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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
You can learn a lot about people by how they use their money. When Janna and I were visiting with our financial advisor and discussing our savings, I found out that we have all the money that we’ll ever need. .. . if we die tomorrow. Over the years I have learned that bankers want to be your friends. So I have a friend now at the bank. I just don’t why, if my banker is so friendly that he has to chain down his pens? I have learned that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it will pay the salaries of a large research staff to study the problem. And of course, we all know that money can’t buy friends, but you can get a better class of enemies. Yes, there are many lessons that you can learn about people by how they use their money. And there are lessons that can be learned from even a single coin.
This morning’s reading in St. Matthew’s gospel was a rare moment of political maneuvering. In a smoke filled room in the darkened corridor of Jerusalem’s ancient temple, the religious factions had struck a deal. If the Republican and Democratic parties had resolved to work together, it would have paled in comparison to the agreement that was settled upon that night.
The Pharisees and Herodians were unlikely soul mates. They despised each other. The Pharisees stood on the side of traditional Jewish values. They were defenders of the faith, and they believed that the payment of any tax to the emperor in Rome was a sinful act against the God of Israel. The Herodians were their primary opposition, all because saw absolutely no conflict in paying taxes. They owed their public status and wealth to Caesar and Roman Empire. In the eyes of the Pharisees, the Herodians, enticed by wealth and power, had sold out the heart of their nation. Strange partners to be sure, but for a rare and cunning moment their differences were forgotten. Instead they shared a common hatred for Jesus and a desire to eliminate him. And so they emerged together from their smoky den to test Jesus and to trap him.
Their strategy was simple. They were not interested in truth or sound teaching. Their aim was to discredit Jesus with his own words in the presence of the people. One embarrassing soundbite was all that was needed. So, they subtly framed their question, puffed themselves up, so that everyone in the temple could hear their voices, and then they turned to the Rabbi from Galilee. “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. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?”
The question set before Jesus was compromising. If he answered that it was unlawful to pay taxes, the Herodians would promptly report him to the Roman government officials as a seditious person and his arrest would certainly follow. If Jesus answered that it was lawful to pay taxes, the Pharisees believed that he would discredit himself in the eyes of the multitudes.
But Jesus understood the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ malice, “Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. In the ancient days coinage was the sign of kingship. As soon as a king came to the throne he struck his own coinage; even a pretender to the throne would produce a coin to show the authenticity of his kingship; and that coin was to be the property of the king whose image it bore. Then Jesus said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperors’.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Emperor, give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give to God the things that God’s.” And when the Pharisees and Herodians heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. Jesus had beat them at their own game. Even more skillfully, he had embarrassed them before the crowds. And ever since people have interpreted the lesson of this coin as a defense for paying taxes, and dividing the world into the things that belong to God and the things that do not. We forget that it is really all about testing.
My friends, I rather suspect that you and I may be a lot like Jesus’ questioners. We would like to catch Jesus is a little sound that lets us off the hook. When you hear of God’s desire for your life, for your compassion, for your witness, you too may grow uncomfortable. You have the opportunity to make a substantial profit, if you would just alter the accounts. Surely God doesn’t insist that you live an upright and steadfast life all the time when so many others are riding on the edge? You have the chance to climb up the corporate ladder if you would just report your misgivings about a fellow employee. Surely God doesn’t insist that you lay aside your differences and defend your neighbor all the time? You have the invitation to popularity, if you would just show disrespect and malice to God’s kingdom and his holy name. Or perhaps it’s other temptations. Surely God doesn’t insist that you live a virtuous, chaste life of faith overflowing with integrity and purpose all the time. The test, after all, may not be about what you choose to give to the Emperor? For you, the question may be what things belong to God, and what things really belong to you? That is the dilemma facing every Christian today.
So how should we live faithfully and use the gifts that God has entrusted to us? Let me suggest three lessons drawn from that single coin.
First of all, remember the coin teaches us that every Christian has dual citizenship- just like the two sides of the coin. On the one side, you are reminded that you are a citizen of this world. There is always an earthly place that is calling you, a place that is tugging at your heartstrings, a place that you will always call home. To this place you owe many things. The 16th century poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” To your nation, you owe your safety against a lawlessness that only a settled government can give. To your nation, you owe all public services. Few men or women could build their own lighting, water or heating system. Through the organization of the state, as a citizen you may owe even more- education, medical services, provision for unemployment and old age. This places us all under a debt of obligation. Because Christians are men and women of honor, you and I have been called to be responsible citizens. Failure in citizenship is a failure in Christian duty. Untold troubles can descend upon a nation when Christians refuse or are prevented from playing their part in the leadership.
Secondly, as a Christian you are also a citizen of heaven. There are matters of religion and of principle in which the responsibility of the Christian is to God and to God alone. It may well be that the two forms of citizenship will never clash; they do not need to. But when the Christian is convinced that it is God’s will that something should be done, it must be done. And if the Christian is convinced that something is against the will of God, then the Christian must resist it and take no part in it. Where that boundary between the two duties lies, Jesus does not say. Sometimes the difference may be as thin as the metal of the coin itself. That is for the human conscience, informed by sacred scripture, to test and decide.
And finally, Christians must always be mindful of one profound truth. The ultimate value and importance of the coin is what you give to it. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” You can learn a lot about people, by how they use their money. This is especially true when it is time for them to share their gifts with others- including those in need. They take out their yellow legal pad, and they wonder is it really necessary to help the disenfranchised. They take out their trusty calculator, and they ponder, is it necessary to protect the world’s forgotten, the refugees and the poverty stricken? They sharpen their Number 2 lead pencil, and they debate, “Am I truly called to help the hungry and the naked?” Should they give it the emperor, to God, or just keep it for themselves?
There is, however, a truth in the power of money which Jesus never questions. Money has been given to be a potential blessing, not to you, but to others. Simply said, you should never use money for yourself only, and for your own pleasure. Wealth is not a gift for you to enjoy alone, but it is the gift to give enjoyment and meaning to others. Everything ultimately belongs to God, but you have been entrusted with a little portion of God’s eternal treasure. You have been given the gift of God’s love and forgiveness, and his abounding grace and wonder to share.
Throughout the Christian world, and for Lutherans in particular, we have been taught, that you should not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Friends, let your brothers and sisters know what you are doing with your wealth now. Let them see your trust in God’s sufficiency. Let them know of your financial commitment to missions and ministries that are important to you. After all, you are the one who can open their lives to the possibilities of God’s eternal treasure.
As I began this day, you can learn a lot about people by how they use their money. What will people say about you? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.