For the past several weeks we have been listening to stories of Jesus teaching the crowds and generally taking the Jewish authorities of the time to task for their focus on life on earth as opposed to life with God in the kingdom to come. Today we see that the authorities are not taking this lying down and are striking back. In fact, Jesus has so rattled the authorities that they are desperate to discredit him and generally shut him up. The Pharisees, as we know were the Jewish authorities of the time. They were the temple priests, the keepers of the faith, the representatives of God to his chosen people; the Jews. The Pharisees greatly resented the presence of the Romans, who had taken much of their power and authority away as they occupied the land and imposed the will of the Emperor; even over the will of God.
The Herodians on the other hand, were Jews as well, but they were loyal to King Herod. Herod was the King of Galilee, who the Romans had installed as a puppet ruler in an effort to appease the Jews and provide the polite fiction that they had some aspects of self-rule over their lives. The real power of course lie with Rome, but Herod was someone to be feared nonetheless.
As you might expect, there was no love lost between the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees hated all that Rome was and wanted them gone, while the Herodians owed their power and status to the Romans. For the two groups to unite on any issue should give you an indication of just how much they feared Jesus.
They come together in an effort to trap Jesus into giving an answer to a seemingly innocent question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor? But this was not such a simple question. If Jesus answered that it was not lawful, that God, not Caesar was the true ruler, he would have angered the herodians who would have turned him in to the Roman authorities for preaching against the emperor. If he answered that it was lawful to pay taxes, he would be legitimizing the authority of Rome and recognizing their claim that the Emperor was the lawful ruler and should be worshipped as the God he claimed to be. To do this would anger the Pharisees and their followers who worshipped no ruler but God.
It was a clever conundrum and they must have felt quite proud of themselves for coming up with such a fool-proof scheme. Whichever way he went, Jesus was sure to anger one side or the other and, in so doing, dilute his standing as a teacher and Wiseman. Jesus of course saw the trap right away. And, as is typical for Jesus, he does something completely unexpected and chooses a third path.
We all know this story of course. The King James version says “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jesus frustrates the efforts of both the Pharisees and the herodians by telling them that it is not about the money but rather about God. Money is an earthly thing. It is a creation of men and though it holds a huge place in our hearts, it should not be the focus of our lives. We should focus less on earthly things and more on divine.
The job of a preacher is to open the scriptures to us; to interpret the words of the earliest times to our life today. 20th century theologian Karl Barth said that we should read scripture with Bible in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other. So my task today is to find some current relevance for this gospel story and help us all to see the teaching for us in 2014.
As I read this passage, I think of the relationship we have with money. Money was very important to people in Jesus time and is has not become any less important throughout the centuries. I don’t know about you, but I find myself thinking a great deal about money. What I have, what I don’t have, what I can do with it and how I can get more. And as I reflect on this passage, I am reminded that I spend more time thinking about money than I do about God.
I find that troubling. Jesus’ message to the crowds to focus more on God than on money was true then and is true now. It is a reminder that we place too much emphasis on money and have let it become a substitute for God in some ways. This is not healthy.
It is also a reminder that no matter how much we feel we have earned it, the money is not ours, but comes to us from God. We work, using our gifts and talents to earn a living and feel that we are entitled to the fruits of our labors. But we fail to recognize that our gifts, our skills, our very lives are gifts from God. Without God we would not have the ability to earn this money.
This of course leads to the concept of stewardship. If we accept that all of what we have is ours, not because of ourselves but because of God, we have an obligation to give back to God in proportion to our gifts. We are called to give of our time, of our talents, and yes, of our money. Each is a gift we have received and each is important for us to give back to God. We tend to think that we can be good stewards by offering one of these to God but that would be to diminish the gifts we have been given. We need to give each to God, our time, our talent and yes, our money. For each is a gift given to us by God and we must give back in thanks for the abundance of blessings we have received. For as Jesus tells us “Give to God the things that are God’s”.