Money, Sex, and Gossip
(Things that Belong to the Kingdom of God)
Preached October 16, 2011
On the surface, it’s an enticing, exciting, maybe even subversive question:
Do disciples of Jesus have to pay taxes?
The gist of what the leaders are onto when they ask him, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor...or not?"
Huh, we think. I hadn’t thought about that. Truthfully, I don't think of these lessons as being that concretely tangible. But now that you mention it, it’s about time this life of faith thing had a material perk. And it makes sense: we’re familiar with conscientious objectors in times of war, people who refrain from a certain military services on the grounds of religious belief. Why not with taxes?
In 1961, the Amish, objecting on religious principle to the concept of commercial insurance, successfully appealed their participation in Social Security, which had been first introduced in 1935. It took twenty-six years to sort out, but the IRS formally recognized the Amish exception in 1961. The Amish stated their religious situation thusly: "We do not want to be burdensome, but we do not want to lose our birthright to everlasting glory, therefore we must do all we can to live our faith!"
And American Christians, we lean in, intrigued, listening for the answer, the tax implications of the Kingdom of God. Are we off the hook? Did I just loophole my way into an extra ten grand a year? Can it be as simple as a self-exemption, a religiously minded civil disobedience that stands to help my cash flow situation?
Unfortunately, the answer is ‘no,’ even the Amish pay taxes. Their exemption is only for Social Security. I know, maybe that still sounds like a deal you want. But the other taxes, they pay - they insist on it - based in part on this morning’s gospel: Jesus’s answer to the question about tax evasion.
Still, the Amish instinct to see in the question put before Jesus this morning a pull between kingdoms - the government of the day on the one hand and the Kingdom of God on the other - is spot on. The tension between the kingdom of the day and the Kingdom of God is woven into the original context, the Herodians talking to Jesus.
Full disclosure: these Herodians are Pharisees who have pledged allegiance to Herod, the puppet-king of the Roman empire. They were testing Jesus because to not pay taxes would be treason against the occupying government, Rome. But to pay taxes might been seen as subordinating the Kingdom of God under the kingdom of Rome, which no self-respecting Messiah would ever do. Their question for Jesus has a kind of “put-up or shut-up” design, intended to force Jesus to declare his hand, and, either way, to end his ministry.
Instead, he asks for the coin used for the tax.
And nothing he says after this is as crucial to our understanding his response as his asking for the coin. We cannot miss this. He asks them for the coin used to pay the tax. And they have one to give.
Big deal, you say. And truthfully, not a big deal, maybe, for you or for me, except that no one these days carries coins in our pockets, but he asks them for the coin, and it is a big deal. Because they have one to give. Because for all their unsavory relationships with Rome, they’re still Jewish, and a metal coin with a graven image is still distasteful to them. Because the 2nd of the 10 commandments is one they take seriously, the one about other gods, idols, and their not having them. Because the Jewish understanding of that commandment dramatically shaped the limits of Jewish art clear through the 18th century - we're talking thousands of years. Because the coin in their hand convicts them of the compromise of their faith and signals in them their own participation in idolatry, even if it had started reluctantly.
He asks for the coin, and they have one to give. They're not proud of that.
The Pharisees try to trap Jesus. To peg him as a radical. To push him to the margins. To expose him. But they give Jesus the coin and the old quote is proved true: “...the line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties, but through every human heart.”
The coin is in their pockets. Jesus doesn’t blame them; but he exposes their blaming. Another quote from my favorite movie - free points if you can name it after the service - "The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness." They aren't such a people. They are aware. Like us, they find themselves caught between kingdoms - more than they know because Jesus is breaking the true Kingdom in - and the only proper response to their knowledge of their selves is grief and repentance.
Their grief and repentance, their sadness, if it should come, isn’t all bad - it’s different from shame - because it names somewhere deep in them their buried longing for their birthright. This is the effect of Jesus’s coming as Kingdom. "We do not want to be burdensome,” the Amish had said, “but we do not want to lose our birthright to everlasting glory, therefore we must do all we can to live our faith!"
So the question for us this morning is one of birthright and idolatry. Birthright, the Kingdom we were made for; idolatry, all the others that we fall for. More often than not, we’re not looking to trap Jesus, I think, (I'm not that clever) only to excuse ourselves from those parts of the life of faith we find unappealing. To justify our small flirtations in other kingdoms.
Like stewardship. Where the competition of the kingdoms is raw. Don’t worry, we’ve hit stewardship pretty hard the last two weeks, I won’t hit it the same way today. A week off. But if we’re talking parts of the life of faith that we’d rather excuse ourselves from, stewardship is up there on the list for most Christians, if we're honest. And not just stewardship, of course. Our worlds are built such that the so-called private realm might keep God's claims on portions of our lives at bay. Sex and gossip come to mind. (Side note: you should have seen the heads pop up just now!) Anything for which our first instinct is the words, "none of your business" - whether to each other or to God.
A clergy friend of mine was sharing with me that his church unanimously agreed at a recent meeting that the standard for their congregation’s participation in Sunday worship should be 75%. 100% of them coming 75% of the time. Three out of four Sundays. That’s the goal they would like for themselves. A subsequent study of the church revealed that 17% of their congregation is living into that goal.
My friend did not point any fingers. Like Jesus before the Herodians, he didn’t have to. The fact that the congregation could name a common goal he counted as a good thing. A part of them still remembered their birthright, what they were made for.
So if birthright is what we were made for and idolatry is those things that we fall for, the question that marks the difference between where you hope to be and where you are is not unlike Jesus’s question to the Pharisees: (But instead of asking for the coin - because no one carries coins these days -) We might paraphrase it like this: “What’s in your wallet?” Have you heard that before? In your best Capital One Viking voice, turn to your neighbor and ask her, “What’s in your wallet?”
And I hope it’s clear at this point, but we’re not just talking money, though it may involve money. Our spiritual pockets are a bit like Mary Poppins’ fabled handbag, remarkably able to carry lots of big things. So many things that compete as would-be kingdoms against the Kingdom.
And this is the best of what Christian accountability can mean, I think: when we can turn to our neighbor and ask each other about God’s dreams for us and where we are now and what the difference between them is; when we can help one another empty our pockets of any and all idols we carry.
If you have trouble along the way identifying anything in your pockets that would lighten your load significantly, consider one author who says that all idolatry is the quest for certainty. That seems to fit. When one knows one carries the birthright of the Kingdom, the best distractions are often false appeals to certainty. Because the road is long and we walk by faith, certainty is the first temptation. Like Esau, Jacob's brother, in his hunger, selling his birthright to his brother for the certainty of a hot meal. But does that mean - does it follow - then that the Kingdom of God is uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, unexpected?
God, I hope so.
C.S. Lewis wrote of Aslan the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia - who was for Lewis a symbol for God: “He’s not a tame lion.”
And so with visions of the empty tomb, and soldiers made like dead men, and women running wildly with fear and great, great joy, I close my eyes in sleep at night, breathe out, and say a prayer, that I would be held in waking and sleeping, in living and dying, in rising, in serving, in the life of the Kingdom by nothing and no one else but the uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, unexpected God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.