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A Wonder-Full Life: Looking Back

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Matthew 22:15-22

I am kind of the queen of mixed feelings. Sure, I am opinionated and I feel adamant about important issues, like equality and justice and that there should be only one space after a period. (Yes, really. Look it up.) But often, on the more subtle issues, I can see both sides. I think this, but I can totally see why you would think that. Or I’ll consider several options as the best way to react to a difficult situation—we could do this, or we could do that, or hey, what about something completely different? I often have mixed feelings. I try to avoid binary thinking because I think it limits us and keeps us from considering so much in the vast middle. But recently I’ve been noticing how often I use the word “but.” I like this, but . . . Sure, that’s one possibility, but . . . I have been challenged to work on changing “but” to “and.”

All this to say that I have been looking forward to this worship series on money, AND I have been nervous about this worship series on money! Money is a touchy topic in our society. It’s not considered polite dinner conversation— even though the approved topics are ultimately connected to money. Think about idle chit chat. How much of it involves money? What do you do for a living? How was your summer? Did you do any traveling? My daughter’s a senior so we did college visits. Are you going to see the new Star Wars movie? Are you watching the World Series? It’s hard to talk about anything that doesn’t cost money    or that is not in some way connected to and influenced by the financial world we live in. I can’t think of any hot political topics that aren’t also about money, or power, which is connected to money. Money is everywhere, and the questions are complex. Whether to save that extra money for the kids’ college fund or spend it on a family vacation they will always remember. How to plan for retirement when you don’t know how long you’ll live or how much care you will need.

And then there are the ethical questions, whether you have a lot or a little. If I have an abundance, am I obligated to share? If I’m barely making ends meet, am I still obligated to share? If I can’t pay all my bills, who do I shortchange? At what level does saving become hoarding? Money is complicated, and I’m no historian, but it seems to me that it always has been. It certainly was in Jesus’ time. Our scripture reading highlights one of those challenges.

The Pharisees of course were like religion lawyers, responsible for making sure the Law, the Torah, was upheld. According to the Gospels, they had many conflicts with Jesus. In this instance they joined forces with the Herodians (supporters of King Herod) and they laid a trap for Jesus.         “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar?” The people hated this tax . . . not just because nobody likes giving their money away, but because of all the taxes they paid, this one was particularly onerous. “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.”[1] No wonder the people didn’t like it.

And there was also the issue of the coins. The tax could only be paid in Roman coins, and these coins were not merely money; they were also considered pieces of propaganda. The coins of the time period carried the image of Caesar, their oppressor; in essence, their enemy. How would you like to carry money that bore the image of one who defeated you, the one who oppressed you?

Plus, the Roman coins of the time carried an inscription that said: “Tiberias Caesar, son of the divine Augustus and our high priest,” thereby declaring Caesar to be divine—a god—or at least the son of a god. Such an inscription was a violation of the Ten Commandments. This money was an affront to the Jews— it was “religiously offensive and politically humiliating.”[2] Even carrying the money felt like idolatry, for it claimed someone else as their lord. So the question of paying this tax was the hot topic of the day. If Jesus said to pay the tax, he would lose some of his followers. But if he said not to pay it, then he could expect a visit from the Roman authorities, which would not end well for him.

I want to quote now from a scholar who worded this well. You may have heard of him: the Rev. Dr. John McCall. In his sermon on this text in 2008, John said: “The questioners reasoned they had cleverly setup a yes-no, black-white, right-wrong dichotomy. Either way Jesus answered he’d be in trouble with the partisans on the other side. In his familiar response Jesus asked someone to produce the Roman coin the empire had issued as common currency. And one of the Pharisees produced a Roman denarius with the image of Caesar, and the line ‘Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.’ Oops! Carrying a graven image in one’s purse violated the commandments in Exodus.

Jesus pushed ahead: ‘Whose image is it? Caesar’s! Then give to Caesar whatever belongs to him.’ Jesus could have stopped there, but dug deeper: ‘AND give to God what is God’s.’ Jesus wasn’t dividing the world into two realms – one belonging to Caesar and the other to God. It’s not as though Jesus was dealing cards – taking everything and shuffling it up     and then giving one to Caesar, one to God, one to Caesar, one to God. . . . Jesus was acknowledging that Caesar has a claim on some, on a small part. And, God has a claim on it all.”[3]

Earlier I talked about how money is everywhere, and everything in our lives is part of the world of finance. A book I’m reading, and upon which part of this series is based, talks about our financial system as a whale—but we are inside the whale. We don’t realize that we’re encompassed by a financial system. We can’t see it because we’re inside it— like, a fish doesn’t know it’s wet. We also don’t stop to think about where we got our attitudes about money— how we view it, and where our fears come from. We’ll be looking at that more next week. For today I will give you just a moment to think about it: what is your earliest memory about money, and what did it teach you?

One of my grandmother’s favorite stories to tell about me was when she sat next to me at a worship service at campmeeting. (For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, campmeeting is a gathering of people for what amounts to a week-long revival.) I’m not sure how old I was, but probably around five. When it was time for the offering, a preacher got up to explain where the money would go.           I reached into my purse and pulled out a dollar bill. My grandmother said, “That’s a lot of money. Do you know how much that is?” I said, “Yes, it’s four quarters.” I insisted it’s what I wanted to give. But then the man kept talking and talking. Before long I had put my dollar back in my purse and pulled out a quarter. The man kept talking and talking and I traded the quarter for a dime. By the time the preacher stopped talking, he had talked himself out of 95 cents. My grandmother, a preacher’s wife, loved this story about the long-winded preacher. And frankly, I have tried to remember it every year during stewardship season. But looking back, I’m not sure the problem was the long-winded preacher. Although I don’t actually remember what I was thinking, I’m guessing I started thinking of what else that money could buy. My first response was generosity, but even then I lived in the whale, immersed in financial systems that I had not even begun to recognize.

The people questioning Jesus that day had an agenda, and although they used money, their question wasn’t really about money. It was about allegiance. To whom do we owe allegiance? Jesus’ answer was: yes, you owe some allegiance to the state, and your primary allegiance is to God. How do we know that Jesus didn’t mean a 50/50 split? How do we know that John McCall was right when he said we’re not playing cards, one to Caesar, one to God? Because of the likeness, the image. When they hand Jesus the coin, he asks (verse 20), “Whose likeness is this?” and they answer “Caesar’s.” The word translated as “likeness” is “ikon” in the Greek, which is the same word used in the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Bible, in Genesis 1: 26. “Let us make humans in our own image, in our likeness.” “This is the subversive little seed buried in Jesus’s answer. Caesar can say anything on his stupid coin, but God has already stamped the divine image on the human soul. . . . By God’s grace we are stamped with the image of God on us, and that is what gives us our true value.”[4] Not our bank account—that can never tell us who we are. Not our surplus or our lack—neither is a reflection of us. Not our net worth—that can never define us. Yes, we may live in the whale of our financial system, and our worth was determined before we were born, by the one whose image we bear. Thanks be to God.

[1] Lose, David. “Pentecost 19A: Money, Politics, & Religion (Oh My!),” Oct 13, 2014, www.davidlose.net

[2] Clendenin, Dan. AJourney with Jesus

[3] https://fccucc.org/sermons/whose-image/

[4] https://withallmysoul.com/2017/10/19/the-image-is-everything/

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