Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 22, 2017
“Be Senseless, Impractical, and Unreasonable”
Matthew 22: 15-22 - Common English Bible
“Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked. 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.”
April 15th is the day we render unto Caesar. Today, the fourth Sunday of October is when we render unto God – or at least pledge to. But that comes later.
We may not like everything Caesar does with our money, but part of the American deal is paying our fair share. Some things we are happy to pay for – I’d like to direct all my taxes toward national parks, please. Some things, not so much. Like me, President Calvin Coolidge wasn’t a fan of paying for war planes either. He said, “Why can’t we just buy one and let the pilots take turns flying it?” I’m a fan of schools being fully funded and the Air Force holding bake sales – no disrespect meant for members of the military, who I wish were better paid and certainly better cared for after their service. In fact, I’d pay more for that if you gave me a choice.
April 15th isn’t the worst day of the year, even though it is also the day the Titanic sank when it hit an iceberg and; even though April 15th is also the day Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre. And it isn’t the worst thing in the world to pay taxes. In fact, Arthur Godfrey once said, “I feel honored to pay taxes in America. The thing is, I could probably feel just as honored for about half the price.”
But it wasn’t an honor to pay Caesar in Jesus’ day. The Imperial Tax paid the cost of Rome occupying their homeland. Kind of like paying your lunch money to the bully for the privilege of him not beating you up on the way to school. First century Jews also paid land taxes, customs and trade taxes, a temple tax. But anyone would agree that paying a tax to your oppressor to support the costs of your oppression is pretty diabolical. Residents of places like Ferguson, Missouri, have expressed similar feelings for quite a while.
And so, if Jesus had answered “yes” to the question about paying taxes to Rome, a certain percentage of his followers would have likely started to back away from him. “He’s just like the rest of them. He talks a good game, but he’s not really on our side.” That’s what the Pharisees and Herodians hoped.
As the text makes clear, they didn’t actually care about taxation. They were trying to trip him up – first with flattery and then to get him to say something that would get him into trouble.
Under no other circumstances would these two groups have cooperated with each other, let alone be seen with each other. One, the defenders of traditional Judaism, the other, supporters of the Roman empire’s puppet King Herod. At best, they could barely tolerate each other. But as we’ve often heard, the enemy of my enemy is my best friend. Politics makes for strange bed-fellows.
The Pharisees and the Herodians both had the same agenda and it had nothing to do with taxes. It was to silence the rabble-rousing, trouble-making Jesus. If he answered yes, it could be blasphemy – having to do with the image of Caesar imprinted on the coin. Paying taxes with that coin required contact with graven images. If he said yes, let the Pharisees take him down. If no, let Rome handle it. Bottom line: Just get him to shut up or force him to lose face among his followers because then he would just fade away. It didn’t matter who succeeded. In fact, when today’s tactic didn’t work, the very next story in Matthew is about how the Sadducees tried to trip him up with a question about resurrection, including a bizarre scenario about a woman being forced to marry a succession of seven dead brothers. A future sermon on the topic of #metoo. But the Sadducees failed as well.
Today’s question: “Does the Law, the Torah, allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Yes or no. Take your pick. Treason or blasphemy. There was no intention of dialogue, of learning from each other, no wisdom seeking from this teacher they claimed had integrity, didn’t show partiality, and didn’t pander. Just a trap to place him on the defensive.
Like, why do you want to kill cops? Why do you hate America? I have to give him credit. Our president is brilliant at this. He is such a genius he could teach a class at Trump University. I wish I had half his talent. Though to be fair, people do it on all sides. Questions like “Why are you such a racist?” aren’t meant to engage in a sincere conversation about the history of race relations in America or a lesson on the subtleties of white supremacy. The default in our country has become taking hard sides and digging in. As George W. Bush said, “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
The Pharisees and Herodians didn’t give Jesus any room for nuance. Just yes or no. I’m one of those people who has watched congressional hearings and yelled at the TV “just answer the question!” If someone says, it’s not that simple, how often do you think, “he’s lying. She’s covering something up.” Sometimes the questioners are sincere. And sometimes they’re playing a trick, hoping to generate a headline or two. Maybe you’ve been in that position, knowing that answering “yes, but…” will only make things worse.
Jesus was in that exact position. And his response was brilliant. However, we might think his genius was a simple matter of splitting the world into two realms – each equal, or if not equal, at least as simple as Caesar gets some. God gets some.
A little like the boy whose parents gave him some money for church and some money for ice cream afterwards. But along the way he accidentally dropped some of it into the street drain. He looked up and said, “Sorry, God, there goes your money.”
Most of us would probably say it’s OK that Caesar gets some. The government isn’t perfect, but it’s the price we pay. And God gets some. The church isn’t perfect, but it’s the price we pay. But the best part is that the rest is mine. And with that, everyone’s happy.
But we often miss two important messages in Jesus’ brilliant answer. Render unto Caesar. Render unto God. The Herodians didn’t notice that Jesus just said Caesar isn’t God. Remember, Caesar called himself divine, the Lord, Savior, Prince of Peace, the Sun of Righteousness. Jesus just said, “no he’s not.” The Herodians weren’t paying good enough attention because he just gave them the treason or sedition charge they needed.
But the Pharisees weren’t paying very close attention either. The Pharisees were meticulous. Jots and tittles were the name of their game. Every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed. They would, therefore, be very concerned about the exactness of things like tithes and the offering of first fruits – percentages for this and that. To their credit, they cared deeply for tradition and someone does, in fact, have to watch out that our traditions don’t just go willy nilly. But that very precision can become the goal instead of what Jesus said in his answer – something they obviously didn’t notice. Because, hey Pharisees: Seriously, what isn’t God’s? They should have been embarrassed by accepting that answer. They were paying such close attention to find something to call blasphemy that they overlooked their own blasphemy. Everything belongs to God. How could you only render a portion?
What portion of you woke up this morning? Or better, how many of you woke up this morning? (Or maybe you’re not quite awake yet!) By the grace of God, 100% of us did. After breakfast, did you enjoy just 10% of the sunrise?
This text often gets used during stewardship season for sermons on tithing because it sounds reasonable. Give some to Caesar, give some to God, and keep the rest. Everyone’s happy. A tithe represents 10%, so the idea is giving 10% of your income to God’s work through the ministry of the church. The question is often asked, but, is that before or after taxes? Or, another good question, if I give to other charities, can I reduce that from my 10% - like 2% to church, 2% to the Dumb Friends League, 2% to the orchestra, etc. Those trying to be extra reasonable will say, don’t worry, it’s only 10% after your other bills are paid. But does that just mean the mortgage, or the mortgage and utilities and groceries and insurance? I once heard that Phil Campbell said your pledge should never be less than your cable bill. But a lot of us don’t have cable anymore. They are all attempts to make things seem sensible. Practical. Reasonable. Not too greedy.
But they all start to sound like: Be the church, a little bit. Or, instead of claiming our call to bold acts of compassion and justice, we’re called to sort-of bold acts of compassion and justice. To be clear, the church doesn’t have a monopoly on the work of God in the world. But the work of the church shouldn’t rest on it being sensible or practical or reasonable. That’s not inspiring. The Women’s Homelessness Initiative is a perfect example. It asks more of us than it is easy to give. Along with the many of us who participate, it requires sacrificial participation by some of us without whom it wouldn’t be possible.
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. But Jesus never quite explained exactly what is God’s. That is, I realized, until a few verses later in the same chapter. First the Pharisees and Herodians tried to take him down. Then the Sadducees, with their seven dead brothers. Then a legal scholar tries. “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” It was a question they hoped he couldn’t answer, though, by now, doesn’t that seem a little absurd? Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Eugene Peterson translates it “with all your passion, with all your prayer, with all your intelligence.”) Jesus said, “This is the first, and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”
I think this is the answer to “Render unto God what is God’s.” And what is it? All of it. This is not to give 5% of your heart, 3% soul, and 2% mind – carefully staying within a 10% tithe. And it’s not just the good parts of our neighbors but to love them as much as we should also love the bad parts of ourselves – our shadow and dark sides. It’s everything. It’s the first, last, and the best. To me it says our giving should be senseless, impractical, and unreasonable.
There are plenty of times in our lives we should act with prudence, carefully, and wisely. But if we are to render everything unto God that is God’s, then, to “Be the Church,” for example, isn’t to:
Protect some of the environment
Care for the poor who deserve it
Only forgive as often as you think is right
Reject racism when it’s convenient
Fight for the powerless whose powerlessness fits our politics
Share 2% of your earthly and 3% of your spiritual resources
Embrace the good kind of diversity
Give God some Love
Enjoy 90% of this life
No, it’s everything – though at times it may seem senseless, impractical, and unreasonable.
About five or six years ago we decided to do exactly that – something financially senseless, impractical, and unreasonable.
At a time when we were struggling to pay our own bills, we decided that we would give away all the cash in the offering plate to an outside organization – a mission partner – plus any designated gifts. And that we would do this every Sunday. Not only might our own offerings go down, among the possible objections could be that people would get tired of being asked every Sunday. Instead, we keep being inspired by the stories of people overcoming suffering or injustice. Inspired by our ability to make a difference in the world. And instead of people giving less to the church, we’ve discovered that visitors and new people appreciate that we aren’t keeping their money for ourselves and that after a while, they ask how can I support the church too? Not to mention, we’ve seen offerings to our mission partners increase year after year. $6,000, $11,000, $14,000, $18,000. And in just 10 ½ months so far, we have already surpassed $20,000 this year. To God be the glory – to whom it all belongs.
A traditional stewardship campaign would have sent a little chart in the mail to you along with your pledge form. It would show how much 2% of your income would be, and therefore an example of how much to give. Or 3%, 4%, along with encouragement to move up one row after another until you reached 10%. Practical information to help make decisions.
Kathy’s letter to the congregation encouraged us all to increase our pledge by 5%, following her generous example. A reasonable amount that can help us close the gap we face this year from the loss of pledges from long time, dedicated members who have died during the year or moved away.
And then, with all the pledges compiled, we will craft as sensible a budget as we can for 2018 – incremental shifts as expenses increase. Oh, except for one. Gas. Thanks to Energy Outreach Colorado and all of Ray Allen’s efforts, we received $100,000 in energy efficiency upgrades, including new boilers. As I examined our 9 month report year to date this week, listen to this: Last year at this time we spent $4,000 on gas. This year, $3,000. Ray isn’t here today, but give him a hug the next time you see him.
My encouragement to you and to myself this stewardship Sunday is that instead of trying to explain or understand, let us simply be inspired by the imprudent and illogical generosity of our Creator. And then, when you come to render unto God that which is God’s, be as senseless, impractical, and unreasonable as God is.
 Gratitude to John O’Neal for some great story ideas
 Matthew 22: 34-40
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world