SUNDAY SERMON: Render unto God

OT: Isaiah 45.1-7

NT: Matthew 22.15-22

Render unto God

Most people think this passage is about the separation of church and state.  Most people also think that sandwiches taste better with mayonnaise.  Most people are wrong.  

Separation of church and state is a modern idea.  Back in Jesus’ day, church and state were one.  They worked together in concert with one another.  In fact, it’s been that way throughout most of history— church and state working side by side, even though that has worked out about as well as Clear Pepsi.  

Do you remember the marketing trick known as Clear Pepsi when they made Pepsi…clear?  Exactly.  Nobody liked Clear Pepsi, and this passage isn’t about the separation of church and state.

Your first clue is the first word out of the Pharisees’ mouths.  They call Jesus “teacher,” as if they were his loyal students.  Please.  Anytime your enemies flatter you, beware.  They have something else in mind.  Golfing legend Sam Snead taught his students to flatter their competitors on the golf course (“Good shot…nicely played…wow, what a golfer you are!”)–not to be nice, but to artificially inflate their egos…so you could defeat them.  The Pharisees want to defeat Jesus.  

After the ceremonial flattery, they got down to business.  “Tell us, Jesus.  Is it lawful to pay taxes or not?” 

Like a Presbyterian in a room full of Baptists, just about anything he said would have been wrong.  Herodians and Pharisees were both friends of the Roman government.  They paid their taxes in exchange for good standing with the government.  They also knew the Scriptures, and according to Moses it was lawful to pay taxes even to an occupying nation.  If Jesus advised against paying taxes, as they expected him to do, they would have had him arrested.  If he advised that taxes should be paid, he would align himself with the Roman state, which occupied Israel, killed Jews, and was despised by the people.  As the disciples sat waiting on Jesus to reply, there was no good answer.  

So Jesus asks them for a coin.  To me, that’s the most interesting detail in the story.  Why?  Because it means he didn’t have one of his own.  Why not?  Was Jesus so poor that he had no money?  Did he let Judas carry the money for him and his disciples?  Or was it an act of political protest, refusing to use Roman currency?  We don’t know why he didn’t have money.  We only know that he didn’t.  The Pharisees did–surprise, surprise–so they hand him a coin.  

Like our coins, it had a picture of a man’s head on the front, Tiberious Caesar.   Jesus pointed to it and said, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 

Everybody knew it was the emperor, Caesar.  

So give it to him, Jesus said.  Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  In other words, Caesar made it, so it belongs to him anyway.  You’re just using it at the moment.  The Pharisees and Herodians could live with that idea, even though it wasn’t what they hoped he’d say so that they could have him arrested.  But for Jesus, that was just his introduction.  The next thing he said was the real kicker.  “And render to God what is God’s.”  

As tempting as it is to think this is a passage about church and state, that’s not what Jesus is talking about.  So what’s he talking about?  Stewardship.  What we do with what we have.     

Let’s think about it together.  “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”  You do that right?  You pay your sales tax when you buy mayonnaise for your soggy sandwiches.  You pay your income tax to the state and the federal government each year.  Why do you do that?  Because you have no choice.  If you don’t, you’ll go to prison.  Jesus is no fool.  It was the same then as it is now.  He told people to give Caesar what belongs to him, because there was no use in resisting.  It wasn’t worth going to prison or the crucifix for giving Caesar a measly 10%.     

Now, onto the heart of Jesus’ message.  He said, “Render unto God what is God’s.”  Give God what belongs to God.  You do that, right?  What belongs to God?  One hour a week in one room?  Twenty bucks in the offering plate every now and then?  A prayer when you don’t fall asleep first?  Service to those in need…well, you did that a few years ago, and that still counts, right?  

NPR is doing their fund drive, which means it’s also the time of year in churches across the world where ministers will address their congregations asking them to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider what they give to the church.  Stewardship season.  I challenge you to do that, but I have something bigger in mind as well.  Think about this for a minute.  Jesus said that one should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.  But what belongs to Caesar when our entire lives belong to God?  

The rule of thumb in our culture is to give 10% of your income to the church, which actually seems like a pittance when Jesus reminds us that everything we have belongs to God.  But still, why do we have that 10% rule of thumb?  Because when we pool our resources, we can do more good.  

         Perhaps that’s why Jesus didn’t have any money in his pockets.  He didn’t need any.  They took care of each other in the early church.  They were a close-knit community that pooled their gifts from God and made sure there was plenty for everyone.  

That’s what the church is still called to do today.  We pool our resources, our gifts, our time, and our talents in order to do more good together in the name of God than we can do on our own.  God doesn’t just want 10%; even Caesar gets that much.  God wants all of us–our very lives to be used for good, for God!  

Let me give you one last thing to think about.  Roman taxes could only be paid with Roman currency.  And that’s still true for us.  You wouldn’t pay the IRS in pesos or euros, would you?  You pay taxes with the appropriate currency.  Romans made Roman currency, and they expected it back in taxes.  The US makes dollars, and the IRS expects it back in taxes.  

What currency do we use to pay God? God made us, and God expects us to render accordingly.  Since we belong to God, we are to give ourselves back to God.  No separation between one part of our lives and another. Render unto God that which is God’s, and we belong to God in full. Amen. 

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