Give back to God what is God’s!
October 16, 2011
( Isaiah 45, 1-7; Matthew 22, 15-22)
Jesus was in a very tricky situation. He was under attack from an unlikely combination of allies. On the one hand there were the Pharisees, the religious purists, who insisted that every last letter of the religious law had to be obeyed. On the other hand there were the Herodians, the political party who supported Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler installed by Rome.
To the Pharisees the coinage used to pay taxes was a blasphemy; it bore an image of Caesar, and therefore contravened the prohibition in the Ten Commandments on making a graven image, which they interpreted literally – no pictures of any living thing; and since the Roman Emperors claimed to be gods themselves, to use the coinage was tantamount to worshipping another god, in their view.
The Herodians knew that King Herod’s position was very insecure. The Romans had already deposed his brother Archeleus for mismanagement of Judea; any hint of rebellion in Galilee, and Herod might be deposed too.
So, if Jesus said you should pay the taxes, he could be accused by the Pharisees of blasphemy; if he said you shouldn’t, he could be accused by the Herodians of stirring up rebellion.
Jesus however, replied in typically enigmatic fashion. He didn’t answer the question directly, he did not give a binding ruling, but challenged his listeners to make up their own minds: “give ( in Greek it says ‘give back’) to the Roman Emperor what belongs to the Emperor and give to God what belongs to God”.
We’re in a very sticky situation too. We live in a society and a world whose financial systems are in crisis. The cost of housing and the cost of food are constantly increasing. We seem to be paying over more and more of our income in taxes. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements which seek to convince us that we cannot be happy unless we buy this or eat this, or travel to this place or the other. Yet every post brings us desperate appeals from charities for more money to support their work – and even in church we cannot escape appeals for more funds. We are obliged to pay taxes, we need to support ourselves and our families, we want to support our favourite charities and the church. How are we supposed to decide how to allocate our limited funds between these competing demands?
Does Jesus’ reply to his questioners help us in our dilemma? Well, no, not a lot! He’s saying to us too, as he so often does: “I’ve taught you about God’s kingdom; you have the Bible to give you guidance; listen to the Spirit, use your God-given intelligence, and make up your own minds.”
Nobody likes paying taxes. We all moan about how much we have to pay. Although we may not, like the Galileans and Judeans of Jesus’ time, be paying taxes to an occupying power, we still tend to see it in terms of ‘them’ taking from ‘us’. Perhaps it’s the element of compulsion we don’t like; there’s no way we can choose not to pay, unless we don’t work, or don’t buy food or goods, and that’s pretty impossible in the modern world.
Or perhaps we feel we don’t have much control over how our taxes are spent; (though we have a lot more say than people in many parts of the world, and if we choose not to use our vote in national or council elections, we can’t really complain.) We tend to concentrate on the government and council projects we don’t approve of, and this will be different for every one of us: foreign wars, armaments, the Olympic Games, another airport or motorway, more generous social security payments or pensions. Whatever it is, we feed our resentment of ‘our taxes’ being used for something we dislike.
We feel we have much more control over our charitable giving, because we give to charities whose aims and methods we approve of, and not to those we disapprove of. There is a tendency to treat the church as just another charity, to which we can choose to give or not; and perhaps we sometimes have similar attitudes towards giving to the church as we do to taxation. Again, we can see it as ‘them’ ( the Archbishop’s Council or the Diocese or the PCC) taking money from ‘us’, the ordinary people in the pew, and using it for things we don’t wholly approve of; or perhaps we don’t actually know what it’s used for, so can’t see the point of giving.
We can transform our perception of paying taxes if we look at things from the other end, from what we get out of it. I am very grateful for the education in school and university I, and my children have received, at virtually no cost to ourselves. I am thankful that I live in a county with one of the lowest crime rates in the country. I have had reason again and again to be thankful for the NHS, when my children were small, when my parents were old, and for myself in recent years. And now, as a pensioner, I can even benefit a little from my National Insurance contributions and my taxes and Council tax with a small personal pension and a free bus pass! When I’m not thinking straight, I may still moan as much as anyone else about the taxes I pay – but when I’m thinking about all the benefits I’ve received from the taxes paid by me and others, I am happy to give to Caesar ( or in our case, Mr Darling) what Caesar asks for.
In the same way as we can transform our perception of paying taxes, we can transform our view of giving to the church, by seeing it not as about what ‘they’ demand, but what ‘we’ have been given. If we think about it, we are all so richly blessed. We live in a part of the world which is beautiful, which is prosperous, which is secure. We have enough money to have a choice about what we do with it. We have inherited a church tradition with a wealth of beautiful buildings and music of all kinds, and inspiring literature from every age. We have been taught by Christ that God loves us, however inadequate and sinful we are, and by Paul that nothing can separate us from that love. We have freedom to practice our faith, and to preach it to others. The example of the church in caring for the poor, the sick, and the elderly, and in providing education for the young has inspired the state to do likewise.
We know the generosity of God; it is in thankfulness for all we have been given, that we are asked to share that generosity with others through the work of God in the church and the world. Jesus told his hearers to ‘give to God what is God’s’. One of our offertory prayers reminds us that everything comes from God; both what we give back to God and what we do with our lives are signs of our awareness of that.
Some people think that, like politics, what we do with our money is nothing to do with our faith. But it is everything to do with faith. Money is not good, or evil; it is morally neutral. But what we do with our money can be good or evil; and how we allocate our money is a very clear sign of our spiritual health – whether we consider it to be ‘ours’ or whether we really acknowledge that it belongs to God.
Of course, we can ‘give back to God’ in many ways.
Our Old Testament reading tells us that legitimate governments may sometimes be put in place by God, to carry our God’s purposes (whether they acknowledge it or not). When we pay taxes to a legitimate government, to be used for the benefit and security of everyone with whom we share our country, we can see it as ‘giving back to God’. When we give money to, or work for charities that preserve the planet, that help the unfortunate in this country and abroad, that pursue medical research for the greater happiness of people everywhere, we are giving to support the work of God.
When we buy fairly traded goods even when they are more expensive than standard brands, we are giving back to God what is God’s. When we support mission agencies overseas, we are obviously giving back to God what is God’s, for God’s work.
But we also have an obligation to witness to the Gospel in our local community. Bishop David Jenkins said the task of the church is to ‘hold the ramparts’ – to provide a visible statement of God’s presence in society, to remind people of the reality of God, and God’s demands on humanity. What sort of statement of God’s presence are we providing if the church is shabby, church activities are limited to Sunday and the diocese cannot afford to pay for a full time priest in each parish? Of course we need to provide for our families and pay our taxes and support charities – but our appreciation of God’s generosity to us should also demand that we support the local church, too.
When Jesus was asked the question about paying taxes, he asked for a coin, and asked people to look at what was written on it. If you take out a coin from your purse or your pocket, you will find it has the head of the monarch on it. But in the inscription around that head it has the letters DG. That stands for ‘Dei gratia’ which means “by the Grace of God”; but it could equally well stand for ‘Deo gratias’ which means “Thanks be to God”.
Which means that every time we look at a coin, we can be reminded that when we choose give away some of our money it is not in response to a demand, or an obligation, or a membership fee, but is an expression of our heartfelt thankfulness for all God’s generosity to us.