You can hear our gospel writer Matthew the Evangelist nearly shout to Jesus in the set-up to today’s lesson the renowned words of Admiral Ackbar from “Star Wars: Episode VI— Return of the Jedi”: “It’s a trap!” The Pharisees and Herodians have made strange bedfellows and have slithered their way over to Jesus in order to snare him with an unanswerable question. You can hear their sliminess in their opening words. “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.” Oh, they try hard to butter him up there in the beginning. They express this false praise in order to manipulate the people listening in. They hope that the ones standing nearby will not see what this is really all about, because they want to entangle Jesus right in front of them. And that’s when they go in for the kill: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
A Stewardship sermon on Matthew 22:34-46.
Taxes. They were despised as much then as they generally are now. Except in their case, the money was flowing in one direction from the pockets of the poor people living in a faraway outpost under the oppression of an empire to the ones who had conquered them. They were not getting that money back in infrastructure or libraries or good schools. Their taxes were just going to line the emperor’s pocket. So these tricksy opponents of Jesus laid the trap and greedily wait for him to respond.
And that’s when Jesus works his magic. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks, acknowledging that he knows exactly what they’re up to. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says. One of them reaches into his pocket and pulls out the coin given for the daily wage. “Whose head and inscription is this?” he asks. “The emperor’s,” comes their reply. “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
And with that their trap is foiled, and they are amazed at Jesus’ cunning. Because Jesus is being way more shrewd than we can readily hear these days. The word he uses in his question is the word “icon.” “Whose icon and inscription is this?” he asks. The version we read does a poor job by using the word “head” when “image” is much closer to Jesus’ meaning. “Whose image is this?” And for those Jewish people, bells are going off, because it’s the same word used back in the Creation account when God makes human beings in God’s image. “Whose image is this?” Jesus asks, but the question left unasked is “And whose image are you?”
This of course makes his conclusion that much richer: “So then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” If that coin has the image of the emperor, well then give it to him. But if you through your very life and being bear God’s image, then give it to God.
The committee of theologians that came up with the lectionary cycle we use each week—the readings that are assigned on any given Sunday—knew that this is generally when stewardship season is for most parishes, so they toss us preachers a softball this morning. In other years, the lessons designated around this time include the widow and her two pennies, or the rich young man that Jesus informs he lacks just one thing: to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor, or the reading about the ten lepers that Jesus heals with only one of them coming back to express gratitude. This morning those lectionary members want me to make the connection between how we need to pay our taxes to the government and how we are supposed to also pay what we owe God.
But then I begin thinking about how the coin didn’t have God’s image on it, so this wasn’t necessarily about a quid pro quo of doling out some money for the emperor and then doling some more out for God. It’s not the coin that carries God’s image, it’s us. If the thing Jesus tells them to give to the emperor is that which carries his image—the denarius—well then what he’s telling them to give to God is their entire selves. Everything about them. It goes way beyond a few coins into the realm of something so much more.
Most parishes just muster through stewardship season as best they can. It’s the time of year when people begin to say that the church is always asking for money. And it’s also risky when worn out lay leaders attempt to get creative in their marketing slogans, like the church that inadvisably made their stewardship slogan, “I upped my pledge, so up yours!” We don’t like talking about money—it’s more taboo than even sex in our culture—and so it feels somewhat dirty when the priest stands before a congregation asking for enough to cover his salary and to keep the heat on. But that’s only if we view stewardship as though God’s image was on the money we carry.
When we see stewardship as the entirety of our lives, our perspective begins to shift. And in the past year with my recent research, I’ve begun even to question if we can bear God’s image as individuals. The author of Genesis writes, “In the image of God, God created them; male and female, God created them.” The image of God was on both of them, and, theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues that God’s image is best reflected when we are in community with others rather than being alone. That what we really bear is the image of the Trinity, of God in relationship and bound in love in the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So that image of God expands from an individual to us here in community, the collective body of Christ here at St. Mark’s.
And this is a community that needs all of our support. We’re at an inflection point here at St. Mark’s, something our wardens and treasurer outlined for you this week. For this parish to continue to offer the ministries we feel called to do for the work of Jesus, we will need to raise more than $30,000 compared to this current year’s gifts—both pledged commitments and regular gifts designated to St. Mark’s. That is not beyond the realm of possibility in this parish by any stretch. Individually, it’s a tall ask, but together it’s not much.
But we cannot just do some quick maths and divide things out to come up with how much each pledge has to increase and go from there, because that’s not how a community of faith works. There are some here like that widow who are giving all that they can even though it might not be a high dollar figure. And we have others who God has richly blessed and generously give, who could give more. So in line with the idea that it is our very lives that bears God’s image, I would encourage us all to pledge a percentage of our income to God. That’s what Melissa and I do. A friend said some time ago that the modern tithe to a church should be seen as 5% of one’s total income, so that you can continue to support other ministries and non-profits with the other 5%. As such, Melissa and I have committed to give either 10% of my salary, or 5% of our combined salaries to the parish, whichever one was greater. This past year with St. Mark’s call for increased giving, that number went up to 11% of my pre-taxed earnings given to St. Mark’s, which was, as you might suspect, a sacrificial gift for us.
So I encourage you to do the following: First, if you’re already giving at a generous rate of 5% of your income or above, to continue your generosity at your current level or raising it if you feel so lead by the Spirit. Thank you for your gifts. For those not giving at that 5% level or who have not pledged in the past, I’d encourage you to begin at 3% of your household income if you’re currently below that in your giving, or increasing your pledge by 1% more of your income making your way to that modern tithe of 5%. There’s a table on the back of the pledge card you’ll receive this morning to assist you on that.
It may sound like a lot when you multiply it all out, but take a moment to realize what we’re offering to the work of God at this parish: 3 cents or 5 cents or maybe even a dime out of every dollar we earn. That’s not much in the grand scheme of things, and certainly much less than we pay to our local governments. Additionally, percentage based giving in a community draws us closer to God’s image, I think because we each give as we are able, and everyone gives something similar to everyone else based on their income. If we did this, if we who give above 5% continued at our current levels or a little more, and if everyone else gave 3% or 4% on their way to that modern tithe, this parish would have more than enough to continue all the work God has called us to do. We would show we are rooted in abundance and love.
Friends, God is asking for you to offer your life, to give back to God all that you are. The money piece of it is just a small portion. What God really wants is our devotion and love and for us to dedicate our lives to making other people’s lives better and richer and stronger. The trap is in thinking we must do that work alone. Rather, when we come together—when we see the faithfulness of others giving sacrificially to spread Jesus’ love—it makes all of us more generous too. We are indeed rooted in abundance, and out of our abundance we are called to give our very selves back to God. May we do so with conviction and faithfulness. May we offer back to God our very lives.