Sunday, October 19, 2008


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 19, 2008

Year A: The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
(1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)
Matthew 22:15-22


Well, I don’t need to tell you it was another wild week on Wall Street. The image of the market as rollercoaster has been so overused and yet it seems like the best metaphor for the nauseating ride that we’ve all been on. And, meanwhile, the presidential campaign has entered what feels like its 400th week…

For a lot of us it’s a pretty bleak and frightening time. In her sermon last Sunday Lauren admitted that in the midst of the anxiety in the world it was a challenge to find the good news in the lessons that she had to deal with – the Israelites worshipping the golden calf and Jesus’ parable of someone being tossed out of the wedding banquet because he didn’t have the correct robe. I sat over there listening to her sermon, listening to her find the good news, and I gave a deep sigh of relief that she was preaching and I wasn’t.

Then I looked ahead to today’s gospel: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The King James Version of this verse is the one everybody knows, though, right? It’s probably one of Jesus’ best-known and most widely interpreted sayings: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”

That’s just great. As we ride the economic rollercoaster and as we enter the last weeks of the presidential campaign we have the gospel lesson about taxes – just what everyone wants to hear today!

Well, let’s start by putting this passage into context. Over the past few Sundays as we’ve been making our way through the Gospel of Matthew, the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment has been really heating up. Two weeks ago we heard Matthew quote Jesus as telling the Pharisees and the chief priests: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Ouch. Pretty harsh.

And last week’s wedding banquet parable was directly aimed against the religious establishment that had over and over rejected the prophets and now was rejecting Jesus, the Son of God.

But today it’s time for the Pharisees to respond. Unlike what we’ve heard the past couple of weeks, here Matthew pretty much sticks with Mark and Luke’s version of this story. The Pharisees present Jesus with a question that is designed to get him in trouble. The Pharisees are playing a game of gotcha with Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

We all know that talking about taxes can put you on thin ice. We’ve certainly seen that in the current election campaign haven’t we? But in First Century Palestine taxation was an extremely touchy subject. The Romans imposed three different taxes. First there was a land tax which was what it sounds like – a tax on the produce of the land. Second was the customs tax – an often corrupt tax collected through tolls and ports. And finally there was the head tax or the poll tax. Each adult male and maybe each adult female was taxed probably one denarius, or one day’s wage, a year.

Most Jews hated paying these taxes because, well, no one likes to pay taxes, but there was also notorious corruption involved, and they served as a reminder that Israel was ruled by a foreign power and they had to use coins the bore the image of the emperor.

So the Pharisees think they have set up Jesus. If Jesus says it is unlawful to pay the tax he becomes the enemy of the Romans and their local allies. If Jesus says it is lawful then he becomes the enemy of the zealous and patriotic Jews who hate Roman rule.

Instead, of course, Jesus avoids the trap and says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”

This is the saying of Jesus that launched a million stewardship sermons. As I read commentary after commentary I found that this verse has been interpreted to mean everything from Christians must absolutely obey the state to Christians do not need to pay taxes to the government. Go figure.

As I’ve prayed and thought about this passage I’ve come to the conclusion that in the end it’s not about taxes. The taxes are beside the point. It’s not about taxes for Matthew who mostly is telling this story to show Jesus outfoxing the Pharisees. And it’s not about taxes for us, either.

If we are going to get any meaning out of this long-age game of gotcha, it’s not going to be in determining whether we should pay taxes or determining how much we should give to the church or other worthy causes.

If we are going to get any meaning out of this passage it will be in figuring out what it means for us here and now to render unto Caesar and what it means for us here and now to render unto God.

The meaning for us today is to be at least as careful about our obligation to God as we are about our obligation to Caesar – to be at least as careful about our spiritual obligations as we are to our obligations to the material, the physical, the dollars and cents.

And how can we be careful about our spiritual and material obligations? The answer came to me when I fell for an old joke the other day.

True story: later this week Sue and I are going to a concert at Carnegie Hall. And so the other day, out of the blue Sue asked me, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Without missing a beat, I started to say, “Well, I was thinking we could take the train from Madison and uh…”

When I saw Sue start to laugh I finally got the old joke. The right answer to the question how do you get to Carnegie Hall is…practice!

That’s the meaning of this passage for us today. It’s about the rendering. It’s about the giving. It’s about the doing. It’s about our practices. Not practices in the sense of rehearsal, but practices in the sense of doing, taking action.

In her book Practicing Our Faith the author Dorothy Bass defines practices as “those shared activities that address fundamental human needs and that, woven together, form a way of life.”

Practices are “those shared activities that address fundamental human needs and that, woven together, form a way of life.”

How do we address our basic needs? How do we give to the emperor and how do we give to God? We do that through specific actions, through specific practices.

We all are learning more about the importance of good financial practices….It seems like as a country maybe we haven’t been as careful as we should have been about our financial practices and now we’ve gotten ourselves into some big trouble. But now many of us are paying a lot more attention to our financial practices these days, aren’t we?

I know that Sue and I don’t eat out as much as we did and when we do it’s very obvious that restaurants are nowhere near as busy as they were a year ago. We are changing our practices.

It might be my imagination but when I’m on line at checkout in Shop Rite it seems like more and more people are handing over a lot of coupons to the cashier. We are changing our practices.

When I started thinking about this idea about the importance of practices – both material and spiritual practices - I asked one of the Men’s Breakfast financial whizzes to come up with a list of specific financial practices that people might consider during this difficult time. He began by tellingme that ignoring the situation, no matter how frightening, won’t make things better. Then he said, “There may be steps that you ought to consider taking now. If so, it’s better to take them now rather than ending up having to say at some future time, “If only I had…”

So what’s first on the list of dealing with the financial crisis? Act. Figure out our financial practices.

We know the importance of financial practices; we know how to render unto "Caesar." But maybe we don’t know or maybe it’s easy for us to forget the importance of spiritual practices; how to render unto God.

So what might be some of these spiritual practices that we can use to give to God the things that are God’s?

One of the most important practices is being right here – praising God in church each Sunday. And there’s the practice of setting aside even just a few moments a day for personal prayer. In the book that I mentioned, Dorothy Bass includes some other practices. She talks about the practice of hospitality. There’s a chapter on the practice of discernment - how does our faith shape the decisions we make? She includes a chapter on the practice of forgiveness and one on the practice of taking care of our bodies because they are gifts from God.

I am sure we could make a list of many practices, many ways that we can give to God the things that are God’s.

Long ago Jesus outsmarted the Pharisees by telling them they had obligations to the emperor and to God. And through the Scripture Jesus is telling us the same thing today – and reminding us that we fulfill those obligations not by sitting around and thinking about them but through practices.

So, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. How do we render unto Caesar and render unto God? Practice. How do we meet our material and spiritual obligations? Practice.