The Rev’d Anne Wrider
Oct. 22, 2023 • Year A Proper 24 • Matthew 22:15-22
The Middle East has always been a place of conflict. During the time of Jesus, Israel was an occupied land. The Romans ruled it and made the laws that governed it. They coined the money and determined the taxes. It’s not surprising, then, that there was some very strong feeling about whether those taxes should be paid or not. The Pharisees, who were loyal to Israel and to Jewish law, believed the taxes to be unjust. The Herodians, the party of Herod, the Roman ruler, believed in the tax and thought everyone should be compelled to pay it. These two groups were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, so it’s very surprising that they could get together on anything. But they both saw Jesus as a threat—a threat to Roman rule on one side, and a threat to the old traditions of Judaism on the other. So, they decided it was worth it to join forces and see if they could trip Jesus up and get him to make a stand which would allow one side or the other to get rid of him.
So, after some opening flattery, they asked the question that, it seemed, Jesus could not answer without getting into trouble. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But of course, Jesus was not that easy to trap. "Give …to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
Now that’s a wonderful example of Jesus being the master politician, the clever guy who doesn’t let himself be caught in a verbal trap. But is that all there is to it? Is Jesus just being clever, or is there something more in what he is saying? And, more important, is there something in what Jesus is saying that we need to hear today? Is there something that the people of the Atonement can learn from Jesus? I think that what Jesus is saying is, or should be, a central principle for all of our lives. What he is telling us is how we decide what is important in our lives and how we set priorities.
When we are young, the whole world seems to stretch out before us. We have time to try all the things we want, and anything is possible. We don’t believe we will ever die. We have tremendous energy and can do almost anything we really want to. And it’s good that we do, because it means we can do all the tasks of setting up our lives – marriage, family, career, social life, – without getting exhausted. We are able to juggle all the things in our lives without getting worn out. We can give to the emperor with one hand and to God with the other and have time in between to check our email. It’s a great feeling, but it doesn’t last.
Somewhere in mid-life, we start to realize that we are not going to live forever. It begins to occur to us that there is only so much time and so much energy to go around, and that, for the first time in our lives, we have to decide between all the things we want to do. If we pour our energy into one thing, we won’t have it for another. If we immerse ourselves in work, we won’t have as much time or energy for our families. If we spend all our time on Facebook, we won’t have time to read all the books we wanted to read. This is a hard thing to learn, and often we keep on trying to do everything. And the demands that come, from our bosses, from our spouses, from all our commitments, don’t let up. The end result can be that we end up in the doctor’s office with stress-related illnesses or in the counselor’s office with depression and anxiety. So, there we are. Life is too short to do it all, and we have toadjust.
But how do we do that? How do we make decisions about which things need to be done first, which demands we will try to meet? How do we adjust? What usually happens is that we make little adjustments – we make a decision to do this one task now. We decide to respond to this or that invitation. We decide to spend this day with our family. Most of us don’t sit down and say, “Alright, these are the guiding principles of my life and I will decide which things I do on that basis.” We make little tiny decisions.
And it’s very easy to make those choices without being aware of what we are doing. But each little choice is like a little tiny piece of a mosaic. It doesn’t look like anything much in itself. But as each of those tiny pieces is put together, a pattern emerges. Those little choices become habits and those habits become lifestyles, and at some point we maylook back on our lives and realize that we’ve ended up somewhere we never intended, we may realize that we have become a person, perhaps, that we don’t really like very well. Because we didn’t pay attention to the choices we were making, we may have made a life that is less than it could have been.
When Jesus tells us to give to the emperor those things that belong to the emperor and to God those things that are God’s, it is a challenge to us to pay attention. What do we owe the world, and what do we owe to God?There is so much that we need to do just to manage our day-to-day lives. Bills to pay, garbage to take out, jobs to do, children to raise. It hardly leaves time to sort out what belongs to God and what belongs to the world. Well, the secret, the bottom line, is that it all belongs to God. This is the message of Isaiah. “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no god.” God is the source of our life, of all life. God is the source of love and meaning. It all belongs to God in the end – the emperor’s taxes and even the emperor himself. Everything we are and everything we have belongs, in the end, to God. So, if that is true, how do we choose how to live our lives.
Let me suggest that we don’t have to choose between God and the emperor. If we choose God as the ground on which we stand, when we make choices, then the choices sort themselves out. If we make God the context of our lives, then God becomes the environment that surrounds us. This isn’t really so hard to imagine. We don’t make a choice between breathing and walking, for example. Our breathing makes our walking possible. If we learn to live in God, the way we live in our atmosphere, then we will learn to live in God’s presence the same way we breathe. We will breathe in God’s love without really noticing it. And as we do that, the choices about how we spend our time and our resources will become easier
We may go on doing all the things we’ve always done, going to work, shopping, cleaning, but we will do them with a different perspective and a different motivation. Instead of making all those little choices by habit, we make them as a choice for God, and we make them from the point of view of a child and servant of God. And if we do that faithfully, when we come to the end of our lives, we will be able to see a pattern to our lives, a rich, colorful, beautiful mosaic that has been shaped andpolished by God’s love.
There simply isn’t enough time to do it all. But if we give to God what is God’s, then the things we give to the world will become holy, and we will discover that those little choices we made for God helped to redeem the world.
Give to God what is God’s.