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Everything Belongs to God – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith NelsonIsaiah 45:1-7 & Matthew 22:15-22

We sing to God: 

You alone are the Holy One.
You alone are the Lord.
You alone are the Most High.

And God sings to us:

I am the LORD, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe.
I, the LORD, do all these things.

You alone
and there is no other.

You alone
and there is no other.

Back and forth, point and counterpoint, push and pull,
beholding what we are, becoming what we receive,
until breathless and spent and brought to shore
our whole life confesses one truth:

Everything belongs to you.

Everyone belongs to you.

I belong to you.

Take what is yours.

Jesus said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

There is nothing that does not belong to God.

When you look intently and intentionally at the world around you, what do you see? Do you see a world of creatures who bear the image of their creator indelibly stamped upon them and within them? When you look at a man, or a woman, or a child, do you see a coin in the hand of God worth more than all the currency of every nation combined? Do you see a world that belongs entirely to God?

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.

These words of Jesus have pursued me for days, waking me up in the morning, closing my eyes at night, filling my prayer time and many other moments. Listening to Jesus in this gospel passage, there are a few things I do not hear.

I do not hear a teaching about whether or not we should pay taxes. I do not hear advice about keeping our religious and economic lives separate.I do not hear a passage upon which to justify the American separation of church and state; neither do I hear a passage validating some easy truce between them. I do near hear a lesson about being good and dutiful citizens of the nation that issued our passport or birth certificate because God said so – though I do believe that cooperating with democratically elected government is a form of loving my neighbor as myself. Neither do I hear a passage demanding that we engage in civil disobedience in the name of the God we serve – though giving to God the things that are God’s may itself require such action, and there are plenty of words in the gospel that can and even should be interpreted as calls to nonviolent resistance.

I do not even think that this passage is primarily about what we should do with our money, though it has profound implications in that direction which I want to return to.

I hear in this challenging text from Matthew’s gospel a message about our fundamental attitude toward the God who created us in his image. This is an attitude, a disposition, a place we come from prior to any loving and faithful response.

There is no thing that does not belong to God. If we embrace this attitude, which is also a truth, then we too will belong to God: everything we have, and everything that we are, and then what’s left over after that. And if we belong to God, all that is God’s will be ours – though the sense in which it is “ours” will be infinitely more spacious than that possessive pronoun can convey. If our basic attitude is that some things belong to God while other things belong to someone or something less than God, including ourselves, we are mistaken. We are emperors with no clothes.

This passage in its original context reveals much, even as its essential ambiguity remains. The particular tax in question, of the many taxes paid by Jews in first century Palestine, was the imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. Whether that tax was a ticket to privilege or a badge of oppression quickly divided Jews into two camps: the Herodians who regarded Roman rule as a privilege and the Pharisees and other nationalists who regarded it as a profound humiliation. These unlikely bedfellows have joined forces to entrap Jesus as he teaches in the temple during what will be the final week of his life on earth. If Jesus says “Yes,” he’ll be advocating Roman rule and the vast majority of the common people around him will feel betrayed; if he says “No,” he’ll be committing political treason. But in characteristic form, Jesus chooses neither of the options on the menu. He says, “Show me the coin that is used for the tax.” Jesus does not own such a coin, but he knows his opponents will – and that their possession of a denarius in the Temple, bearing a graven image of Tiberius Caesar, bearing the words “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, and high priest,” will immediately demonstrate their own loyalties. He makes the point unequivocal by asking them to point out what everyone in the crowd knows: “Whose face and title are these?” “The emperor’s,” they must reply. At this point, they are clearly the experts on the imperial tax, not Jesus. His final statement suggests that, while he does not own a denarius, his pockets are indeed filled with an invisible currency. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Just as the emperor is not God, God is not an emperor. God does not own simply a staggeringly large amount of the known universe; God does not demand tribute from us and let us keep the remainder for our own purposes. Everything belongs to God. When Jesus says “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” I hear distinct echoes of an earlier encounter in Matthew. A man asks Jesus’ permission to go and bury his father before coming to follow him, the implication being that the man is inventing reasons to procrastinate beginning the spiritual journey in earnest. Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” The words seem harsh, but they no doubt cut to the heart of the man’s wavering inner resolve. In our passage, I hear Jesus say, “Look, if Tiberius Caesar has so much fun minting these little bits of silver and writing his name on them, let him have them. Our true worth and our genuine resources come from God.” We belong to God. What we have belongs to God. We buy and we sell in God’s economy, God’s marketplace. The way we engage with the world’s economy and the world’s marketplace must reflect this prior reality and loyalty. That is no easy task, and Jesus does not give us a formula.

I said earlier that if our basic attitude is that some things belong to God while other things belong to someone or something less than God, including ourselves, we are mistaken. One possible mistake might be to attempt to serve God while also building our own empire and collecting bits of silver imprinted with our own likeness. There are abundant examples of this in American consumer Christianity. But another possibility is that we become unwitting, tax-paying subjects of one of the world’s many competing emperors by internalizing the messages communicated by our economy or our government or our employer or our workplace culture that insist we belong to them.

An employer may say, “Your time – all of it — belongs to me,” by insisting that you carry a work phone and respond to text messages at any time of the day or night. A student loan provider may say, “Your money – all of it — belongs to me,” even if you do not have money for rent or groceries, or even if you have legally declared bankruptcy. These edicts from the world’s emperors can all too easily become, “Your sense of worth depends on me,” or “Your pursuit of meaning is determined by my parameters.” This train of emotional reasoning – insidious and diabolical – may be especially familiar to you if you have ever been (or currently are) unemployed, or partially employed, or employed in a way that is exploitive or devoid of meaning or is fundamentally at odds with your conscience. It may also be familiar to you if you live your life under the shadow of debt. I name these two because I have had both of those experiences, simultaneously – and I am well aware of how common they are, and how little we speak about them to one another. Our relationship with money can be intensely personal, to the point that discussing it publicly can bring up intense shame. But therein lies a great deal of its power over us. We give to the emperor things that are not his.

If you are in this position, I want to first invite you – as often as you possibly can – to place yourself in environments where you can be a recipient of compassion as often as possible. Spiritually speaking, you are living in occupied territory and under an oppressive regime. Openness to the compassionate solidarity of those who share your burdens – whether their burdens are identical to yours or not – can help you stay grounded in your true identity as a child and heir of God and a citizen of God’s kingdom. Second, living lightly and generously in relation to the money that is at your disposal by asking for help when you need it and by giving help when and as you are able is one way to give to God the things that are God’s. We help our brothers and sisters to do the same by receiving – not as a debtor but as God’s child, God’s heir, and God’s representative.

There is no thing that does not belong to God. If we embrace this attitude, which is also a truth, then we too will belong to God: everything we have, and everything that we are, and then what’s left over after that. And if we belong to God, all that is God’s will be ours – though the sense in which it is “ours” will be infinitely more spacious than that possessive pronoun can convey.

We sing to God: 

You alone are the Holy One
You alone are the Lord
You alone are the Most High

And God sings to us:

I am the LORD, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe.
I, the LORD, do all these things.

You alone
and there is no other.

You alone
and there is no other.

If you need to hear it, won’t you please repeat after me:

I belong to God.          I belong to God.          I belong to God.

We belong to God. Amen.

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1 Comment

  1. Eben Carsey, FSJ on October 26, 2017 at 14:51

    Thank you, Brother Keith. We belong to God. May this truth be ever more realized.

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