October 18, 2020


Matthew 22:15-22
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

“Everything to God!”

In a season of elections and political debates, today’s Gospel story seems very fitting. Jesus is approached by two opposing groups who scheme together to try to trick him into saying something that he shouldn’t.

Commentators note that the Pharisees and the Herodians are a strange pairing because they would have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum and, in particular, the tax question. The Herodians were supporters of Herod Antipas (King Herod’s son) and Rome’s puppet ruler and collaborator with the empire. The Pharisees were against the Roman occupation, so they had little in common with Herodians – except their mutual opposition to Jesus and the trouble he was stirring up among the people.

The Pharisees and Herodians first soak Jesus in flattery, and then ask him a trick question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus says, “Do not pay taxes to the emperor,” the Romans will get him for treason. If he says, “Yes, we should pay taxes to the emperor,” his own followers in that occupied country will call him a traitor.

It makes me think of other questions asked of our political hopefuls in the course of campaigns and debates in which someone asks a “yes or no” question and demands a binary answer when the question is not really that simple.

Sometimes we see the politicians avoiding the questions altogether, even looking awkward and uncomfortable as they do so. And other times, they answer wisely, explaining why either “yes” or “no” is not sufficient and what their actual plan is with regard to the issues in question.

And although the Pharisees and Herodians are trying to put Jesus on the spot, his calm, careful response not only keeps him safe from the critique of either group, but also makes a much more important point that we must heed as his followers today.

Rather than just answer “yes or no,” Jesus begins by asking a question of his own. “Whose image is on the coin we must use to pay taxes?” Of course it is the emperor’s image, so Jesus agrees that folks can give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor.

The SALT Lectionary Commentary notices that “Over the years, some have interpreted this to mean that God’s interests have nothing to do with money or taxes, but rather are focused exclusively on the ‘spiritual’ realm. Indeed, the line’s susceptibility to being heard that way is part of how Jesus wriggles out of the dilemma posed by the question in the first place: on the surface, he seems to be saying, ‘Sure, pay taxes to the emperor.’ But that’s only half his answer – and the other half upsets the whole applecart.”

“In effect, Jesus says, ‘Give to the emperor his due – and by the same token, do the same for God! Give the emperor the things that bear his image – and tell me, what bears God’s image?’” What bears God’s image? We do, of course! So we can give our money to the worldly rulers that demand it, but we give ourselves, our whole lives and everything else to God’s good purposes in the world.

“Our whole lives should be ‘given’ to God in the sense of participating in God’s mission, listening to God’s law, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Giver of all good things… Jesus isn’t dividing the world up into ‘financial’ and ‘spiritual,’ or ‘political’ and ‘religious.’ He’s pointing out that the ‘spiritual’ is a much, much bigger category, encompassing finance, politics, and virtually everything else: our bodies, our actions, our lives, and our life together in community with each other.”

Subtly, Jesus also says that we must NOT give to the emperor what does NOT belong to him – our ultimate loyalty, our complete obedience, or our worship. No matter what is written on the coin, the emperor – whether a monarch, a dictator, or a democratically-elected leader – is not God.

Jesus’ answer regarding “the things that are the emperor’s” and “the things that are God’s” is a profound testimony to the heart of our faith: we belong not to Caesar but to God.

So, for us as followers of Jesus today… I think that means that what we must give to God is much more than a little time for worship on Sundays, plus a few volunteer hours for the church, and a tithe of our income. Jesus is inviting us to see that our whole lives belong to God, and so our whole lives must be lived in response to God’s goodness and call.

It doesn’t mean that we will spend every day and every hour doing “religious” things. But no matter what we are doing in our work, in our family life, or in our leisure, God’s loving purpose for us will inform and direct our decisions and actions. It will impact how we use our time and invest our money. It will direct how we treat our families, our co-workers and employees, our neighbours and the strangers we encounter along the way. What we buy, and how we vote, and how we care for Creation will be choices made with the knowledge that we belong to God and are not our own.

Our culture today mostly relegates religion to the private sphere. And because we live in a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, Christians need to take the lead on being respectful towards people with different beliefs and practices who are our neighbours and fellow community members.

So, we may not preach about our faith or impose our perspectives on others in the public sphere. But that doesn’t mean that we abandon our faith when we leave the worship service on Sunday noon, or when we leave the house on Monday morning.

Our faith should lead us to be the people who show kindness and mercy to an employee who is struggling. It should give us courage to speak up for others when we see an injustice is occurring. It should push us to be generous with our time, our gifts and resources when someone needs our help. It should inspire us to be people who encourage others towards hope when times are difficult and there are so many challenges around us.

I’ve often heard from Christian nurses that they know they are not allowed to pray for their patients – at least, not out loud or in ways that impose their religion on others. But many of them do find ways to pray, quietly in their own hearts as they engage in the practical care that is part of their calling. And their conviction that each patient or family member is a child of God holds them to account when frustration or exhaustion might otherwise lead them to treat someone poorly. (I’m thinking of the exact opposite of what we saw happening in a Quebec hospital where an Indigenous woman was the victim of neglect and at least verbal abuse, rooted in racism.)

I recently had a conversation with a Christian firefighter who talked about how he considers his work to be a calling from God. And even though he does not talk about his faith at work, he considers his job responsibilities as a vocation from God, offering his skills, his energy, and his care to helping others every day.

The spheres in which we live, work, volunteer, and enjoy social relationships will be different for each one of us. But Jesus’ calling to give to God what belongs to God – our whole lives for God’s good purposes – is the same for each of us. This calling has been the same since the early days of the Christian Church, and we are given many good examples to follow as we strive to embrace that calling in our own lives.

When I first started writing this sermon, I was thinking of calling it “Imitators and Examples” because I was thinking about the lifelong learning process involved in being followers of Jesus, and how we must keep on figuring out how to give ourselves fully and completely to God for the good of the world.

The earliest letter written by the Apostle Paul and his co-workers was sent to the church of the Thessalonians in the mid-first century. In that letter, Paul thanks God for the Christians at Thessalonica, remembering their work of faith, labour of love, and steadfastness of hope. He commends them for becoming imitators of the Christian leaders and of Jesus himself, and he praises them for becoming examples for other believers as to how to turn away from idols and live for God.

In their case, living as Christians in the first century was a truly risky thing to do, given that persecution was rampant and sharing your faith might lead to real danger. But Paul encouraged them to keep it up, knowing that Jesus and the Apostles put themselves at risk for the sake of the gospel too, and that they are on the right track as they persevere in their convictions.

For most of us, the dangers aren’t so severe, but the sacrifices may still be significant as we strive to seek God’s will over our own, as we give of ourselves generously, forgive others mercifully, work for justice faithfully, and love people selflessly in all the spheres of our daily lives.

Jesus successfully avoided the trap that the Pharisees and the Herodians were trying to set for him. But more importantly, he used their tricky question as an opportunity to teach his followers a foundational idea. As people of faith, we are called to give to God the things that are God’s. And ultimately, it is all God’s!

One commentator sums the message up with these words: “We are beloved children, able partners in the ongoing work of creation, people who are living daily into their baptismal identity by giving God what is God’s: our lives, ourselves, our energy, our everything until we become living sacraments, and our world becomes a place of meeting.”