Pentecost, Year A, October 16, 2011
Isaiah 45.1-7; Psalm 96.1-9 [10-13]; 1 Thess. 1.1-10; Matt. 22.15-22
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace to you and peace from the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is one topic Jesus talks about more than any other topic besides the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. In light of today’s Gospel reading, what do you think that topic is? MONEY! Yes, money. Jesus talks so often about money because it has the biggest potential to rule our lives. If we have money, we do everything we can to protect it and we worry about losing it. And if we don’t have money, we’re always thinking about ways to get it.
Money also has the ability to make us think we don’t need God for everyday life. If we have enough money to live comfortably, there is the danger in believing that we are self-sufficient and accumulated what we have by our own hard work. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing bad about money in and of itself, but there is a reason why Jesus talks about it often.
“It has always been the "Golden Rule" of finance that the one who has the gold makes the rules (www.forbes.com).” We have seen this throughout history, have we not? Somehow money equals power and power equals money. It was no different in Jesus’ day. In fact, literal money had an image of the one who held all the worldly power at the time: Ceasar Augustus, Emperor of Rome. Essentially, for the Romans, Cesar was a god. And here we have in our story today, Jesus, who actually is God, saying, “Give [therefore] to the emperor the things that are the empoeror’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
At first glance, Jesus’ statement can lead us to think that because Ceasar’s image is on the coin it means the money belongs to Ceasar. But before we arrive at this interpretation we need to address the question, “What belongs to God?”
Theologian and author, Mark Allan Powell begins his introduction to his book, Giving to God, with a story about the baptism of the Gauls.
The Gauls were a warlike people who in ancient times inhabited what is now France and Belgium. They spoke a Celtic language and were Druidic by religion. By the time of the Christian era they had been conquered by the Roman Empire and were supposedly under its control. The extent of this control varied, however, for the Gauls never did take too well to being conquered and there were numerous Gallic uprisings.
A number of Christian missionaries ventured into Gallic territory and, over time, many of the Gauls became Christians. As the story goes, when a converted warrior was baptized in a river or stream, he would hold one arm high in the air as the missionary dunked him under the water. This seemed a peculiar custom and the missionaries soon learned the reason for it. When the next battle or skirmish broke out, the warlike Gaul could proclaim "This arm is not baptized!", grab up his club or sword or ax, and ride off to destroy his enemy in a most unChristian manner.
Perhaps this story creates some interesting images in your mind, and Powell, too, reflects on the story of the Gauls when he writes: “I find the image so compelling: the picture of someone — anyone — trying to keep one part of their body, one aspect of their identity, free from the influence of baptism. [pp. xi-xii]
Powell goes on to suggest that it is most often our purses or our wallets that we try and hold out of the waters of baptism. I would also like to suggest that we hold our time out of the water as well. But what the story of the Gauls reveals are the ways we try and put our lives into categories. This is my faith category here. This is my work or school category. This is my money. This is the money I’m going to give back to God.
We are not supposed to divide our life up into things that are ours and things that are God’s. The real truth and the good news is that everything comes forth from God and everything belongs to God. This includes all money, all time, all things, all people.
This reality stems all the way back to creation itself in which all things come into being because God wants creation to exist and God makes it happen. According to Genesis 1, human beings are the last to be created and are set apart from everything else by one particular thing. Here, I’ll read from Genesis 1, so we can be reminded of it: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’27 So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female God created them (verses 26-27).”
The particular thing that sets us apart is that you and I bear the image of God and have been given the gift to care for one another and all of creation. What is interesting is that we cannot survive without what was created before us, like light, water, plants, and animals. If we fail to take care of these things, we ultimately destroy ourselves.
In the month of October we have been thinking and talking about stewardship. Stewardship is about bearing the image of God, recognizing it, and living into that God-given identity. How does what we spend money and time on communicate that we are made in the likeness of God? How does how we treat our bodies and what we put into them communicate that we belong to God?
The coin Jesus asked for in the Gospel reading today bore the image of Ceasar, but Jesus knew that God created the emperor and Ceasar ultimately belonged to God, along with the coin. The ultimate question our Gospel reading presents us with is: What rules your life because something or someone does. Is it God? Or is it money? Is it drugs? Is it your reputation? Is it fear of death? Is it worry or anger? Is it even yourself?
Money is a tough subject to talk about, especially in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world. Some of us are at a point in our lives in which we are able to give more money away than we ever have and that is a great gift. Some of us can barely pay every bill that comes in the mail and that is so tough. Some of us have so much credit card or student loan debt that we wonder what it means to have a “negative net worth.” How can we feel like we are giving to God if this is our reality?
Stewardship is not just about money, but Jesus talks about it so much because it is the toughest thing to realize that it actually doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God and we are caretakers of it. I once read that stewardship is “what we do with what we have, all the time.’” (John H MacNaughton (1983) in Giving to God p. xv), and I like that definition. There are times in our lives when we feel all of what little money we have is going towards heating and electric bills, rent, and food. This is okay and is a necessary part of living! This doesn’t mean you are not taking good care of money that has been entrusted to you. Stewardship is about recognizing that you and I belong to God and what we say and do communicates that reality.
There will be many times we will fail to trust God and care for what we’ve been given, but the one thing we can always know is that you and I belong to God.