Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 22, 2017

2017.10.22 “Show Me The Money” – Matthew 22: 15 – 22

Central United Methodist Church
“Show Me The Money”
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 22: 15 – 22
October 22nd, 2017

Roman Coin

 

That’s when the Pharisees plotted a way to trap Jesus into saying something damaging.  They sent their disciples, with a few of Herod’s followers mixed in, to ask, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students.  So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, “Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me?  Do you have a coin? Let me see it.” They handed him a silver piece.  “This engraving – who does it look like? And whose name is on it?” They said, “Caesar.” “Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.”  The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.”  – Matthew 22: 15 – 22, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Have you ever noticed what’s on a dollar bill? If you have a dollar, you might want to get it out; for those who don’t have a $1 to your name, I’ll put a picture on the screen.

$1

While you are getting out your dollar, you can reflect upon the fact that – although figures vary – about 50% to 80% of all dollar bills contain traces of cocaine. This is not because every dollar bill has been used to sniff cocaine, but because they have come into contact with bills that have. And – lest you are tempted to put your money where your mouth is, you should also know that 94% of bills contain bacteria, including fecal bacteria, bringing new meaning to the term “filthy rich.”

On the dollar, look first to the “black side,” the one with the picture of George Washington. As our first President, it’s appropriate that George Washington should have his picture on the One Dollar Bill.

On the right hand side, superimposed on the word “One”, is the seal of United States Treasury. Inside the seal, will see scales – the symbol for a balanced budget (hah!). Just below the scales are a carpenter’s square, and underneath the square, the Key to the United States Treasury. Good luck with that!

On the left, in the circle, is a letter designating at which Federal Reserve Bank the bill originated, as well as various serial numbers and marks. As printing technology has become more sophisticated and accessible, counterfeiting is obviously a serious problem. Have you ever paid with a $20 or larger and had the cashier hold it up to the light to examine it? When that happens, don’t you hope it’s real?

The reverse side of the bill is green (which is why the dollar bill is sometimes called a “greenback”). It pictures the word “ONE” flanked by two circles, picturing the front and back of the Great Seal of the United States of America.

The circle on the left pictures an unfinished pyramid with 13 steps. At the top of the pyramid there is an all-seeing eye radiating light, an ancient symbol for God. There are two phrases in Latin: “Annuit Coeptis” (“He (Providence) favors our undertakings”), from the Roman Poet Virgil, and “Novus Ordo Seculorum” (“a new order of the ages”), reflecting our belief in American exceptionalism, that we are different than what has come before.

The circle on the right pictures the front of the Great Seal. It shows a bald eagle holding an olive branch and 13 arrows in its talons, with his head pointing toward the olive branches, favoring peace. There is a banner in the eagle’s bill reading, “E PLURIBUS UNUM” (which means, “Out of many, One”). There are 13 stars above the eagle and a shield with 13 stripes in front.  (If 13 is indeed an unlucky number, we are in trouble). There are some who say many of these symbols are Masonic or Rosicrusian in origin, which at the time the dollar was designed were secret societies.

In the center, above the written “One”, you will note the most controversial phrase, which is in “In God We Trust.” This phrase did not appear on paper money until 1957, 3 years after “Under God,” was also added to the Pledge of Allegiance, during the Cold War, when our enemy was the atheistic and communist Soviet Union.

These mottos, referring to God, in the Pledge of Allegiance and on our money, have always been controversial. One side argues “separation of church and state” requires the motto should be removed from public use, including on coins and paper money, and in pledges recited in publicly funded classrooms. They argue this because they believe religious freedom includes the right NOT to believe in God and therefore the gratuitous use of this motto infringes upon these rights.

The other side argues that “freedom of religion” was never intended by the Founding Fathers to be “freedom from religion”, and that these phrases in the Pledge of Allegiance and on our money reflects the will of the majority.

Interestingly, Theodore Roosevelt argued against the requirement of the motto on money, not because of a lack of faith in God, but because he thought it sacriligious to put the name of God on something so common as money. Indeed, if truth were told, it ought to read this way, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”

Who would have thought a piece of paper 2.61 inches wide, 6.14 inches long, .0043 inches thick, weighing 1 gram, and costing the government 4.9 cents to make, would become a source of controversy (like the American flag and the National Anthem) regarding such things as money, taxes, government, and even God?

According to today’s Gospel, in the time of Jesus, similar  controversies were at play regarding money. Such that when religious authorities tried to trap Jesus into saying something controversial with a coin, what he said in response has made us think about money, taxes, government, and God, ever since.

The situation was this: Jesus is in Jerusalem, and tensions were arising, between his prophetic words and actions and the religious establishment. At that time, the religious establishment consisted of two groups, the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians were collaborators with Rome, because it served their purposes and lined their pockets. The coin under discussion was the Imperial Tax; not only did Rome occupy the country, they made those occupied pay for the privilege of it. It brings to mind the Monty Python skit: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Answers emerge: “Aqueducts. Sanitation. Roads. Education. Order. Peace!” But to pay for this, there was a tax. For Jesus to say not to pay it, he would be branded a rebel, an enemy of Rome, subject to execution.

On the other hand there were the Pharisees, the people’s party, as it were, resentful not only of Rome’s occupation but their idolatry. On the coin in question was an image of Emperor Tiberius as “son of the divine Augustus” (that is, a son of a god), offensive to Jews for its violation of both the 1st and 2nd commandment, “idolatry” and the making of “graven images.” If Jesus says “Don’t pay it,” he’s in trouble with the Romans. If he says, “Pay it,” he’s in trouble with the people.

But Jesus deftly evaded the trap by asking, “This engraving – who does it look like? And whose name is on it?” Then saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

For them and for us, the question remains: “What is Caesar’s (representing whatever government we live under) and what is God’s? What does Jesus’ answer tell us about money, taxes, government, and God?

Regarding money, this particular passage does not teach us much. Perhaps Jesus had to ask for a coin, because he didn’t have two denari to rub together. However, we do know from the rest of Jesus’ teaching that money was important, because he had more to say about money than he did about prayer or even heaven. Therefore, what we do with our money becomes important, too.

What do Jesus’ words teach us about taxes and government? Over the centuries, many Christians have based their attitude about government on this passage. Some have said Jesus’ response establishes two separate realms, Caesar’s and God’s, and that people should render to each what each asks. Practically, some say therefore we give to Caesar – in the way that Caesar asks, whatever it might be – Monday through Saturday, and we give to God what God asks, Sunday, from about 10 to noon. What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s like the story about the Pastor, the Priest, and the Rabbi. As they discussed how they divided the offering, the Priest said, “We draw a circle on the floor, and throw the offering in the air; what lands in the circle goes to God; what lands outside the circle we keep. The Rabbi said, “We do just the opposite; what lands in the circle we keep; what lands outside goes to God. The Pastor  says, “We have a better system. We throw the money in the air: what comes down we keep; what stays in the air we give to God.”

In context, Jesus’ saying is ambiguous. The word “render” means “give back;” thus the first phrase could mean, “It’s Caesar’s coin – give it back to him.” The second phrase could equally mean, “Pay your tribute tax to Caesar, and your temple tax to God,” to “Everything belongs to God.” In that case, what is owed to Caesar? Nothing. As the late Marcus Borg concluded:

“Thus this text offers little or no guidance for tax season. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?” (Marcus Borg, What Belongs to God?)

Which – for us – makes paying taxes both simple and abhorrent; you hold your nose and write a check. With this check, you pay for a system of domination, but also for civilization. You pay for bombs and bullets, but also roads and schools and police and fire departments and hospitals and social security. WHAT our taxes pay for, is not only a political question, but also a moral question. For most of us, this is the problem with the tax bill now before Congress: it cuts programs for the poor and children and the elderly (both Medicare and Medicaid), in order to give a tax break to the rich, none of which is paid for other than in fantasy. So much for those scales.

Finally, as Jesus’ question provocatively poses, “What then belongs to God?” The answer: we do. The book of Genesis tells us that we are made in the likeness and image of God, that our lungs are filled with the Breath of God. We come from God, every thing we have and are is the gift of God, and in the end, we return to God. What then belongs to God: everything. With each word we say, with every decision we make, with each deed we do, we must remember this every day.

Lately Michele and I have been watching The Crown, the series about the British Royal Family, the House of Windsor. If there is anything Queen Elizabeth has understood clearly throughout her life, it is that members of the Royal Household must always act appropriately (even if they have not.) Such that, years ago, I remember hearing – I don’t know if it is factual or anecdotal – that when Prince Charles was growing up and was tempted to “normal” behavior, Queen Elizabeth was quick to remind him: “You must always remember who you are.”

And so must we. While our money may belong to Caesar (whose image and likeness are on it), we belong to God (whose image and likeness are upon us). Let us remember and act like it every day.  Amen.

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