October 22, 2023 – Financial Stewardship

October 22, 2023
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Rev. Steve Nofel
Romans 12:1-13
Matthew 22:15-22

Jesus is absolutely right when he calls these Pharisees and Herodians out as hypocrites. These traditional enemies have only the common purpose in mind. Trip Jesus up. Make him say something that will get him arrested or abandoned by his followers. All while couching it as an innocent respectful question. “Teacher, what do you think…” The filthy hypocrites! Toying with them, Jesus not only escapes their silly trap, but reminds us 2,000 years later of who we are. Whose we are. And our duty because of whose we are.

The passage begins with the plot of some Pharisees and Herodians, trying to set a trap for Jesus. They try setting him up first with flattery: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully.” Then they put him on a sizzling hot spot. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Caesar or not?” Now, everyone in Israel from the age of 14-65 had to pay a tax to the occupying Roman Government simply for the privilege of existing. Similar to our toll tax for driving through the Harbor Tunnels. The tax was not heavy, not a huge burden for most, but if you want to use the tunnel, you have to pay it.

When the Pharisee’s approached Jesus, they weren’t raising a financial issue but a contentious religious issue. The Herodians, who joined the Pharisees on this plot to trick Jesus, were overt supporters of the Roman regime and they supported paying the tax. The Pharisees claimed only God was their King, and it was wrong to pay tribute to anyone other than to God. They were popular with the people because they resented and resisted the tax, on principle. But they counseled submission as long as Rome didn’t interfere with their religious practice. These two groups only came together because of their common opposition to Jesus. Any answer he gives, they were going to hammer him. According to Jewish law, it is not lawful to have any graven images (including the engraved coin), nor was it lawful to pay allegiance to anyone, except God. The coin was offensive to the Jews because the head of the coin showed the emperor, and the tail carried an inscription which identified him as “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus Pontifex Maximus.” This coin was a graven image, and it was an offense against God to handle or look at this coin. According to Roman law, the tax must be paid by everyone who exists in the Roman Empire. And only the Roman coin could be used for the Roman tax. There was no way around it.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus supports the tax, he is guilty in the eyes of the religious establishment of blasphemy. If Jesus denounces the tax, he would be accused of being anti-Rome and treasonous, and could be arrested and executed. We got him now! They don’t know Jesus very well, do they? Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” The Pharisees readily produce a denarius. According to their religious law, it carries an offensive graven image, and yet they happen to have one to give to Jesus. The filthy hypocrites. The Pharisees were so busy not liking Jesus – not liking the way he prayed, or did ministry, or preached or healed. They didn’t like the way he loved on the lowly, the oppressed, and the little ones. They were so busy looking at Jesus’ “questionable religious practice” that they lost track of their own. They did not see that their own religious practice had gotten off track.

I’m trying to be too judgmental of them, because they were only acting human. Though fully human, Jesus was different. He attracted the wrong kind of crowd. He was intense and challenging and taught a whole new way of relating to God. It was only natural for the Pharisees to fear him and oppose him. But their opposition to him was so weakened by their own hypocrisy, their own failure to practice what they preached, that they were easily defeated by Jesus. Not simply because of his brilliance, but because of their very profound failure to see past their noses.

When a denarius is presented to him, Jesus asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” When they answer “Caesar.” “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Which extracts him from their political trap. Then Jesus being Jesus gives us the true lesson: “And give to God the things that are God’s.” Exposed the hypocrites are amazed at his brilliance slink away and leave him alone…for now.

However, this story is about much more than Jesus outwitting the opposition. When Jesus asks for a coin, he asks, “Whose head (image) is this, and whose title?” The coin bears Caesar’s image, and therefore belongs to Caesar. They may pay the infamous poll tax, but as God’s children they do not belong to the emperor. “Give to God what is God’s.” You, me, Jesus and all of us are God’s special possession. We humans bear the image and likeness of God. We ourselves belong to God.

“And give to God the things that are God’s.” God made us. God loves us. God saves us. God redeems us. God sanctifies us. God gives life now and forevermore.
Do I get an amen? We belong to God as surely as Caesar’s coins belong to Caesar. The ancient Tertullian wrote that, we are God’s coins, we bear the image and likeness of God. So, to God must be given back what is God’s, that is our very selves. Yep, this is a stewardship sermon. An All-In Stewardship Sermon. Jesus demands much from us, all of who we are because of whose we are.

If Tiberius Caesar wants a few denarii, give them to him. Because giving them will remind you that a person’s life does not consist of his or her possessions. What counts above all else is that we are God’s special possession. We humans bear God’s image, and wherever we live and whatever we do – whether in the social, economic, political, religious and economic realm – we belong first and foremost to God. Our primary loyalties do not change when we leave the church building and move to our homes or our schools, our work, or our accountant’s office or even the voting booth. Christ reminds us we are God’s children. We bear the divine image and therefore belong to God.

Remember our definition of stewardship is everything that comes before and after amen. I gotta tell you about my all-time favorite stewardship moment. You know that I was originally ordained a Roman Catholic priest. At my first church the senior pastor and I lived with a retired pastor. A lovely man. One Sunday I was assisting him with worship, and we had a nun come to do a fundraising talk for her order. She looked like Mother Teresa’s older sister. She was ancient, full of wrinkles and so thin I was afraid to walk past her thinking that breeze would knock her over. When she opened her mouth she was aflame! Vigorous, on fire and incredibly plain spoken. But, she talked, and talked, and talked. Father looked at his watch about 47 times. She wrapped up by saying, “Give! Give until it hurts!”

Father who was nearly as old as she, stood up and immediately said, “And now back to the Gospel.” LOL. I laughed out loud. I nodded and appreciated a good line when I heard it. But I have chewed on that encounter for 30 plus years now. As much as I liked Father, I now believe he was wrong. Sister took a long time to say it, but she was right – Give to God what is God’s. Everything before and after amen is God’s and we Give Thee but thine own. We don’t give a portion of our income to pay a head tax. I can be a pain myself when I hear ushers, deacons, and church leaders call our passing the plate “The Collection!” We don’t take collections. We receive the offering. We receive the offering. You see the difference. As another sacred song says, “We are an offering.”

This week we are talking about stewardship of money. Please pray over and discern your financial commitment to Jesus and his church: First and Franklin.
Jesus said, “go ahead, pay the tax, it’s got Caesar’s head on it” but that doesn’t mean you belong to him. You – you, yourselves, bear the divine image. You, my friends, you belong to God. And please, please pray over and consider. Who we are and whose we are. And how you can respond financially because of because of whose we are.

Hallelujah. Amen.