Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
October 22, 2023
Scripture: Matthew 22:15–22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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 Caesar or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed, and they left him and went away.
On my birthday in June I achieved a mid decade mark and now have matching digits for an age. Thirty years ago, shortly before I turned 25 I heard on a radio program that one physiologically peaks at that age… at 25! I had no idea what that meant but it launched me into a serious funk knowing I was peaking at anything so young and it definitely put a damper on my quarter century birthday celebration. Since then I have never welcomed the middle of a decade, convinced I am likely peaking in some other way. I seem to have much better acceptance for a 0 than a 5. And now I have to handle two fives! While birthdays tend to be a reflective time for many I know there are certain birthdays that create a more significant pause and hold space for a review of one’s life. For me this has been true of turning 55, in that suddenly I am looking ahead to the final quarter of my ministerial career and vocation. Unlike other clergy and church professionals I know, I am looking forward to retirement and really hope to be able to do so in ten years. I have no specific plans except to pursue meaningful endeavors in new ways. I also know that life can change in a moment and what feels still a decade away could be longer or shorter depending on circumstances. Yet in these last months I have newly formed concerns about my pension and social security and other resources. What happens when I no longer have an established income, when I am dependent on my meager life’s savings to sustain me for an unknown period of time? How will my beloved and I share resources, how can I help my children know financial security? The questions keep rolling in and the numbers swirling in my head have caused many a sleepless night. And the question that I find myself wrestling with on now what feels a daily basis is… will there be enough?
Is it enough? I would guess that many of you have asked this question, perhaps about retirement or maybe about any other way money becomes entwined in our lives. And as I consider the process that we as a congregation are walking through with the leadership of the Deacons, it is also something we are pondering in terms of Plymouth’s financial future, too. What do we do about the difference between our income and expenses? What is essential and what must we let go? What must be kept and what do we give away? What is enough?
Money is on the minds of the crowd around Jesus in the scriptural scene from Matthew. Observing Jesus’ authority with the people rising, the race is on for those in power to stop him before he becomes any more popular. And so this is a moment of attempted entrapment, and Jesus knows it. The Pharisees, with whom Jesus has daily encounters in the gospel of Matthew are the principal representatives of law, and their task is to uphold the law through the interpretation of the Torah. The Pharisees believed that paying taxes with coins that had an imprinted head of the emperor deified the emperor, thereby breaking the First and Second commandments. “The Roman tax referenced here was levied annually on harvests and personal property, and determined by registration in the census. It was administered by those in power, and it put heavy economic burdens on the impoverished…” (Susan Grove Eastman)
Joining the Pharisees in today’s inquisition are the Herodians, who only appear one other time in scripture. The Herodians supported the Rome-endorsed Herod dynasty and therefore, were all in favor of handing over large sums of money to the government. The Pharisee/Herodian coalition is a surprising one. Given their divided loyalties, it is unlikely that anything could have caused the Pharisees and Herodians to collaborate, except their mutual desire to see Jesus completely out of the picture.
The questioners approach Jesus and begin with flattery, complimenting Jesus’ sincerity and non-partiality. And then they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Since both parties represent different viewpoints, Jesus is sure to displease someone. Either way Jesus answers, he is going to get into trouble. It’s a “gotcha” question. If he advises against taxes he will be accused of treason. If he encourages paying, he sets aside the law of God and could be viewed as a Roman sympathizer. Jesus’ response will expose him as either a seditionist or a co-conspirator.
But Jesus is not to be fooled and is an expert at speaking truth to power. He calls them all hypocrites and demands to see the very coin used to pay the referenced tax. The coin has an imprint of the emperor. Jesus shrugs and returns the coin with the popular scriptural line: “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and return to God the things that are God’s.” And like other scenes where Jesus is under inquisition, there is reported drop jaw amazement at Jesus’ proclamation, the party is over, and the antagonists go away.
Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God give the things that are God’s. In just a few words Jesus skillfully widens the question so that it has little to do with taxes, politics or money at all and instead becomes one of faith. His answer does not solve any problem but rather defines the nature of the struggle, and he transfigures the challenge of the crowd into a theological question. Underlying Jesus’ rejoinder is to consider what, in our lives, is of ultimate importance. Do politics dictate your faith or does your faith form your political views? If you have two coins in your pocket will you give one to help your neighbor or keep both for yourself? Can we turn over to God all of our angst about having enough or do we hold on so tight the worry seeps into our spirits and threatens all of our joy? Jesus is inviting a return to God, a reconnection to the source of our own life as we seek to align our values with our practices.
I imagine this return to God as two-fold. Since this text is about coins, money and taxes we are being coaxed to return to God a portion of what we have and what we earn. Just as we pay tax on our wages and any wealth that may come to us we are also to give openhandedly to better God’s world and promote equality among God’s people. In this stewardship season we have weekly reminders of why God’s community that is the church needs our financial support. This is one way to return to God—tithes and offerings. Sheryl Johnson, author of our Plymouth Reads book “Serving God, Serving Money” challenges our traditional understanding of stewardship by cautioning congregations to not be so insular with their budgets and wealth. She writes, “Perhaps we could live with a creative tension between respecting agency and striving to redistribute resources justly to all, trying to correct for the imbalances created by structural inequities.” (pg. 20) In other words, What could it look like for Plymouth to be less concerned about preservation and more focused on giving our money away, presently, to support our purposes? While we might all agree that generosity is a spiritual practice and even scripture states that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7), Johnson offers this perspective: “Can we truly justify having so much more than others? The concept of generosity can distract us from our deep moral obligations to one another and limit our ability to discuss how much is actually appropriate. The term “generosity” may still have a place in stewardship practices, but we need to ask how it may lead us to think of giving as good but optional, rather than intrinsic to our ethical obligations to one another in an unjust world.” (pg. 51) Returning to God the things that are God’s has nothing to do with generosity and everything to do with living in to our identities as people of faith.
The other way we return to God is not as tangible, more figurative than literal. As we wrestle with a plethora of angst in our lives… hearts rending over the death and destruction and terror in the middle east; worry and concern for our children or our parents or our friends; spirits crushing over the violence and crime in our backyards and our broken system of government; the frantic wonderings of the kind of planet we are leaving for our children and their children; the persistent ache or twinge of pain in our bodies that has us too fearful to see a doctor… and the constant load of burden as we lose sleep over the question of whether we have the right amount of resources to carry us into the future. Is it enough? What if we followed Jesus’ command and turned toward God and released it all. In the rush of a breath, in the unclenching of our fist, in the relaxing of our shoulders, in a slow inhale and exhale… we give to God “the things that are God’s”. We are God’s. We are called beloved and created in God’s image. The more often we recall and remember these true things, the weight of the world will lessen. Because we will remember that we are not alone, that through our trust in a divine love we have all that we need to embrace another day, that we can put down what we carry and see things anew through God’s eyes. Returning to God is a reclaiming of self… a self that is loved and therefore can love. And love is always enough.
Jesus wasn’t just referencing money in this brief encounter with his testers and tempters. Jesus was offering an invitation to a new way to live, a new way to love. To move into whatever is next with God at the center—not the emperor, not money, not the self, not the systemic injustice that surrounds us. Returning to God is to remember God, to trust in God, to embrace unconditional love from God. Returning to God is surrendering all the societal messages that make us wonder—is it enough? Am I enough?
So that we can turn around, renewed, and proclaim… It is enough.
It is enough.
It is enough.