The coin in question, a silver denarius, probably showed the head of the reigning emperor, and the tail, an inscription that identified him as “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus,” that is, as high priest of the pagan Roman religion. (1) Jesus here is navigating around trap set for him by the Herodians and the Pharisees. (2) Jesus evades being drawn into a legal question, whether the Roman occupiers had a right to tax the people whose God owned the land. Jesus rather exposes the hypocrisy in the very question, since the taxation in question could only be paid in Roman coinage. The Herodians lose their entrapment because the Herodians want to retain the status quo – to keep the descendants of Herod on the throne and retain their own political favor – and so they’re certainly not going to buck the Roman taxation system. On the other hand, the Pharisees would know the commandment that prohibits “graven images” of any kind. They already have the likes of graven images in their own purses with these coins – so the problem is theirs, not Jesus’. When Jesus replies, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” he’s as much as saying to the Pharisees and Herodians, “you figure it out what belongs to the emperor. You’re the ones who are holding the coins.”
For the followers of Jesus, the question of what belongs to “the emperor” has been going on for the last 2,000 years, in most every culture, even within families: what money, what service, what allegiance is due to the state? My mother’s side of the family are Mennonite. Some of my Mennonite ancestors have resisted paying the portion of federal tax that funds the military, and they have been conscientious objectors to serving in the military. On my father’s side of the family we have veterans who have served our country in war. Some of you here have engaged in principled acts of civil disobedience or protest; some of you here have likely never considered that an option. In some churches – some Episcopal churches – you will see an American flag prominently displayed in the sanctuary; in others, never. It’s not that our relationship to the state is unimportant. It’s simply that Jesus does give a “cookie cutter” answer to what that relationship should be. Figure it out. There will be a diversity of opinions, then as now: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.”
The weight of Jesus’ answer is on the second half: “[Give] to God the things that are God’s.” This second half of the epigram virtually annuls the first half because leaders, governments, nations come and go; God abides. (3) Jesus’ energies are for “laying up treasures in heaven,” with life on this earth inviting us to participate in the life to come. (4) What would it mean for us to “give to God the things that are God’s”? It would mean everything. Here’s how:
Our relationship to life on this earth will be radically altered if we place in check the word “possession.” What each of us individually call “my possessions.” I’m talking about real estate, savings and investments, automobiles, the clothes in your closet, the knickknacks on your shelves. I’m also talking about “interior possessions”: possessing an academic degree or two, possessing a job or title, possessing certain abilities, possessing a reputation or pedigree. Everything we are prone to call “mine” is a likely “possession.” I’m saying, all of that we give to God, give to God in the form of our gratitude and acknowledgment: gratitude, because we recognize it all as gift to which we’ve been entrusted, and an acknowledgment that’s it’s all very temporary. At the time of our death, if not sooner, this is all taken from our hands. It’s the difference between clutching at what we claim to be our “possessions,” instead of holding what we’ve been entrusted in the open palms of our hands.
This will make a world of difference to us in how we live our life for two reasons:
- For one, these are the terms by which God has created life. We enter life quite dependent, powerless children, and we depart life quite dependent and powerless, like children. We Brothers have been reminded of this this past week as we have been at the bedside of our brother Tom. In between, our beginning and end in this life, a good many things come our way. I’m not suggesting that we all become like St. Francis and strip away everything. I am saying that we are trustees of all that we have and hold in this life. There’s enormous freedom to be found in asking the question: what am I to be or do, offer or share, given all that God has entrusted to me? The psalmist prays, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” including all that has been entrusted to each one of us. (5)There’s an old word for this in the vocabulary of the church. That word is “oblation.” The word oblation comes from the Latin oblatio, which is an offering or a gift. We live our life as an oblation, acknowledging all that we are and all that we have is gift to which we’ve been temporarily entrusted, and we acknowledge it’s “ownership” as being God’s.Jesus says, “give to God the things that are God’s.” Give your acknowledgment to God that it’s all God’s gift and then, have the time of your life sharing, not hoarding, your life. We could call this “living your life as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” We’ve been entrusted with the gift of life, and so we live our life as a gift, as an oblation. There’s enormous freedom in this. You have nothing to lose, and everything to give.
- Secondly, this is how to become real. In the beginning, God created life as we know it. God shared life with us, the offering of life. In the beginning, since the beginning, it has all been gift. Jesus participates in this in the giving of his life for us, a self-offering of his life, to show us the way to live life fully and freely. This is how to become real, because this is the essence of life, these are the terms by which God has created life. Living our life as a gift completes the circle because these are the terms by which God gives life in the beginning and in the end.
If you were then to ask me if “tithing” is an important principle, I would say “no.” (6) Tithing is an Old Testament principle, giving ten percent of what we have and hold to God. I would say “no.” I think the invitation is not for 10 percent but for 100 percent. We are trustees of 100 percent of the life entrusted to us by God. The question then becomes how we should spend our lives, gifts that they are. And that’s going to look very different, one person to the next. The practice will be different for each of us; I’m appealing here to the principle being the same: of our not being “possessors” of life but rather “trustees” serving under a temporary term in this life. How interesting, how adventurous, how liberating, how real it is to live our lives in sync with how God created life.
Simone Weil, the French philosopher and Christian mystic, said “Creation was the moment when God ceased to be everything so we humans could become something.” (7) Don’t be everything; don’t have or hoard everything. Live your life mirroring how God created life: as a gift for the giving. It’s all gift. Life is all gift. Jesus says, “[Give] to God the things that are God’s,” which is the whole shebang.
- Background information drawn from Interpretation – Matthew, by Douglas R. A. Hare (John Knox Press), pp. 253-255.
- The Ten Commandments prohibit “graven images” – Exodus 20:4.
- Hare, p. 254.
- Matthew 6:20.
- Psalm 24:1.
- The tithe was a requirement for the Israelites under the Law. They were to give 10% of the crops they grew and the livestock they raised to the tabernacle/temple: Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:26; Deuteronomy 14:24; 2 Chronicles 31:5.
- Simone Weil (1909 -1943) in her writings, “Creation.”
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