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Sermon for October 19: Money can’t buy you love
This sermon is not about money – it’s about choice. Today we heard the gospel story in which Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes. This is the moment in the New Testament when he issues one of his most famous and quoted statements: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This phrase has been used for hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years to support the separation of church and state. According to traditional interpretations of the story, Jesus was saying that taxes weren’t his business – that it was okay for the disciples to do what they needed to do to survive – that it’s okay to compartmentalize faith and finances. That business is business and God’s business is – not business.
Of course any of us old enough to remember the PTL scandal of the 1980s knows that God can be made into a business – and a very lucrative one at that. So, maybe religion and riches are related after all. But what is the nature of that relationship?
To answer that question, I think we have to look at the history of how Christianity has dealt with the issue of wealth over the course of our history. For Jesus’ followers, asking for money – and sharing what they had – was simply a matter of survival. Most of Jesus’ original followers were poor working class Jews who left what little they had to follow Jesus. On the other hand, we know that some of Jesus’ disciples were wealthy – and that there were rumblings of discontent from each group about accepting the other. “But Jesus, that guy’s a tax collector. He’s too rich and connected to fit in”? “But Jesus, she’s a prostitute. What can she contribute to our cause other than her bad reputation”? But Jesus told them that they all had a place – and that they had to depend on one another. They had to be what today’s epistle calls “imitators of…the Lord.” And, according to Paul’s letters, they learned to consolidate their resources. The rich turned over what they had to church leaders to distribute to the group. The poor contributed what they could.
But, let’s be realistic: I bet those rich people had a hard time with it. If you were a wealthy cloth merchant, would you feel safe putting your hard-earned money into a mutual fund run by a couple of uneducated fishermen? Shouldn’t they have gotten a bit more recognition for making a bigger sacrifice for the community?
One group of theologians thinks so anyway. Far from believing in the “blessed poor,” proponents of the American Prosperity Gospel, which grew out of twentieth century Pentecostal and New Thought traditions, taught that Jesus’ death was not a guarantee of God’s kingdom to come, but rather that God’s kingdom – and its benefits – had already arrived – and the more faithful you were, the more you could access it. Being “blessed” with health and wealth is, in their view, was a sign of faith.
That view is consistent with the actions of the God we meet in the Hebrew Scriptures – a God with very human emotions. We hear over and over that when human beings upset God, they were punished. When they behaved themselves, they were rewarded. This suggests goodness is connected to prosperity.
Look at today’s Old Testament reading. According to scholars, this passage from Isaiah was probably composed in about 538 BCE – right before the Persian king Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return from their lengthy exile to their homeland. In the reading, Cyrus is referred to as God’s “anointed,” or “Messiah.” He is divinely blessed by God with “riches hidden in secret places so that [he] may know that it is…the Lord, the God of Israel [who has called him] by [his] name.” And the Israelites recognize Cyrus’ goodness by his wealth. “Oh,” the prophet proclaims, “the majesty and magnificence of his presence; Oh, the power and splendor of his sanctuary!” Let’s be clear. Isaiah is not talking about God here. He’s not talking about Jesus. He’s talking about a Persian king. Cyrus is called “the Messiah” not because of who he is, not because he’s powerful, and not because he’s wealthy. He’s the messiah because God gives him riches and he does what God wants him to do with the wealth that God has given him.
Pope Francis recently gave a speech in which he criticized capitalism. Following the pope’s remarks, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan “suggested that Pope Francis’s critique of capitalism [did] not apply to American capitalism and that the pope’s principle teaching on economics is that it must be based on the virtues of compassion and generosity. [But] others say it is precisely Americanstyle capitalism that the pope has critiqued because it is leading to greater disparities between the wealthy and the poor. Dolan’s critics were especially disturbed by his focus on personal virtues as opposed to social structures.”
Dolan’s is not an isolated view. A recent survey found that the majority of Protestants believe that it is more important for people to perform individual acts of charity than to participate in institutional forms of assistance. In other words, don’t render onto Caesar because Caesar doesn’t know what to do with our money. The argument is that the government not only misuses our tax dollars, but also gives “hand-outs” to people who use them in ignorant or downright dishonest ways. And there are many people that feel the same way about giving money to churches for the same reasons. Remember Jim and Tammy Faye? Isn’t it reasonable to worry that the church could misuse the money?
The Jews who lived in first century Palestine did not have the chance to worry about how their tax money was used. They had to pay a “head” tax simply for the “privilege” of living under Roman rule. Among the Jews, the head tax served as a litmus test. Radical Jews refused to pay the tax, hoping to incite Roman reprisals and amass popular support for open rebellion. The Herodians were a political group that supported the Roman status quo – and the head tax. The Pharisees were religious leaders who believed that waiting to be freed from their enslavement was preferable to the chaos that might result from rebellion. These two groups didn’t share much other than their support of the tax, but they banded together to try to undermine Jesus – because they both thought he was dangerous.
In Jewish communities, questions about lawfulness were frequently used to begin conversations about religious precedent. In these debates, it was usually the eldest son who was asked the first question – “Is it lawful”? So, when we are told that the Pharisees asked Jesus if the head tax was lawful, we can interpret that to mean that Jesus was answering as the eldest son of God. And that’s a dangerous position to be in.
But Jesus was clever. He asked his accusers to hand him a coin – and not just any coin, but the particular coin that was designated for the purpose of paying the tax. And they had one. Jesus didn’t have the money used to pay the tax, but his accusers did. This is an important part of the story because it implicates the Herodians and Pharisees in both Roman rule and Roman worship. Why? Because pictured on that coin was the emperor Tiberius, along with the words “son of the Divine Augustus.” The very coin that the Jews were commanded to use to pay this offensive tax identified Tiberius as a god – so by paying the Roman’s tax with the emperor’s image, first century Jews living under Roman occupation were tacitly acknowledging Tiberius’ status as divine. So by asking for a coin, Jesus used the trickery of the Pharisees to demonstrate that the decision as to whether to pay the tax signaled a clear choice – a choice between the son of the “divine” emperor or the divine son of God.
And we have to make the same choice. Because what this story tells us is that the choices we make demonstrate who we are. Jesus defied the expectations of his opponents by refusing to play by their rules; he showed himself to be faithful to his God and willing to go against the common wisdom. Just like the choices we make identify where we put our faith and how far we are willing to go to try to live that faith.
And we have to try to live it together. We have to learn, as the disciples did, to be imitators of Christ – and that means taking the risk of loving and trusting one another. I don’t believe that Jesus ever meant for us to simply separate our faith from our funds. But I also think that he knew how complicated our lives can be – and how easy it is to forget who we are. So he provided us with a way of remembering. “Look at the picture on the coin,” he said, – look at the name on the check – on the receipts in your files- and ask yourself what they say about who you are – about what you believe. Ask yourself if you believe in the divine son of the emperor – in the gods of wealth, power, and privilege – or in the divine son of God –the God who was poor and tormented and misunderstood and yet remained a God of mercy and compassion and love. Ask yourself if you can see the value in those who seem poor and ignorant and sinful. Give thanks for the grace that has been given to you. Challenge yourself to forego control of the gifts you give, praying only that they will help to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. And then choose.
 Century Marks, Christian Century, July 19, 2014, 9.
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