Last week, in discussing entitlement, I posed the following question: If you either believe that you are inherently deserving of all that you have or have been told that these things are yours by right – as a solid, irrefutable fact – are you going to be intrinsically grateful for them? The question was rhetorical, so I didn’t poll the room. My point was that when you feel entitled to something you are not grateful for it. Entitlement eclipses gratitude.
It was, perhaps, a good thing that I didn’t poll the room last week, for we may have been uncomfortable with the results. After all, there is something deep inside most of us that strongly resists the suggestion that what we have doesn’t belong to us. If not by entitlement, then by the sweat of our brow. I mean, if we work for it, we want control of it, and we don’t trust other folks to know how best to spend it. Sure, we remember our civics lessons and the fact that the government only has money to spend on things because we give it to them through taxes. That doesn’t mean we have to like it. One of the foundational irritants leading to America’s Revolutionary War was “taxation without representation.” That is, being taxed without getting a say-so.
And if you think we don’t like paying taxes, meet the residents of Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. Israel is an occupied territory, a Roman province. The Romans let the Jews have their temple worship, but they are taxed unfairly to support the Roman capital, and they enjoy very few rights, because they are not truly Roman citizens.
There is a group of Jewish religious leaders on one side of the aisle determined to overthrow the pagan Roman government; to kick them out of Jerusalem. On the other side of the debate are the Herodians, the Jews who have benefited rather nicely from the Roman occupation. The Pharisees were a religious party, the Herodians were a political party. As you might imagine, they did not get along very well. Indeed, their only point of agreement was that Jesus had to go. This unusual partnership is something akin to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump teaming up.
They plant a question in the crowd, a question about paying taxes to the Romans. If Jesus says it’s unlawful to pay taxes (as the Pharisees think but are too afraid to teach publicly), then the Herodians will snatch Him up and take Him to the Romans for being an instigator. It He says that it’s fine to pay taxes to Rome, then the Pharisees in the crowd will zealously stone Him for being a Roman sympathizer and going against God’s word. It’s a no-win situation for Jesus … or so both sides believe.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor?” Jesus answers their question with another question, as He is prone to do: “Hey, buddy, can you spare a dime?” He’s not getting ready to do a magic trick; He just doesn’t have a dime to His name. The King of kings, Lord of lords, has nothing in His wallet.
You’ve got to imagine this is an embarrassing moment for the Herodians and the Pharisees as they dig into their pockets and produce and coin, because the Pharisees shouldn’t even have one. They publicly teach that Roman currency is appalling to God, and here they are in the courts of the temple; so if they have one, they have exposed their hypocrisy in front of the crowd.
They nervously hand Jesus the coin, and He looks at it as if He’s never seen one before.
“Who is this on the coin? There seems to be someone’s picture on this coin.” The word in Greek is “icon.” “Whose icon is on this coin?” Jesus asks them.
Really, Jesus? It’s the image of the emperor. Even my six-year-old nephew knows that. Maybe this guy isn’t as smart as He looks.
Without going any further, Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The literal translation would be: “Give to each what they deserve.”
Spoiler alert: He not talking about taxes at all. Give to God what has God’s image on it. This is bigger than a tax, bigger than a picture on a coin. This is a question of what belongs to God. And, if you heard and/or read last week’s message; and, more importantly, if you remember last week’s message, then you know where this is headed. In fact, if you’ve ever read the first two chapters of Genesis, you know where this is headed.
God made everything that exists and, therefore, has ownership over all creation. Ever human being is stamped with the image of God. God can rightfully lay claim to everything, so does that mean – in the immortal words of Willy Wonka – that “It’s all there, black and white, clear as crystal! So we get nothing! We lose! Good day, sir!”? If so, then our greed is understandable; for greed occurs when we believe in the idea of scarcity. And since God owns everything and we own nothing, then it we make sense that each of us might become “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous” … person
The thing is that, while God DOES own everything, that’s only half the equation. Before we get tunnel vision on the fact that everything we have belongs to God, we must remember that everything God has is ours. The Bible is abundantly clear on this point.
Let me give you just a few examples: Of course, there is Psalm 23, which we read last week, reminding us that “the Lord is [our] shepherd, [we] shall not want. First Timothy chapter six tells us that “God richly and ceaselessly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” The parable of the prodigal in Luke 15 is a story of how God relates to those who wander and return as well as those who stay (grumpy as they may be), and there we have these words from the father, “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” And one of my favorites from Ephesians 3:20-21 in the Amplified Bible: “Now to Him who is able to [carry out His purpose and] do superabundantly more than all that we dare ask or think [infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes, or dreams], according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
Wrap your head around this truth for a minute. Everything God has is yours. The world is always trying to tell us we don’t have enough. We’ve all heard the story of John D. Rockefeller being asked, “How much money is enough?” to which he replied, “Just a little bit more.” This lays to waste to the world’s cry of scarcity. God has everything and He gives abundantly. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone. There is enough wealth in the world to allow everyone to live comfortably. Scarcity only comes when some people believe ‘enough’ is “a little bit more,” because that point never comes. And if any of us, as followers of God, have bought into that lie, then we are basically calling Him a liar. God said we won’t be in want, He said He would richly supply us with everything. Do we believe Him or not?
Of course, it is still a no-win situation for pastors to talk about money. This is particularly true in the Presbyterian Church. For reasons unbeknownst to me, the practice within our denomination has been for only a couple of people to any financial information and the pastor is NEVER one of those folks. It remains true that we walk around on eggshells when it comes to dealing with stuff and money but, in my case, I walk around on eggshells blindfolded in a pitch-black room. Yet, even if I had a bit more information, it wouldn’t matter. Stewardship sermons and/or campaigns crash attendance; it feels more like going to the dentist than cheerful giving.
Perhaps our problem, however, is not so much with the giving, but with remembering who this stuff really belongs to.
Jesus says, let Caesar have his little coins. But let the people of God decide today whom they serve. Let the followers of God decide today that what they have, what they are, what they do, what they think – it all belongs to the One who knew you before He knit you together in your mother’s womb.
Ask yourself, “What belongs to God?” Then find a way to put it back in God’s hands.