October 22, 2023

Matthew 22:15-22

“How Much Should We Give?”

As most of you likely know, our congregation, like a typical Presbyterian Church has quite a few committees. Lots of different people are involved in the work of the committees that all report to Session. For example, there’s the Worship Committee that supports what we do here every Sunday morning. There’s the Pastoral Care Committee that visits members and offers other kinds of support to folks in our congregation who are struggling. And there’s the Mission & Outreach Committee that gives direction for all the ways that we reach out beyond our congregation to serve, and help, and share God’s love in the world.

Most of the committees meet every couple of months. But one of the committees, the Stewardship Committee, just started meeting again this Fall after a long hiatus during Covid and its aftermath. You might think of the Stewardship Committee as the group that tries to encourage us all to give generously to the work of the church. And yes, it is the committee most likely to be found talking about money. Well, besides the Board of Managers, of course.

I think it’s good to note that during the first year of the Covid Pandemic, when many churches and charitable organizations struggled quite a bit financially, our church did okay. Even though we weren’t meeting in person, most of our members and adherents kept on engaging in whatever ways you could do so safely, and many of you continued to make regular offerings for the church’s ministry by mail, through Pre-Authorized giving, or by making e-transfers.

I remember some of you telling me that when we were worshipping online only, you’d be participating from your living room, and when we got to the “offering” part of the service, you’d take out your smart phones and make an e-transfer right then. Making that transfer became an act of worship for you, no different than placing an envelope in an offering plate as it is passed around the church. And as you made your offering, you linked your praise of God to your concern for others.

Well, the Stewardship Committee has started meeting again… partly because stewardship is an important part of our faith. Stewardship is a person’s response to God in Christ. God has given generously to us. We, then, give to others. We give our gifts of money, our gifts of time, and our gifts of service. Presbyterians practice whole-life stewardship, using time, ability, and money for God’s good purposes in the world.

But the other reason for the Stewardship Committee’s return is that we’re struggling a little more with making our budget and our mission commitments in the last couple of years. We’ve lost some regular givers, through death and other circumstances, and we have no desire to start cutting back on what we do as a congregation for one another or for the world.

The Gospel reading we heard this morning provides a theological rationale for the call to be generous, even though Jesus wasn’t likely setting out to give a lesson on stewardship.

Jesus was in the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples and crowds of new followers. It’s the Monday of Holy Week. Yesterday, he rode into the city on a donkey, and people gathered to praise and welcome him. When he got to the temple, he began to challenge the religious leaders. He drove out the people who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.

He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.’”

It is not unusual for religious institutions to move from being places of prayer into businesses or even groups that financially abuse vulnerable people. When there are costs charged for spiritual services, fees associated with receiving God’s forgiveness or blessing, or financial gifts that can be used to gain greater status or influence within the organization, then our religion has lost its way.

But that doesn’t mean that churches shouldn’t talk about money at all. Jesus actually talked about money way more than he talked about sex, for example. Sixteen out of 39 parables that Jesus told concern money or possessions! And in today’s text, he does not hesitate to comment on what people should do with their money.

The story begins with two groups of leaders approaching Jesus together and trying to trap him. 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.

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 is also about stewardship.

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.

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!

I gave this sermon the title, “How Much Should We Give?” And the Gospel text leads me to the answer that in response to God’s great love for us – for life, for breath, for grace, for salvation, and for every blessing and gift that comes from God – we should give it all.

In Bible study earlier this week, one of our members said it reminded her of a beloved hymn:

All that I am, all that I do,
All that I’ll ever have, I offer now to you.
All that I dream, all that I pray,
All that I’ll ever make, I give to you today. 

But, of course, that doesn’t answer the question of how much we should give as our offerings for this congregation’s ministry and the various missions that we support.

The Old Testament provides examples of tithing – giving one tenth. Many people abide by the principle of giving one tenth of our incomes, or even more. Time and again, they testify that this practice has brought them much blessing and satisfaction. The New Testament makes few direct references to the tithe.

However, a guideline of a minimum of 5% has been suggested by the General Assembly of our church as a goal. In 1994, the Assembly said this: “It seems appropriate to suggest that Canadian Presbyterians be encouraged to give ‘the modern tithe’ of five percent of gross annual household income in support of the ministry and mission of the church. This level of giving will help people to put God first in their lives. In response to the generosity of God and with an attitude of gratitude people will be encouraged to grow in their givings to five percent and beyond.”

The amount of five percent takes several factors into consideration. It recognizes that our tax dollars contribute to the well-being of society by helping to fund social, health and educational programs. It takes into account that Canadian Presbyterians contribute to various other charities that help to meet the needs of poor and hurting people. It also invites people to think of proportional giving – giving a specified portion of income. Obviously, the giving patterns for people at various points of the income scale could be quite different. Those who have more resources are able to give more.

If you haven’t considered your offerings for a while, the Stewardship Committee hopes that you’ll think about them this Fall. Your generosity through the giving of your time, talent, and tithe, combined with the offerings of others in this community, are the foundation of our ministry and mission. Your gifts are also an expression of praise and thanksgiving to God, from whom all blessings flow.