Years ago, when I was living I Brisbane, every now and then I used to be up early on a Sunday morning and switch on the TV. It might have been something to do with having twin babies and it being my turn to get up. And so I’d switch on and see the televangelists. Smooth talkers! Have you ever noticed they all seem to have these luxuriant heads of hair? And that’s just the men! But they’d talk, and they’d tell you how you were really empty inside but that Jesus could fill you up – one of the most memorable ones was Oral Roberts, maybe it was just being up at 5.00 o’clock on a Sunday morning but often he seemed to make a lot of sense. But inevitably the talk would get around to how you needed to give some money, and they’d tell you that as soon as you started really giving, you’d start to get more prosperous yourself – that God wants Christians to be successful and well off, so the more you give the more you’re going to get.
It’s not Christianity, is it? Because underneath the veneer of fine words it’s an appeal to greed and self-interest. Invest some money with us and I promise – God promises – that you’ll get a whole heap more. It’s a lifestyle TV show brand of Christianity that’s a long way removed from the homeless preacher from Galillee who so often offends the rich and powerful.
So today we’re talking about money. One of the words you’d hear fairly often if you went say to the Assemblies of God or the Baptist church is tithing. It means giving one tenth of your income, which, if you take the time to work it out, is actually a pretty big whack. In many Christian circles that’s the expected thing – and it takes a serious level of commitment, because there’s a priority to giving so that it’s not just what happens at the end of the week when you see what you’ve got left over after everything else. Tithing is Biblical, and it helps us to put first in practise what we say comes first in our lives. But at the same time, it’s easy to see it can create some difficulties – for example, if you’re on a pension then a tenth of your income probably makes a bigger hole than if you’ve got a high paid job. Which of course is exactly what Jesus is getting at in the story about the widow’s gift of two small copper coins. Giving is relative, and only God can see the true cost and the true value of a person’s gift. Well, God can, and deep down we ourselves also know the true value of what we give.
In our gospel reading today, we see the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus on the question of paying taxes. Now, this is the last week of Jesus’ life, and he has arrived in Jerusalem and is spending most of his time teaching in the temple, and the chief priests and Pharisees are getting crankier and crankier at him. So this question is intended to trap him – if he agrees with the zealots and revolutionaries that it’s OK not to pay taxes to the Romans, that’s going to get him into trouble with Herod, and if he says it is OK, then he’s not going to be very popular with the common folk who hate the Romans. So it’s a trick question, but it’s one that’s still relevant whenever we find ourselves living in a situation where there is official injustice - is it right or wrong to engage in civil disobedience? But as he does so often, Jesus gets out of the trap with a very clever one-liner: give the government what belongs to the government - and give God what belongs to God.
It’s an answer that gets Jesus out of trouble – for the time being – but it’s an answer that maybe causes headaches for the rest of us because it’s ambiguous. On the surface it looks straightforward enough – it looks like Jesus is dividing reality up into compartments – this is where you’ve got your loyalty to God, everywhere else you’ve got your other loyalties - and just so long as God gets his share. Put your money into the collection plate on Sunday and then you can do what you want with the rest. It’s one of the sayings that gets called on from time to time to tell the church to butt out – for example when politicians tell archbishops off for putting in their two cents worth about the issues of the day – ‘you just stick to your praying, leave the business of running the country to us’.
But Jesus is not giving us a straight answer here! He’s refusing to do our thinking for us – because it all depends on what Jesus means when he says, ‘just give to God what belongs to God’. Jesus’ answer is a challenge to the Herodians who owed their positions of authority to their loyalty to the occupation government – because it calls into question our loyalty to systems of domination and political power. What if Caesar is Hitler, or Robert Mugabe? What if Caesar is waging an unjust war in your name or incarcerating vulnerable mean, women and children behind razor wire because being tough on asylum seekers wins votes? What is the coin that properly belongs to Caesar then? Maybe the coin that men and women of faith and conscience need to pay is the coin of fearless engagement in political life, the coin of open and honest critique. At the same time, the Pharisees go away shaking their heads because Jesus answer challenges them and their radical religiousity where it hurts - what have you got that doesn’t belong to God? What are you giving to God – and what are you refusing to give?
Jesus is certainly not telling us we shouldn’t pay our taxes – he and his disciples paid theirs – but he is pointing out that you just can’t divide the world into God’s bit and the rest that belongs to the boss, to the government, or to the family or the football club. Or to yourself. It all belongs to God. Jesus is demanding is a bit more than a tithe, when it comes down to it. According to Jesus, God expects the whole lot.
I think the very ambiguity of Jesus’ answer means he is suggesting that we need to work out for ourselves how we balance the competing priorities and demands, knowing that absolutely everything we do – spending time with our family, contributing to our community, paying our taxes, as well as the offerings we bring to church – that all these activities are variations on how we see God and serve God in our day to day lives - and so there’s no hard and fast formula like a tenth – but Jesus is demanding something a lot harder which is continual self-examination and willingness to put God first in our lives. Is what we give to God really the first-fruits of our lives, does our gift to God of money and time cost us something, or is it just what’s left over at the end of the week, the loose change from the dressing table?
The coin that Jesus asked for and inspected was a denarius, a coin issued by the Roman occupation government with an image of the Emperor Tiberius. On it would have been the inscription, ‘’Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus’. It was an emblem of the official Roman religion, and of course was deeply offensive to Jewish religion and nationalism. We have the image of the Queen on our own coins, and it’s much the same deal. This is the image of temporal power and authority. It says, our lives are shaped by this power and our relationship to this sort of authority. But as Christians we know a deeper reality, which is that we ourselves and all of created reality reveal the image of God our Creator. We struggle to live with the belief that God’s image is upon everything and everyone. We struggle to see that we are made in that image while we struggle with the compromises and competing claims of our everyday lives. It was easy for the Herodians and Pharisees to see Caesar’s image, and let’s face it, we see that image clearly enough ourselves. It takes more reflection to discern God’s image reflected in ourselves and in one another. I think that our human senses have a built-in filter which makes us reluctant to repay God what belongs to God, because we see that image less clearly, and because when we do see it we recognise that it calls into question the priorities that we live by.
On one level, Oral Roberts wasn’t wrong. The more you give to God, the more you get back. The more you give of yourself – the more your gifts of money and time make a noticeable hole in your weekly budget – the more your participation in the life of the church demands of you – the more you grow in faith and the more you recognise the economy of God that reorders and transforms our lives together in the Church. The more of yourself that you invest, the more clearly you discern the image of God in yourself and in those around you.
What you spend yourself on, the real priority of your life, is the image that you grow into. So we just need to ask ourselves – whose image do we want that to be?