20th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“Give therefore to the emperor – Caesar - the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In 1st Century Palestine, Israel was under occupation by Rome, the most powerful empire, perhaps, in the history of the world. Everyone lived under the authority of an Emperor who had named himself a ‘god’. The Jewish people lived under Rome but they did so tenuously, occasionally rising up, being brutally put down, and so it went on …Enter the scene another would-be Messiah, in the view of the Pharisees and Herodians. So, the Pharisees send their followers down to put a riddle to Jesus: Is it lawful (meaning permissible under Mosaic Law) to pay taxes to Rome? They knew if Jesus said yes, then they would say he was violating the Law and following foreign gods and rule. If he said no, they could go to the Romans and say Jesus, the Rabbi was encouraging rebellion, not to pay the Roman tax.
Jesus sees through them and calls their question hypocrisy, as the Pharisees paid their tax, even though they didn’t wish to. When a coin is presented to Jesus, with the emperor’s profile on it, Jesus famously says, “Render (give) to Caesar what is his, and give to God what belongs to God.” The rendering to the emperor is pretty clear but we must ask: what belongs to God? What is “God’s tribute”? Jesus doesn’t answer that question for us, He doesn’t fix the problem that, for instance, money may be short to pay the tax, but He does clearly say that we are to give to God everything that is God’s.
There is no doubt that what the Pharisees are engaging in with Jesus is sin; they are playing the same role that Satan played in his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus chooses now as He did then: he rejects the pull of the world, to become what the world would have Him become, and He gives His obedience, time, allegiance, trust, thanksgiving to God and to nothing else. What belongs to God?
Today we formally begin our Annual Appeal for Stewardship. Stewardship is definitely aligned with our question of the day: What is God’s and what belongs to “the world”? Our mission statement for stewardship says, “Stewardship is a response to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ gave everything to us and therefore everything we have is His. Stewardship is our recognition of this fact.” What if we say everything is God’s? How does that change the rest of life for us? Jesus warns us that there will be Caesar’s in our lives – taxes to pay, things to buy, other things we must do living in any society – but it is not to Caesar that we hold allegiance. Christ tells us again and again that if we want to follow Him, if we are to give all to God that is God’s, we must pick up our cross and follow him.
So, I was hoping, as we enter this time of reflection on stewardship, on what we can and will give as an outward sign of our commitment to God through this place, we benefit from strategies to more clearly know what we are called to give, yes, financially, but more importantly, all the ways God calls us to give ourselves over to Him in this life.
Jay Sidebotham, the Executive Director of RenewalWorks, which we engaged in three years ago (my how the time flies), has five quick pointers for determining how we might devote ourselves more fully to the discovery of what in our lives and spirits, belong to God.
The first of these things is gratitude. When we begin to engage our lives with an air of thanksgiving, for all that God has done for us – beginning with our salvation in Christ himself – we begin to see everything in the world differently. What if we ended each day by thanking God for something specific that happened during the day? There are lots of ways our Prayer Book can help. The Prayer of Thanksgiving on page 101 is a beautiful testament to all that God has done for us. The Song of Simeon, in our prayer of Compline, reveals how blessed we are that God’s love has been revealed to the old prophet Simeon, and how it will be a light for us all. Gratitude opens us up to the possibilities of all we owe, joyfully, to God.
Secondly, as we become more grateful, we begin to trust God more. Trust is really hard for me, personally, because it makes me and all of us vulnerable. But God has shown himself trustworthy and would tell us, if we are willing to listen closely, that no matter what we go through in life, All will be well.
Third, Confession is an important part of discerning what God is calling us to, how we give all of ourselves to him. We admit that waiting for God’s revelation is particularly hard. Waiting to know God more clearly is a challenge. And we confess that our impatience with God and the world can lead us into anger and sin; anger with God, with each other, with certain groups of people. But because of Gratitude and a growing trust in God, we are able to unburden ourselves by coming to God seeking forgiveness.
Fourth, as we continue to allow God to sort us out, we can give ourselves over to sacrificial service. Giving of our time and talent to lift up the poor, reach out to the marginalized, and offer the reality of God’s blessing to other people and communities is to know God’s will more and more deeply. When we trust in God, are grateful for God’s guidance and blessing, and have let go of all that holds us back from God, we are compelled to share our blessing in God and of God with those around us, to those in need.
Finally, and thanks to Jay Sidebotham for this inspiration, we pray. How does God renew us and reveal himself to us in prayer? How do we become people of deep prayer and reflection on God’ gifts, God’s plan for us, during this time when we try to sort out all the confusion, and ask God how we give more of ourselves to Him than we have before?
Gratitude, trust, confession, service, and prayer are powerful arrows in our quiver of discernment over belonging to God. We must draw on God’s gifts and become more disciplined soldiers in the army of God’s love if we wish to be agents of blessing to others and ourselves. God desires, so it seems to me, if we look at the arc of the Gospels, our obedience, our time, our fidelity, our hopefulness, our allegiance, and our whole selves. Reflecting and praying on who we are and who we might be, with God acting more fully in our lives, is a question of stewardship. Yes, we must give to the emperor what is due to the emperor but we give our treasure, our heart’s desire, our longing, our love, our trust, confession, gratitude and prayer to a God ready to receive them, in whatever form we are now, knowing that with more practice we can more fully know where God needs us to be. And then, more perfectly belong to the God who made us for himself.