The question about taxes, and rendering unto Caesar, led into a sermon with time for pew-talk. The outline / framework went something like this:
Jesus does a really nice politician’s job of handing the question back to the Pharisees and the Herodians and asking them, “What do you think? Where do your priorities lie? What do you think of Caesar? What do you Herodians think of the puppet kingdom of Judea? Where do you think God is in all of this, and just how do you reconcile it all?”
Because whether or not Caesar’s head is on the coin, all things come of God. Even Caesar bears the image of God, when you think about it.
Jesus invites his inquisitors to think more deeply about their own relationship with money, power, and the economy of Creation.
We’re going to do a bit of the same this morning. I’m going to ask you to reflect on your relationship with money, its power, and the economy of grace. First, I’m going to tell you a personal story about how I relate to taxes.
My Granny Lyle lived and died in her little council house in the northeast of England. She left school at fourteen and went “into service” in the local doctor’s house – think the little maids in Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, on a much smaller scale. Once she married, of course, she had to move out and in with her husband, a working man in the local industry. They raised two children, and she was widowed the minute the younger married and moved out herself. I knew Granny Lyle only as a widow, living in her government-provided house, on her widow’s pension, with her little dog and her budgerigar. As she aged, she became less and less able to breathe: “Puffing Billy,” she called herself. When she died, she left her funeral paid for, and fifty pounds for each of her four grandchildren, her life savings. My father and uncle burned her few sticks of furniture out in the back yard – there was nothing worth keeping – and the dog went to live with a neighbour.
When I paid my taxes and my rates, I knew that Granny Lyle could pay her heating bill, receive free hospital care, feed the dog. Such stories, for good or ill, are what form our attitude to the way in which money supports us in our communal life. Of course, I have the advantage of having lived only in democratic societies where I have at least some mechanism for influencing the way in which my taxes are spent – the vote – but I also have a vivid and affectionate picture of how one who raised me up can be sustained by my turnabout.
So much for Caesar. What about rendering unto God that which belongs to God?
Of course, the short answer to what belongs to God is everything, even Caesar; so again, Jesus is inviting his audience to think a little more deeply, consider their relationship to God, and to “everything.”
This is where it gets a little squirrelly in churches, especially around stewardship time. Because we know that the church is not God, and rendering unto the church does not necessarily equate rendering unto God; in fact, paying for Granny Lyle’s council house in the name of neighbourly love may be just as good and godly a thing as signing a pledge card. Still, the church is one mechanism for returning our gifts to God in worship, in community outreach, and in the hope of a future that brings heaven a little closer to earth.
I’m going to tell you an even more personal story, which explains a little of how I relate to the church.
When I was born, and my mother and I left the hospital for the first time, I was given into the arms of a social worker from the Church of England Children’s Society, who took me to a foster family, and it was that agency which, over the next weeks and months, arranged my adoption by another family, who gave me my name and the history that I have now. [By the way, they were also marvellous to both my birth mother and me when they helped us to reconnect, happily and affectionately, twenty-nine years later. We keep in touch with a lot of help from facebook!]
Again, our stories guide our giving, our receiving, our understanding of what is mine, what is yours, what is ours, what is God’s.
I invite you specifically in your prayer this week to consider the stories that you were told or that you have told yourself about money: to give thanks where you can; to ask forgiveness if it is needed; to request guidance or comfort if it’s all just too confusing.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.