A Coin Called Gratitude

(sermon 10/22/17)

denarius - tribute penny

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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This morning, we hear another story from Matthew’s gospel, this one immediately following the one we heard last week. At this point in Matthew, tensions are building between Jesus and the various power groups of the time, and this tension is continually building up to the climax point of the story that we all know is coming a just a few chapters later.

In this passage, we’re told that two groups came to Jesus – the Pharisees and the Herodians. It’s an odd coalition, since the Pharisees and the Herodians were political opponents, each vying for power against the other. The Herodians were a political group whose power was derived by their open support of the occupying Roman government. They were the “go along to get along” group within Jewish society. Many people felt that the Herodians were sellouts – that if they could even still be called Jews, they were apostate Jews who had allowed the norms and standards of the day to divert them from the true Jewish faith and what the Jewish scriptures clearly taught, which, presumably, would never permit working with an occupying government. By contrast, the Pharisees derived their power by portraying themselves as the true voice of the people, the supposedly “true,” pure Jews who hadn’t allowed their faith to be distorted by the society around them. In their role, the Pharisees prided themselves on a meticulous, rigorous, highly pietistic observation of the faith. They still pretty much went along with the Roman occupiers, but they gained popularity with the people by at least putting to voice the religious and nationalistic thoughts of the general population before ultimately going along with Rome in the end.

So when it came to the issue of paying the tax mentioned in this story, the groups were really of two different minds. The tax needed to be paid using a particular Roman coin – a denarius. In value, it was a day’s wage for the average worker, the first-century equivalent of Joe Six-Pack. It wasn’t anything big or fancy; in fact, here’s a reproduction of the coin itself – it’s hardly bigger than a modern dime. Being supportive of the Roman government, the Herodians supported paying this tax, considering it just the price we pay for the benefits and protection given by the government, even if it was sometimes heavy-handed. But the Pharisees took the opposite approach, saying people of the Jewish faith shouldn’t be forced to pay this tax – which made them as popular with the people then as any political group who wants to lower your taxes today. The Pharisees’ argument against them having to pay the tax was made on religious grounds. The coin itself bore the image of the emperor, and the inscription that ran around the edge of the coin identified the emperor as divine – which was clearly inconsistent with Jewish belief. The Pharisees argued, then, that for the people to pay this tax using a coin that called the emperor divine would be a violation of their deeply held religious beliefs – it would make them complicit in something that their religion taught them was improper and immoral.

But now, these two opposing groups find a common cause – they’re both feeling the pinch of large numbers of people following Jesus and his teaching, instead of falling in line with one of them. It’s in their mutual interest to find a way to get rid of this upstart. So they come up with this attempt to trap Jesus into saying something that could be used to discredit him. They ask him if it’s right to pay the Roman tax. If he says yes, the people will all turn away from him and hate him. If he says no, then he’s become an enemy of the Roman state, and we all know from history that there was very little future in that.

In the end, Jesus gives them the brilliant answer that we’ve all heard many times. He doesn’t fall for the trap. He rejects the Pharisees’ claim that to pay a tax with the coin that is inscribed with something contrary to their religious beliefs would be inconsistent with their faith. He rejects their argument that to do so would make them complicit in what they perceive as immorality. He simply acknowledges that in this life, there are things that are the emperor’s, and things that are God’s, and we’re responsible for both – but by far, the more important thing for us is not get bogged down with silly, counterproductive arguments, and to focus on giving to God the things that are God’s.

Ever since this story was written, Christians have debated about where that actual divide is. What is the emperor’s – what is the world’s – and what is God’s? What do we owe to our civil government, either in terms of our money or our obedience to civil laws established for the general population which might conflict with our own particular beliefs, and what do we owe to God?

Based on the many times Jesus is quoted in the gospels talking about faithful use of our money, our financial resources, there’s really no question that regardless of how much we might owe the government, we still have an obligation to use our finances in a faithful manner to support the kingdom of God, and most directly, to do so by financially supporting the local congregation in a way that is reflective of our total resources. Someone was said that if a preacher were to preach about money in the same proportion that Jesus is quoted about it, the preacher would deliver 17 sermons about money per year. I’ve never actually checked that statistic, but I suspect it’s probably about right. But don’t worry – I know that if I preached 17 sermons about financially supporting the church per year, you’d run me out of town, so I’m not going to preach that many money sermons – but I am going to preach some, and this is one of them.

You know that we’re in the midst of “Engage,” our annual stewardship campaign. And all through this campaign, you’ve been hearing – and you’re going to hear again today – about some of the amazing and wonderful things about our congregation; the things that should make us really enjoy and be excited about what we’re all about, both in terms of spiritual support and development for those of us who are part of the congregation, as well as in terms of our broader outreach to the community. Springdale is indeed a remarkably active congregation, living out the kingdom of God in both of those directions, and as we truly, prayerfully think about what Springdale means, to the community at large and especially in our own personal lives, we should be grateful to God for this congregation and we should gladly support it financially.

In your stewardship materials that were mailed out to you, you found a “step” chart, that showed how many households were supporting the church at five various levels of giving. I think it’s helpful to see where we ourselves are on those steps in relation to how many are on other steps – and especially, to consider if maybe this is the year that we should step up. Maybe it’s time to step up to the next level on the diagram. Maybe it’s just time to move somewhere up even within the same step, but then maybe next year move into the next level. I can tell you that I’m increasing my pledge this year, and I invite you, I challenge you, to do the same. I’m doing because, yes, I know the pragmatic reality that everything costs money, and every year everything costs more – but mostly, I’m doing it because I know how important this congregation is to my own spiritual life and development.

Being faithful stewards of the financial resources that God has given to us is a very important part of “giving to God what is God’s.” But it’s also important to remember that our time has been given to us by God. And our talents, our skills, our passions, all of these have been given by God. Because of that, we need to be faithful in the giving of those things back to God, too. These are two faces of the same coin, if you will, of giving to God what is God’s, and if the coin in the gospel story is a denarius, maybe we can call this coin “Gratitude” – gratitude for the fullness of the love and mercy that God has blessed us with. That’s exactly why this year, in addition to the standard financial pledge card that came in your stewardship mailing, there’s also the checklist to indicate how you might like to offer your time and talents in service to God. I hope that everyone will fill out both sides of that card, representing both sides of that coin called Gratitude – both sides being important spiritual disciplines that help us to deepen our faith.

In this story, Jesus asks his opponents whose image is the coin created in. For ourselves, we all know whose image we’re created in – God’s. We’re supposed to reflect God’s image in this world. In order to do that, we need to act in ways similar to the one whose image we were created in. And being faithful stewards, with both our money and our time, with both sides of the coin, is how we do that.

Thanks be to God.

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