when I walk down the streets of Seattle and I sometimes stopped by a homeless person who asks me for money I have my own way of providing assistance. Now, I make it policy never to hand over money to people on the street, instead I usually carry and extra sandwich, or if I’m in the car I carry a small bag of grocery essentials and offer those instead. Sometimes the individual
turns down my offering and in that case I know that they didn’t really want
food they wanted to buy drugs or alcohol so I simply tell them that is all I have and move on. Despite what some might think I don’t have a lot of money but I try to share what I do have with those in need.
Let me get back to this coin Jesus is holding, are we required to share our monetary abundance? Micah tells us that God has told us what God wants us to do, “do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Are those acts associated with money in any way? Yes they are, to ease poverty and hunger requires someone to provide shelter, clothing and food and that means sharing from our monetary abundance. Does it mean we have to give until we are in poverty, no it doesn’t. It does mean we are called by God to share from our abundance no matter how small the amount, or how small the act. But we are called to share. That coin Jesus was holding was the exchange medium of the Roman Empire and except in the temple would have been used by every member of the crowd to purchase everyday needs. The crowd knew that, they knew that having money wasn’t evil, nor was spending it. It was the hoarding, using it as a way to gain excessive power that was wrong.
But what about Faith Communities and in particular our Faith Community here at Queen Anne, what do we give to God that belongs to God? This Faith Community depends on each and every one of us participating in the life of this organization. And, I am amazed at how much participation takes place here. As a group and as individuals we do try to give to God what belongs to God, our work together here within our community does make a difference. Our young people go and fill bags of frozen vegetables for the food bank. Our
building is used during the week as a place where children learn and play. We join in worship and welcome the stranger into our midst. We have teams of people who teach and work together to pass on our love of God. We have community members who volunteer, and work, for non-profit organizations that provide services to those in need. We care about not just those in our building but the other, those who are different from whom we are. In our own way we bring our authentic power to bear and offer life.
There is enough on this planet to care for all of us, humans and non-humans, IF we only learn to give back what belongs to God. Letting go of unnecessary power and embracing our authentic power to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with our God is all that God asks us to do. Is that so hard, apparently it is for some people. Maybe it is our responsibility, here in our Faith Community, to be the example and to show the way. The life of Jesus and his disciples demonstrate just how hard that is. We will grow tired, we will want to give up, we will want to say it’s not worth it. But look into the eyes of a child or hold a puppy and know that we aren’t alone in this struggle, nor have we ever been alone. And we aren’t along just for a free ride.
Jesus may have had Micah in mind when he offered his answer to the Pharisees. To walk humbly with your God means living a life that is God like, which means doing justices and loving kindness and it means that we as individuals and as a Community of Faith are called to care for those God cares the most for. Jesus tells his Disciples “when you do for the least of these, you do for me.” I know it’s a bad paraphrase but you get the idea. We as community have much to offer, we have an authentic power to offer life, and I believe it is worth offering.
Ruth Jewell ©October 2011