What Belongs to God?
October 16, 2005
Matthew 22: 15 – 21
The following letter was found in the files on the Internal Revenue Service. “Dear IRS, my conscience has been bothering me. I am including a check for $5,000 to pay my back taxes.” At the bottom of the letter was a postscript, “If my conscience continues to bother me, I will send the rest.”
None of us likes to pay taxes. Even though we realize the government needs to operate, we want to keep taxes low. We want to give the government the least amount of money we can. Here is where today’s gospel poses such a problem for us. Although the gospel seems to be about taxes, it is about much more. Jesus’ enemies try to trap him by asking him whether a good Jew should pay the tax to the emperor or not. The question is a trap. If he says they should, he will alienate many of his followers who are opposed to supporting the oppressive Roman Empire that occupies their land. If he says they should not, he risks trouble with Rome, which is something you would want to do. Jesus wiggles out of the trap by asking for a coin and pointing out that fact that the Emperor’s head is on the coin. He then says you can give that coin to the emperor as long as you give to God what belongs to God.
Here is where the story deepens and the trouble begins. “Give to God what belongs to God.” It sounds innocent when you first hear it. But what belongs to God? Everything. What do we have that does not belong to God? Now some people point to this passage saying that Jesus is proposing equality between the state and God, like the separation between church and state. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus admits that the state has some claim on what we have, but he says that God has a claim on everything. What do we have that does not belong to God? Our Life? The world around us? Our family? Our children, our grandchildren, our relationships, our health, our talents, our future? It is all God’s.
Now this truth is so fundamental that we often overlook it. But there are only two possibilities. If God does not exist, if God is not real, then everything we are and everything we possess have come about by chance. In that case we can do what we wish with our time and our money. But if God is real, if God does exist, (and we come together every week professing that God does), then all that we have is not our own. All we have has only been entrusted to us to be used for God’s purposes. These are the only possibilities; there is no in-between option. I have looked through all the scriptures for a loophole on this. I cannot find one. If God exists then all we have belongs to God. God has a claim on everything.
Now of course God loves us and wants us to be happy. Therefore God expects that a good deal of what has been entrusted to us will be used for our own benefit. God expects us to use our time, our money, and our resources to support our family, to have a comfortable life style, to use for recreation, to achieve security for the future. God does not begrudge us using our time, and our money for ourselves.
But it is the attitude of the thing. You see a Christian cannot really say, “It is my time and my money to use how I wish.” A Christian must say, “It is God’s time and God’s money, entrusted to me to be used for myself and for others. The word we use to describe this truth is “stewardship.” Everything we have has been entrusted to us as stewards to be used for God’s purposes. Now I know that many of us here in this parish understand the truth of stewardship. It would be impossible for St. Noel to function as a believing community without the time, the talent and the money that is given by so many. On a weekly basis I see how many people donate their time and talent so that prisoners in the jail can be visited, so that the homebound can receive communion, so that we may grow as a parish in religious formation through the GIFT program, so that we may have a greater awareness of peace and justice. None of this could happen without a deep sense of stewardship.
I was deeply impressed a year ago as we were experiencing financial difficulties. When we presented that need, so many people examined their own financial contributions and were willing to give more as a sign of stewardship for all that they had received from God. Because they made that kind of a decision and have been faithful to it, we are now in a much better financial position. A financial report will be coming out soon and you will be able to judge this for yourselves. I am convinced that as people continue to appreciate stewardship, we will be able to grow and deepen as a faith community.
It would, however, be a mistake to equate what you give here at St. Noel to what belongs to God. Everything belongs to God. All that we have been given is to build God’s kingdom. You know in what that kingdom consists. We hear it in God’s word regularly: caring for the poor and vulnerable, protecting life, protecting the planet, promoting peace and justice, reaching out in reconciliation. This is God’s kingdom, and we are stewards of that kingdom. God expect us to use what we have been given and promote God’s will on earth.
This is why today’s gospel is so challenging. Unlike the IRS, our master cannot be deceived. As Christian stewards we must be ready at any time for God to ask us, “How are you spending my time? What are you doing with my money? How are you living the life that I have entrusted to you?”
Rendering to God
Oct. 18, 2008
It amazes me how frequently the gospels which we use in our liturgy address the particular issues which we are facing at any given time. The readings which we use come from the Lectionary, which selects certain passages from the gospels and assigns them to each Sunday of the year in a pre-determined cycle that repeats every three years. Yet, despite this set pattern, it is amazing how a particular gospel can address issues that no one could have anticipated or faced when the Lectionary was put together.
Today’s gospel is a case in point. This is one of the few passages in the New Testament that directly addresses the issues of money, taxes, and government involvement in the financial dealings of ordinary people. What could be more relevant? What is foremost on our minds, if not money and finances? Our economy is in a free fall. Credit is frozen. Investors are in a panic. The government is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into our institutions in order to avoid financial depression. And analysts are preparing us for what is yet to come. This downward economic spiral will not only effect our investments but also our jobs, our salaries, and the value of our homes. It seems that for the last number of years we have been living in an artificial bubble of prosperity. But now the bubble has burst, and most of us will have to make adjustments in our life styles.
So what can this economic gospel tell us about the economic crisis that we are facing? To retrieve its message, we must first understand it correctly. All too often this gospel is misunderstood. Some people would interpret Jesus’ words as dividing life into two distinct spheres: a political sphere and a spiritual sphere. When Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” some people imagine that he believes that some things, like material goods and finances, belong to Caesar and other things, such as spiritual goods and moral decisions, belong to God. But, as any believer can tell you, this interpretation of Jesus’ words is patently false. Believers know that everything belongs to God, both the spiritual and the material, both the holy and the financial. Caesar can make some claims on us: we must pay our taxes. But God can make every claim on us. All that we have, including our money and the way that we use it, belongs to God. God’s authority extends to all things. Therefore all that we are and all that we have must be understood in relation to God’s power and to God’s love. With this perspective we can see Jesus’ words as asserting God’s ultimate authority over all things. What meaning, then, can we draw from the gospel in light of our current financial crisis?
I would suggest to you that today’s gospel poses two questions to us: How much do we need and who do we trust? How much do we need? The truth is that we need a lot less than we think we need. When you are accustomed to live in an artificial bubble of prosperity, you begin to confuse the things that you can have with the things you must have. When that bubble bursts, it provides an opportunity to ask what is really important. We might in the future have to make adjustments in the way that we live. We may not be as free to go out as often or we might not be able to buy some of the things that previously we were able to buy. We might have to re-imagine the shape of our retirement. These are all changes we would prefer not to make, but are they the really important things? Do we really think that those things are the source of our happiness or joy? The truth is, we can be happy with a lot less than we are accustomed to. In fact, some of us are old enough to remember us being happy in exactly that way. When many of us were growing up we did not have as many material things as we have today. Yet we were happy. We were happy because we had the things that were important: family, friends, integrity, and the willingness to use what we had for the benefit of others. These are the things that belong to God. When we use them according to God’s will, we can be happy, even if we have less money. How much do we need? We need less than we have become accustomed to.
That leads to the second question: Who do we trust? You can find the answer on the dollar bill. In God we trust. Of course we always trust in God. But when things were going well financially, we probably also trusted in money. We felt that if God failed to catch us, we would still have a deep financial cushion on which we could land. But now when that cushion becomes thin or disappears, it becomes clear that the only source of abiding trust and faithfulness is our trust in God. God alone has made us, saved us, and promised to be with us. God alone will prove trustworthy in good times and in bad, in boom and in bust. As we face the financial adjustments of the future, we put our trust in God.
So it is clear that there are certain things that we must render to Caesar. We must pay our taxes and all of us in one way or another are going to have to pay for the hundreds of billions of dollars that are being borrowed to bail out the economy. But those costs are not the most important things in our lives. If we live our lives with love and service, we can still be happy, even if we have less money. If we render to God the things that are God’s, we will not be disappointed.