19 October 2014 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: Ah, the gotcha question. A favorite of interviewers everywhere. It appears innocuous and simple on the surface. But try to answer it, and you might as well be walking a tightrope, over a crocodile-infested lake, while on crutches, balancing a very full bucket of acid on your head. One bobble, one misstep, and the consequences are dire.
That’s where Jesus finds himself when the Pharisees and Herodians come to him. They ask the biggest gotcha question of all, the one every Jewish leader in first-century Palestine wanted to dodge: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? It seems like a simple question. All persons living under the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire had to pay an annual census tax. Refusing to pay this tax is a call to revolution. But paying taxes to the Romans is a religious and political statement. The coin used for the tax, the denarius, had the head of the emperor Tiberius on the front with the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” It states that the Roman emperor is the son of a god. For Jews who reject the Roman gods and believe in one God, allegiance to the Roman Empire conflicts with their faith. Then, too, many Jews viewed the Romans as a hostile occupying force; they looked for the messiah to kick the Romans out of Palestine and restore the independence of Israel. So Jesus is in a bind. Say no, and he’s guilty of sedition; say yes, and he’s denying his faith and collaborating with a hated enemy.
Jesus, being more perceptive than your usual person, knows what the Pharisees and Herodians are up to. He knows they are trying to trick him. Their answer to this question is clear. They’re carrying the Roman coin, so they’ve been paying taxes to the emperor all along. So he tells them to do what they’re already doing: give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. But he doesn’t stop there. He adds a surprising twist: give to God the things that are God’s. And now Jesus turns the gotcha question back onto his opponents. If we’re giving to God the things that are God’s, what belongs to God? The Jewish tradition is clear. Everything belongs to God! Everything! The psalmist writes, “The earth is God’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). God claims everything because God created everything. All our money, all our possessions, our very lives belong to God.
Sometimes we face a gotcha question about money and taxes, too. How much of our money belongs to us? We could get into a discussion of marginal rates and the fairness or unfairness of the tax code, but Jesus offers a simpler and maybe truer answer. It belongs to God. However much or little money we have, it is a gift from God, and we hold it in trust for God. God asks us to use our money responsibly for our welfare and that of the world. That might mean doing our best to care for ourselves and our community when times are lean, and being as generous as we can when things are going well. Christian theology, building on Jewish tradition, has long taught that Christians have an obligation to support the church, both financially and with our gifts of time and talent. You have done that faithfully and generously over the years, and I ask you to continue that support this year. When we give of ourselves and our money to do God’s work in the world, we are offering what already belongs to God.
If we step back a little bit from the issue of money when we consider this gospel, we might encounter another gotcha question. What part of our story belongs to God? What parts of our lives belong to God, and which parts do not? We might begin to answer this by looking at the great story found in the Bible. There is a narrative arc to the whole sweep of the Bible, starting with the creation of the world and the fall from the garden of Eden. Then there are Abraham and Sarah and their colorful descendants. The struggle of slavery in Egypt, Moses leading the people through the Exodus to blessed freedom, the long years of confused, anxious wandering in the wilderness before finally reaching the Promised Land. The triumphant building of the Temple in Jerusalem, giving God a place to dwell among God’s people. The time of the kings, some faithful and just, some not. The fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and the destruction of the Temple. The bitter heartbreak of exile, and a joyful homecoming to Israel. Occupation by the Roman Empire. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The spread of Christianity throughout the known world, concluding with the new Jerusalem that is the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. Some of those times the Bible describes were good, full of hope, joy, and success. Some of them were difficult and painful. But was there any part of the story where God was not? No. It all belongs to God, and God is present and active at all parts of the story.
And that’s true for us at St Bede’s, too. Over the past fifty-two years, this congregation has seen many, many good times: the joyous, hopeful first service on Christmas Eve 1962. The steady growth into a fully independent parish. Confirmation classes that anchored an entire generation of young people in the Christian faith. Habitat for Humanity trips that helped young and old alike love and serve their neighbors. Construction of the Great Hall, Jarrow Garden, and the courtyard labyrinth. Raising up candidates for ordained ministry, and launching young priests into their own parishes. Hundreds and hundreds of baptisms and weddings; celebrations of Christmas and Easter and Pentecost with great festivity. Soulwork series of adult Christian education that touched you so profoundly that you still talk about their effect on your faith. The restoration of our Beckerath organ to better than new condition. And there have been difficult times too: the split between Trinity School and Phillips Brooks School in the late 1970s. A sustained effort to grow St Bede’s into a much larger parish, which did not bear the fruit that you had hoped. Times of conflict between individuals within this community. The deaths of Will Dickens and Mia and Laine Mammen, which brought deep grief to us all. As we look on that narrative sweep at St Bede’s, has there been any part of our story where God was not? No. Our whole story belongs to God, the difficult and painful times as well as the joyous ones. And God is with us through it all, walking alongside us, celebrating the good times and offering comfort and hope through the painful ones.
Whatever gotcha questions life throws at us, Jesus offers us an answer: we belong to God. Our money, our stories, our lives, our world, it all belongs to God. Whoever we are, wherever we come from, we belong to God. Whatever happens to us, triumph or heartbreak, we belong to God. Knowing that, we can weather any storm. When we dwell close to God throughout the ups and downs, we are living in the kingdom of God. And surely we shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Proper 24A: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22