Sermon: Proper 24 Year A: Caesar and Stewardship

Isaiah 45:1-7

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

The Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

—–

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. This is such a great line, and I kinda just want to let Jesus have this mic drop moment and not say anything else. 

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

The “trap” that Jesus was avoiding with this answer was treason against Rome on one side, and idolatry against God on the other. The Roman coin had the emperor’s face on it, which was idolatrous enough to Jewish people with a strict interpretation of the commandments. The second of the ten commandments prohibits making an image or idol of God. Some Jewish people in Jesus’ day interpreted this very strictly and would not make an image of a human being, since we are created in the image of God. They interpreted this so strictly that sometimes they would not even touch the Roman coins with the emperor’s likeness. The Roman coins were idolatrous in multiple ways. The ones made by the emperor Tiberius during Jesus’ day had the emperor’s mother depicted as a goddess on the back. And around the emperor’s image was text saying that the emperor was himself divine. 

These coins were a reminder and a symbol of Roman imperialism – the Jewish people were subject to an emperor who claimed to be a God and forced them to pay him taxes using money with his face on it. If Jesus was such a good Jewish teacher, there’s no way he could condone paying such a tax with such a coin, right? And his opponents in the temple were looking for any chance to say that Jesus was a bad teacher, leading his disciples away from God’s commandments. In a previous scene, Jesus’s opponents want to arrest him already, but they are afraid of the crowd’s reaction, since Jesus has so many devoted followers. 

So, will Jesus condone idolatry and lose the crowd, or defy empire and face the consequences? At least, that’s the trap that was set. Jesus knows what’s coming. He knows that it is the week that the Roman empire will execute him. This encounter between Jesus and those who are trying to trap him happens while Jesus is teaching in the temple early in what we now call Holy Week. Jesus knows that defying the empire in this moment will lead to his immediate arrest and death. So he makes a point with the coin. Whose face *is* this? The emperor’s. Where did the coin come from? The empire. The Jewish people would never make such an idolatrous thing. So it belongs to the empire. Give it to the empire. It came from him, it has his face on it, he could take it from you by force at any point. It’s not yours in any meaningful sense. So give what already belongs to the empire to the empire. 

This answer alone might have satisfied the crowd and kept Jesus out of trouble with the Romans, but Jesus takes what was meant as a trap and turns it into a sermon. “And give God the things that belong to God.” What things are God’s things? 

Everything.

Everything we have, everything we are, it all comes from God. Isaiah reminds us that God calls us by name, not just in the way of knowing what names we are given, but in fact giving us our names. Everything is God’s.

There’s an offertory sentence in the old prayer book, originally taken from 1st Chronicles. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” I was born a decade after our current prayer book was published. I do not remember learning these phrases. But enough priests must have kept using it when I was a child that those phrases were stored deep in my heart. The priest says “All things come of thee O Lord,” and the people respond “and of thine own have we given thee.” I hadn’t heard those words in the liturgy in so long that I forgot they were something I knew. I attended a service where they still use that offertory sentence regularly. I surprised myself by instinctively responding with the rest of the congregation “of thine own have we given thee.” Everything belongs to God. What we offer to God is already God’s own. Even our very selves belong to God. We can only offer what already belongs to God. 

Whose face is on the coin? Whose image? The emperor. Whose face do you see in the mirror? Whose face do you see in your neighbor? In whose image are *we* made? 

Give to the emperor what already belongs to the emperor. And give to God the things that are God’s. 

All things come from you, O Lord, and it is what belongs to you that we give to you. 

I have this dish towel in my kitchen. It has a quote, I believe a paraphrase from Mother Teresa: “Wash the dishes not because they are dirty, nor because you are told to, but because you love the person who will use them next.” That is stewardship. We don’t pledge because clergy or wardens or the treasurer tell us to. We don’t offer money and resources and time and ourselves to the church because the church is desperate for those things. 

We offer these things to the church because we love the people who will be here next. Most of the time in my house, I’m the person who uses the dishes next. I wash the dishes because I love the person who’s going to want a clean coffee cup before preaching today. We all gave towards the new air conditioner because we love the congregation who is going to be here next April when it starts to get hot again. We do the dishes not because they are dirty, just to get them clean to store on a shelf forever. We wash the dishes because we love the people who will use them next. We give to the church not because we want to preserve something as a permanent legacy, like sparkling clean china displayed in a cabinet, beautiful, but never used. We give to the church because we love the people who will be here next. We give to the church because we love the people who are here *now*. We give to the church because the church is us. 

We give so much more than money. Those priests in the 1990s who kept using the same offertory sentence even though it wasn’t in the new prayer book were giving little kid me a gift I didn’t even know I had received until years later with those words “all things come of thee, o Lord.” Those priests didn’t know I would someday be a priest and be the next to use that offertory sentence. Wash the dish because you love the person who will use it next. The congregation that taught me the response “and of thine own have we given thee” could not anticipate what instilling that phrase in my heart would do. The church gave me liturgy. The church gave me connection to all those who prayed those same words before. The church gave me a place to belong. The church gave me love. Wash the dish because you *love* the person who will use it next. 

We give to the church because we love the people who will use it next. We give financially so that the cathedral can continue to be a place of sanctuary for our neighbors nearby and across the city and diocese. We give time, sometimes literally washing dishes, so that our community can gather and show love to each other. We give talents, talents of music, of painting, of reading, of mathematics, talents of leadership and talents of quietly taking care of what needs to be done. The young people who are serving at the altar today are giving their time and talents towards the church’s worship of God. Those of us who are the church today inherit the love given to us by those who were here before. 

We give to the church because we love the people who will use it next. That person might be you next week. Or you next May when the a/c kicks on. That person might be a brand new acolyte carrying on the ancient traditions of our worship. That person might be a little kid who will discover years from now the fruits of scripture and liturgy that have been planted today.

“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Of thine own have we given thee. We don’t have anything to give to God except for what is already God’s own. Even our very selves belong to God. We are God’s own. We bear God’s image like a face on a coin. We give ourselves to God because we already belong to God. Give to God the things that are God’s.

Amen.

Leave a Reply