“The Currency of Grace”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
21They 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.”
22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (NRSV)
The Pharisees have set a trap for Jesus, and they send underlings to do their dirty work. Maybe they think that Jesus is more likely to fall into the trap that way. Maybe he’ll wag his tongue a little more loosely with servants than he would with the guys wearing long robes decorated with tassels and fringes. So, the hapless minions approach Jesus and ask, Should we, the people of Israel, the chosen ones of God, who is King of the Universe, pay taxes to Caesar?
Dealing with messengers rather than the senders of the message, Jesus turns the encounter into a teachable moment. Speaking sharply yet with love for God and neighbor—even these neighbors—he makes a subtle but crucial distinction between those things which claim to bind us by worldly obligation and those things to which we bind ourselves in gratitude and love.
You frauds, says Jesus, show me a coin that Rome will accept as tax payment. They bring him a denarius, and Jesus says,“Whose head is this, and whose title?” The answer to both questions is the same: Caesar’s.
When citizens of Rome see the face and utter the name of Caesar, they know that they’re expected to regard the emperor as a god. Even the Jewish people are obliged to speak the name of Caesar with the kind of reverence reserved for the name so holy and unique in the universe that to speak it is to diminish it. Thus, did God’s people speak around Yahweh’s name, saying things like Jehovah, Adonai, or simply the LORD.
I imagine Jesus holding up that tiny coin and twisting it so that it catches and reflects the light of the sun. Then he says, in effect, Sure. Give this thing to Caesar. It’s his, and it has a lot in common with his deity. It’s nothing but an idol—a thin piece of metal, in and of itself devoid of value, and a source of more problems than solutions because to want and to own such things inevitably makes people treat each other like objects, like adversaries to overcome rather than neighbors to love.
With that, Jesus clears himself. If he yields to Caesar’s tax laws, he can’t be arrested for treason. Then, raising the stakes, Jesus says, Give Caesar his due, and “give…to God the things that are God’s.”
All those empty praises the messengers heaped on Jesus bear witness to reality. Jesus is truly sincere, truthful, and unmoved by flattery because he doesn’t get his worth from human affirmation or from some other outside source—like money. Money has value only when it’s backed up by something external to itself like gold, silver, or a nation’s economy. Jesus, and all who trust and follow him, know that human worth comes from the indwelling of God’s eternal presence. The image of God shines through them, through you and me, as a light from within. By grace alone, the beauty, creativity, and holiness of God are inherent in all that God has made. And because these gifts both permeate and transcend the whole Creation, we are free to value the earth and all that lives in it as sacred and ablaze with the presence of the Creator.
Whether they agree with Jesus or not, the messengers know that Jesus has spoken the truth. So, they leave him alone.
Caesar does have the political power to make taxation a matter of legal obligation. He can enforce that law with punishment for those who forget to pay or who try to evade the law. However, he has the authority to do so only as long as the coins with his name and face engraved upon them have value within and beyond the empire. Jesus juxtaposes that obligatory relationship with an alternative. Reaching into the realm of gift, gratitude, and response, Jesus’ authority challenges us to trade in the currency of God’s eternal grace. In the economy of Jesus, we exchange the God-faced coins of faith, hope, and love rather than the legal tender of selfishness and greed.
The Stewardship and Finance Ministry Team has been working to change the way we manage congregational investments. Last Monday the ministry team met with the second of two representatives whom the committee is interviewing as prospective financial advisors. This particular person asked an extremely important question. He asked what kind of ministry goals we have in mind for our investments. I’m embarrassed to say that we had no good answer for that question, and much of that is on me. If a church’s leadership has no clear plan for the financial resources that people have given so freely and generously, then we’re just hoarding them. And to justify that, we call it a “safety net.”
When our Sunday school class worked with this passage last week, someone asked another good question: How big does a congregation’s safety net have to be before it becomes a buried talent? That person was referring to the parable of the talents recorded in Matthew 25 and Luke 19. In that parable, one servant buries his talent rather than using it for some purpose that furthers the interests of the man who entrusted his wealth to servants while he goes on a journey.
As a church, the obligation of taxation doesn’t apply to our income. However, if all we do with our investments is accumulate them—by taking advantage of laws that allow us not “to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”—then are we really giving to God “the things that are God’s”? In the coming months, discerning how to unearth and offer our talents will become a principal focus for the session.
The struggles of a community almost always mirror the struggles of the individuals within it, especially those in leadership. And we’re a congregation of primarily retired persons, people who were raised in a very different era and culture than we live in now, people who live on investments, and who recognize that their time is dwindling. And while investments are important, the God-created resource of time holds indescribable value because it is, for everyone, a gift that is both non-renewable and non-transferable.
Giving to God that which is God’s is about living gratefully, joyfully, and generously in the moment but with an eye always trained toward the future on behalf of generations yet to come. Because the present moment is saturated with the fearful and insatiable appetites of all manner of Caesars, it swarms with overwhelming human need, need created by relentless injustice and profound grief. When we as individuals and as a Christian community face that omnipresent need, our charge is to see Jesus’ own need—Jesus own face—manifested in the needs and the faces of “the least of these.” Responding to that need through loving word and servant-hearted deed is giving “to God the things that are God’s.” And while we do give from storehouses of dwindling time, unique talents and interests, and limited financial resources, God receives these God-given gifts, blesses them, and transforms our collective, mustard-seed offerings into a great hedgerow of abundance.
Three weeks from today we will consecrate the pledges we make to God through this congregation. As we think about what we will give—without obligation or entrapment—may each of us remember two things:
First, what we give and what we keep is God’s already.
And second, as followers of Jesus, we are dealing in the currency of grace, which, through the power of Resurrection, is non-taxable because it is inexhaustibly transferable and eternally renewable.