- Fr. Frank St. Amour III
Sermon - 20 Pentecost
In the Name...
There were once two men shipwrecked on a desert island. One of them started screaming and yelling, “We're going to die! We're going to die!" But, the second man just sat quietly against a tree and said, "Relax. I make $100,000 a month." The first man stared at him in disbelief and shouted, "What does that have to do with anything?” The second man calmly replied, "I make $100,000 a month and I tithe. Don't worry. My pastor will find me!"
Well, this Sunday, Jesus talks about money and how we use it. In fact, today we hear one of his most memorable statements on the subject, "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." That's a great phrase. Usually quoted around April 15th. But, what does it mean?
The first thing we should note is that the question put to Jesus was a trick question. Despite all the flattery of the speakers, it was not put to Jesus in order to learn anything from Him. It was put to Jesus to trap Him.
The Pharisees, the religious right of the day, hated the Romans and their taxes. The Herodians, secular Jews like the puppet King Herod, loved the Romans and accepted the taxes. Both groups hated each other with a passion. But, here we find them joined together in a combined effort to discredit Jesus, each for their own reasons. The Herodians enjoyed watching religious leaders make fools of themselves and the Pharisees couldn't stand the sort of leadership Jesus was providing. So a trick question. Depending on the answer, he would be open to accusation as either an enemy of the government, or as a collaborator with the oppressors. Either way, he would be discredited.
But, instead, Jesus discredits them both. He asks for a coin. Anybody got one? And someone gives him one. I suspect it was a Herodian because this incident took place in the courtyard of the Temple. Roman coins bore an inscription calling the Emperor a god. The Pharisees regarded Roman coins as false idols and no Pharisee would be caught dead carrying one into the holiest place on earth. They must have died of shame when they saw the coin produced and the Herodians probably had a good laugh watching them squirm.
But, then Jesus asked "Whose image is this?" and they all said, "Caesar's".
When Jesus told us to give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to Him, he prefaced it with that question about the image. The coin bears the image of Caesar. So, he controls, he has authority over, the things that bear his image. It must follow, then, that things which bear the image of God belong to God and are subject to His control. So, where can we find something that bears the image of God? How about in a mirror?
To some people, Jesus' words means dividing their lives into compartments. Here's my job life where I do what I have to do to earn money. Then comes my social life and my political life and my family life and my sports life and my hobby life and my volunteer life and my whatever life. And, over here is my religious life. But, there's a problem with this kind of approach to life. All these compartments fragment our inner selves and we don't need a therapist to remind us that a fragmented person ends up feeling broken, divided, never knowing who he or she really is.
When I lived in New York, we had a governor, who, after the legislature had passed a bill with which he disagreed on moral grounds, nevertheless said that he would sign it into law, rather than veto it, because his public duty required him to set aside his personal opinion of right and wrong. Wasn’t there, in the Bible, another governor who said the same thing?
No. Jesus did not mean for us to be internally divided. He meant for us to ask ourselves a simple question. "What is it I owe to the world and what is it I owe to God?" When we frame the question that way, the answer is pretty obvious. I owe certain temporary things to this world. But, if I ask what I owe to God, there can be only one answer and that is eternal.
I bear His image. I belong to Him. I owe him everything I have and can do - not just a few things. I can't separate out one corner of my life and lend that to God, then do whatever I please with the rest. No, no, no. What we owe to Caesar can never be placed on an equal footing with what we owe to God.
As a priest, I hear confessions, but, among all the sins people mention there is one I never hear confessed and yet, it is probably the most common of them all. It's the sin against the First Commandment. "I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me." We worship other gods whenever we give a person or thing or event priority in our lives over what God wants or expects for us.
In the novel Gulliver's Travels, when Gulliver is among the tiny people, the Lilliputians, they marvel at his pocket-watch. He tells them he consults it several times a day and it prescribes his actions. So, they assume it must be his god. An easy mistake. Yes? There are times, I know, when it feels as if it is.
But, it would probably please God if we treated him like a watch. Consulting him often and letting Him guide our actions. You see, He wants first place in our lives. He knows we will never be complete in our inner selves until we render to Him what belongs to Him.
And, one key way we render to God what is God's is in the weekly ceremony of the collection. Maybe we're so accustomed to it that we forget its meaning.
You notice when we take up the collection it's at a part of the service we call the Offertory. The purpose of the Offertory is to prepare the altar with the gifts offered for the sacrifice - The Bread, the Wine, and the Money. No, that's not a joke. The Bread and the Wine will become the Flesh and Blood of Christ, but, the Money already is our own flesh and blood. And, if you doubt that, just consider the pain some folks feel when they have to part with it.
The Money represents us at our deepest level. It's about who we are and who we think we are. Or rather it's about whose we are and whose we think we are. Do we render to God what is God's or do we hold back and render more to the world?
We live in a Herodian world. We're surrounded by Herodian values. It might be a good thing if we were more like Pharisees. The only problem Jesus had with them was that while they did all the right things to God - like fast, pray, and tithe - they didn't have a right attitude to others. The Herodians, on the other hand, didn't do or think anything right about others or God. They belonged to Caesar - body, soul, and money.
Let's live for God, then. Let's use what we've been given for Him. Then, if we're ever shipwrecked in life, we can relax. Because He, our Pastor, will know where to find us.
In the Name...