In Matthew’s Gospel we’re entering into a full-scale effort by the Jewish leaders to trap Jesus by his own words and teachings. This week we hear a question about taxes. This is followed by a question about which commandment is the greatest, and the third episode we’ll hear next week when they try to get Jesus on the subject of resurrection.
It’s funny: the Pharisees come out with such enthusiasm and yet it’s almost like they failed to do their homework and aren’t prepared. They ask him a simple yes or no question- one that in their minds has only two possible responses- one of them will anger the Jews who so hate the roman occupation; the other will get him arrested by the Roman authorities. Haven’t they figured out yet that Jesus has this frustrating habit of answering questions with yet another question? Haven’t they noticed his propensity for out-witting everyone who tries to trick him and trap him?
Apparently not. Either that, or they are so blinded by their hatred, or opposition to him that they cannot perceive that there’s a third option. So when Jesus answers that they should “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” all they can do is walk away amazed.
Stanley Hauerwas, an author and theologian who teaches at Duke has said that “it’s too bad that Christians aren’t as amazed as the Pharisees were by Jesus’ answer to their question. Rather than being amazed that Jesus has come to usher in God’s reign, we are preoccupied with the politics and rulers of the world. Rarely do we think and behave as though we are full citizens of God’s kingdom. We use a passage like today’s to justify living in a kingdom that divides faith and citizenship, and rendering unto each whatever “due” we decide fits at the moment. This is a losing proposition.”
Why would it be a losing proposition?
It’s a losing proposition because it puts faith and trust- part of our efforts to find meaning and security- into a system that is imperfect and ultimately impermanent. And I’m not suggesting that our particular system of government is bad or that we should try to find a politician or political party to blame or to predict impending national doom and gloom- it’s just the nature of human institutions to be imperfect and impermanent.
It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t participate in the political process. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask for better from our politicians and for our society. It just means that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God.
And God is a far more worthy recipient of our faith and trust.
Something else worth noticing is that in his response, Jesus doesn’t mention anything about keeping what belongs to us. It could be that he’s sticking with those categories that the Pharisees gave him to work with in their question.
Or it could be that it’s all a gift, and that nothing truly belongs to us.
Another reason why it’s a losing proposition to divide faith from citizenship, or to view any part of our lives as outside of the realm of God’s grace, God’s justice, and God’s mercy and compassion is that it ultimately ends up being about us: about what belongs to us, and about what we can do to protect and defend as much of it as possible. And so- much of our life is lived not out of a sense of abundance and gratitude, but in fear of not having enough. And that can describe our relationship to our money, our time, or a sense of control over our lives.
What might change if we were to view life, and all that is in it, as a gift, and not as an entitlement or a possession to be managed, controlled or defended?
Often in the church we talk about gifts from God in terms of time, talent and treasure.
If the time that I have is a gift, and not an entitlement, then I don’t want to waste any of it. I want to treasure it, and put it to good use. I want to work with purpose and passion. And I want to rest and use leisure time on things that nourish me and are life-giving.
If I viewed the time that I have as a gift from God, maybe it wouldn’t feel like a burden to spend it in worship, or study, or service in God’s Kingdom. There’s an episode of a television show where the family gets back home from church and everyone but mom immediately starts ripping off their church clothes and celebrating because this is the longest period of time in the week before they have to do more Church. Mom is horrified and says ‘You know, God only asks for 1 hour a week!’ To which Dad replies: ‘then he should have made the week 1 hour longer!’
If the talent that I have is a gift, and not a possession, then I don’t want it to languish. I want to use it boldly. And not only for my own enjoyment, but to be helpful to others and to bring joy where there isn’t any.
And maybe most importantly, I’ll spend less time wishing that I had somebody else’s talents. There’s a story you might have heard before about a great Hassidic Rabbi Zusha. Rabbi Zusha was found agitated and upset as he lay on his deathbed and his students asked, “Rabbi, why are you so sad? After all the great things you have accomplished, your place in heaven is assured!”
“I’m afraid!” Zusha replied, “Because when I get to heaven, God won’t ask me ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ God will ask ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?’ And then what will I say!?”
If my treasure is a gift, I’m more likely to feel generous about sharing it. Afterall, if 100% is a gift from God, returning 10% doesn’t feel quite so hard! Or whatever that percentage is that we can give without real hardship.
Same TV show, different episode- the grandfather of the family finds that he inherited $106K. He begins spending it on himself to do things and acquire things that ultimately don’t bring him any joy or happiness. He has an idea one day and ends up using the money to renovate the dining room in the nursing home where he lives, and receives the great gift of seeing the happiness this generosity has given others. It wasn’t a grandiose act, and it didn’t save the world, but it was given from a heart of love, and it made a positive impact in people’s lives.
This is all that God wants for us, and from us.
Give to God the things that are God’s. God has already given generously to us. When we recognize that life is a gift we can live it and enjoy it more fully than we ever imagined. When we embrace life as a gift, we experience the abundance of love that God wishes to be ours everyday as full citizens of God’s Kingdom.