Pentecost 19A: Money, Politics, & Religion (Oh My!)

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Money, politics, and religion, oh my! Yes, here is a passage that contains three of the things people aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company. (Just add sex and you’d have people running out the doors!) But while the temptation will be the flee to other texts this Sunday or, worse, preach a thematic sermon with little reference to the actual passage at hand, I think that if we can stay with the particulars of this text we’ll discover a lot that is worthy of our consideration.

Let me begin, though, with a question: why is it, actually, that we’re not supposed to talk about money, politics, and religion in the first place? I assume that it’s because these things are felt to be too personal to discuss in public…and too divisive. People feel very strongly about these matters and don’t want to be told what to do. All of which is just why I think we should preach on them – not to tell them what to do but to help them see these issues from the vantage point of their faith. In a study on Vibrant Congregational life I directed a few years ago, congregational members responding to a survey reported that their chief hope for the sermon was that it would help them understand how their faith touched and informed their daily life; how the biblical story, in other words, connected with their life story. Here’s a chance to do just that.

A little background will help. We should be clear, it’s not simply taxes in general that are up for debate here, but a particular tax. Jews in first century Palestine, you see, paid numerous taxes: Temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes, just to name three. The tax in question was a particular – and particularly onerous – one. It was the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. That’s right: first-century Jews were required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression.

Not that everyone saw it this way, however. Those put in power by the Romans, represented in this passage by the Herodians, advocated supporting Roman “governance” of Israel. Nationalists opposed to Rome, perhaps comprising much of the crowd, found the tax offensive as it was a constant reminder of their humiliation. And the religiously devout, represented by the disciples of the Pharisees, had to pay the tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity, forcing them to break the first two Commandments.

All of which made the topic of the Imperial Tax tremendously divisive and one’s opinion on it immediately revealing. And herein lies the cunning demonstrated by two normally fractious parties united only by their shared opposition to this young Rabbi who the day before had entered Jerusalem to great acclaim and had been stirring things up at the Temple ever since. With their question about the Imperial tax, Jesus’ foes thought they had him trapped, as he would either disappoint the people by advocating for the tax or put himself in jeopardy with Roman officials by arguing against it.

But Jesus not only evades their snare, he entangles them in their own devices. “Who’s face is on the coin,” he asks. Perhaps over-eager to advance their plot, Jesus’ opponents forget that by procuring a coin they betray their own complicity in the Roman system. For those not paying attention, Jesus makes explicit their self-indictment by asking whose image and proclamation adorn the coin. “The Emperor’s,” they answer, assuring those in attendance that they know full well the face and blasphemous confession of divinity they carry.

All this sharpens the bite of Jesus’ response: “give, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And suddenly the tables are turned, as all in attendance confess that everything belongs to the holy One of Israel. With just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously calls them to a higher fidelity than they’d imagined.

Might Jesus also be doing the same to us? Oh, not trying to trap us, but rather to invite us to declare our allegiance. Perhaps the key question to preaching this passage isn’t, after all, whose image is on the coin, but rather whose image is on us. It would be hard for Jesus’ audience to listen to his words and not hear echoes of Genesis 1, where God declares the divine intent in to make us in God’s own image. And that’s what always seems to get lost in conversations about money and politics. For while we may feel strongly about our political loyalties, before we are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we are Christian. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business an no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the some total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.

Jesus raises important questions here, but notice that he doesn’t give pat answers. There are elements of our lives that are, indeed, part of the world order and should be “rendered to Caesar.” But those are elements – our deepest person and self is God’s, and if we remember that, all of life takes on greater focus and meaning. And when I say that – that our deepest self is God’s – I actually don’t mean that in the sense of putting more obligations on us: behave yourself, God is watching! Rather, I mean that as a reminder that no matter what we may do or say, no matter where we may go, no matter what may happen to us, yet we are first, foremost, and forever God’s own beloved child. And that identity will, in turn, shape our behavior, urging and aiding us to be the persons we have been called to be.

Several years ago, one of the pastors of the congregation we attended in Minneapolis put a number of markers in the pews one Sunday morning and after reminding us that all we have and are is God’s – and that all God has and is is also ours! – she invited us to mark one of our credits cards (or dollar bills if we didn’t have a credit card) with the sign of the cross. I did that, and for the next several months it was nearly impossible to buy something and not reflect on whether or not this purchase aligned with my own sense of values and God-given identity. It wasn’t an answer, of course, I had to think for myself about how my faith impacted my decisions about spending. And it wasn’t a burden. In fact, it was rather empowering to be reminded of my identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. What it did was root me in my faith and invite me to actively reflect on how my faith shaped my daily life and particularly my economic life.

I don’t honestly remember if the passage at hand that Sunday morning was this one, but it seems like this might be a fine week to try out such an exercise. God wants more from us, in the end, than polite conversation. God wants for us abundant life. Because while Benjamin Franklin may have once said that death and taxes are the only two certainties of this life, each week we have the opportunity to declare that the one who was raised from death shows us that God’s love is more certain than anything else.

This is a challenging but important word to declare, Dear Partner, and I am grateful for your willingness to do just that. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you. Rich blessings on your proclamation this week and always.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Last time around, I suggested a slightly different approach with another participatory possibility. If you’re interested, you can find it here.