Text: Matthew 22:15-22
The encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees and supporters of King Herod, in the passage that Heddy read for us, reveals — as do the 800 or so times that money or possessions are mentioned in the Bible — that concerns about the economic dimension of life as are old as human history, and that Jesus was no stranger to this reality. He not only was well-acquainted with the anxiety that people experience over money; he was not afraid to address it, with some challenging teachings. We’ll be looking at just a few of them during this month-long series.
This particular encounter, according to Matthew, happened during the last week of Jesus’ life. It was an element of the growing tension of Holy Week, as Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem made the religious authorities more and more nervous, and they came, over and over, to challenge this upstart rabbi who had garnered so much attention from the crowds. They were worried, with talk of a “Messiah,” about whispers of revolution, an uprising against the occupying Roman authorities, which would, no doubt, trigger violence, and pose a threat to their own precarious position of power. So they posed a question of Jesus, believing it to be a “catch 22” sort of trap: “Should we pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
If Jesus said “yes,” they believed, he could be discredited among the followers who thought him to be a Messiah. If he said “no,” they would have evidence that he was a traitor to Rome, and grounds to get him arrested for sedition. But Jesus’ answer (Matthew 22:21 “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” — ) cleverly side-steps the trap, and instead sheds light on how all of us are living inside a system — what author Maggie Kulyk calls “living inside the whale” — that is so pervasive, so ubiquitous, and so potentially soul-draining, and raises both a critique of that system and a way to move faithfully through it.
The inscription on that Roman coin would have read: “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest) on the other. The coin itself could have been deemed offensive, with its assertion that Caesar was divine — and indeed, whole function of the money changers at the temple (remember that other Holy Week story?) was to keep the temple “pure” by not allowing this occupying foreign power’s money to be used for religious offerings. So it’s a clever thing for Jesus to ask someone to produce this coin to illustrate his point.
One could simply read this “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” as a bid to “do what everyone else does” — to “submit to the governing authority” without complaint or criticism. But with his “and” — “and render to God what is God’s” — he beautifully steps out of the box. He reminds his critics, and us, that everything really belongs to God, and urges us (along with those Pharisees) to think carefully about how we can live that way, in a world of oppressive systems, in a world where there are “haves and have-nots,” in a world that is constantly enticing us with pressure to acquire and buy our way into a feeling of security, in a world that tells us we are not, and do not have, enough.
The New Year often finds us marking time and looking back — over accomplishments and regrets, at world events and milestones in the lives of our families. We also find ourselves taking stock as we gather our paperwork in anticipation of the April 15 income tax filing deadline. In doing so, we are reminded again of how economic reality intersects with our relationships, our goals, our priorities and deeply-held values.
In her book, Integrating Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart-Centered Life — which our Wednesday morning Bible study group will be studying together over the next three weeks — Maggie Kulyk shares her own personal story, tracing the attitudes about money which developed in her from childhood and through young adulthood. A little “spoiler alert” here: her background is probably not what you’d expect, and may be very different from the lifestyle that most of us experienced growing up. However, I think she is dead-on when she asserts that our “money memories” — like those arising from the question I asked at the beginning of worship about receiving an allowance — and the way money was regarded in our family of origin, have much to teach us about the source and shape of our anxieties about money today. Looking back, and facing our “shadows” when it comes to money attitudes, can be a means of cultivating growth and wholeness, freeing us from fear, giving us a greater sense of peace, and allowing us to be the generous, purposeful, compassionate stewards that God means for us to be.
Kulyk outlines a whole series of creative exercises, engaging the head and heart, which can help her readers start to uncover the memories, attitudes, and “energies” and bring the “shadows” to the surface. She recommends that these practices be approached with a dose of self-compassion and without judgment. Simple curiosity, a little bit of distancing perspective, can go a long way in making this a means of personal and spiritual growth. (If you’re interested in learning more, as I have said, our Wednesday Bible study group is taking this on together, and I have an extra copy of the book available today!)
Again, this is a bit of a “spoiler,” but let me share just one of the exercises, which will be one topic of our discussion this Wednesday. Among the characters from the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, Kulyk identifies nine “types” (she prefers to call them “energies,” but I think you’ll get the concept better if we call them “types”). If you haven’t watched the movie recently, you might want to check it out this week and consider whether you’re more of a “martyr” like George Bailey, Jr., a “warrior” like Sam Wainwright, an “innocent” like Uncle Billy, or an “artist” (Mary Bailey), “victim” (“Pottersville” Ma Bailey), “tyrant” (Mr. Potter) or “fool” (Clarence Oddbody). Descriptions of these types are found on the handout that we’ve made available on the back table.
Seeing ourselves in this story, and recognizing that others are also “living in the whale,” similarly impacted and responding to the stresses of financial constraint, inequality and injustice, and the desire for wonder, abundance and freedom — not only for themselves, but for all God’s children — can help us take a step back and get a broader, more grace-filled perspective.
This broader perspective is what Jesus invites us to when he reminds the Pharisees to “render unto God what is God’s.” We live in a complex world, and it is challenging to navigate. It can be quite discouraging at times. But ours is a God of abundance, a God who has blessed the world with enough resources to share, and who has called us to unselfishly take care of one another. We can make the shift to that mindset, away from fear and dread for the future, and toward the grace and peace that is available right now, if we will only trust and acknowledge with gratitude that it is all God’s, open our hands, and give God our hearts.
Looking again at the film dialogue: There’s a person out there that needs our help. Is that person sick? No, worse; discouraged. That person may be your neighbor, or it may even be you. Take a look back, and help your neighbor take a look back, with compassion, and remember that all we have is a gift from God. Remember that we are all living in this “whale,” striving to be faithful to the Giver in the midst of many pressures and constraints. Yet God loves us and wants the best for us, and for others. Do not be afraid to look back. Do not be afraid of your shadows. Let God shine some light, and let us humbly hold another in that space of illumination. Perhaps, together, we can heal some of our anxieties about money, and move forward into an abundant, balanced, trusting and more joy-filled tomorrow. Amen.