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Generosity Practiced Here - Part 2

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Pentecost 20 A  Matthew 22:15-22

You can consider today’s sermon to be “Part 2” of my “Generosity Practiced Here” series, in preparation for our Commitment Sunday on November 12, when we are called again to our annual practice of financial generosity by completing and presenting in our worship an Estimate of Giving or Pledge card for 2018. Last week, on CROP Hunger Walk Sunday, I focused on the practice of financial generosity in and through this congregation, a practice that over time has become a notable and consistent habit: namely the habit of accepting challenges, especially for specific and pressing needs, and then exceeding their goals with our gifts.

We’ve done it to replace roofs on our sanctuary and then again on our gym, to help fund major improvements at Camp Calumet, to send our teens to national youth gatherings, to send young adults on global mission experiences, to host a refugee family from Somalia, and most recently to reduce the student debt of Pastor Aaron Decker and to help fund seminary education for others, along with a bunch of other things I haven’t mentioned, all while (this year at least) fully funding our routine budgeted ministries and covering all of our upkeep and maintenance staffing costs. We practice generosity here, and as with most other life skills, because we practice it regularly, we naturally get better at it.

But in “Part 2” today, with the help of our assigned readings, I want to move beyond generosity practiced in church and talk about generosity as an overall attitude toward life, even and including when it comes to (of all things) paying taxes.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is again being asked “gotcha” questions that come more from a desire to entrap and endanger him than from a hunger to know what he thinks. The questions come from a most unholy alliance of Herodians and Pharisees and are about the tax that was  imposed by Rome on the people of Israel and their neighbors to fund Rome’s occupation of the middle east.

The Herodians were the local leaders appointed and installed by Rome to make the occupation work, so they at least quietly supported the tax. The Pharisees thought it was not only unjust but blasphemous because the Roman currency bore the graven image of Caesar, who was considered a god, and paying the tax was a violation of the first commandment. Paying or not paying the tax therefore had both political and religious implications and for Jesus to take either side in answering the “is it lawful?” question would have put him tightly into the trap that both the Herodians and Pharisees wanted him in. Side with Rome and he loses the favor of the temple and most of his followers. Side with the Pharisees, and Rome will be given reasons to consider him a dangerous threat that needs to be eliminated.

So Jesus responds in a profoundly clever way that not only tosses the question back at them, but reframes it from a question of politics and religious law to a question of spiritual identity, of whose image we bear, of who we imagine ourselves to be in relationship to God and to governments, their coins and their taxes. Asking them for a coin, since he’s not the one walking around with the image of a false god in his pocket, they quickly produce one. Jesus asks about the image on it and then speaks his cryptic but profound response: “Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God. Give the emperor what’s made in the likeness of the emperor and give to God what’s made in God’s likeness.”

And that, of course, whether you’re a Pharisee or a Herodian or an American is a deeply spiritual question. The answer to the question about the lawfulness or I’d say even the PURPOSE of taxes is a spiritual one, and one we answer based on who we imagine ourselves to be, …in whose image and to what purpose and end we think we’re made.

As Christians, we are called to imagine ourselves as children of God created in the image of God, and as disciples of Jesus called to live our lives in the image of Jesus, to be the Body of Christ in and for the world by loving our neighbors as ourselves, which I would say means being at least as concerned about our neighbor’s well being as we are about our own, and perhaps even MORE concerned about how life goes for others than we are about protecting ourselves.

It’s the same spiritual imagination that explains why we so admire first responders who run toward danger to help others instead of away from it to protect themselves, and why we honor those who lie on top of friends or loved ones when bullets are flying, preferring to give their life if it can save someone else. We KNOW the image in which we were made and toward which we are called to aspire. And we know the appeal of the false god, the other image of self-preservation and accumulation and me-first and “to heck with you.”

So what about our taxes then, spiritually speaking?  Are they for us a forced way to fund a false-god worshiping oppressor government? Or are they the way that we agree together to provide for the common good; one specific and practical way to obey the command to love our neighbors as ourselves?  In other words, do taxes amount to the government taking away money that rightfully belongs to me (as it’s almost exclusively defined in our political discourse), or are our taxes, spiritually speaking, an offering back to a government that provides us collectively  with worldly security, neighborhood safety, public education, environmental protection, and a safety net for the elderly and poor? Do we imagine our taxes to be the way that we agree, in a democracy, to share the cost of things that benefit all of us?

If we DID, then all of our political debates about taxes would be different, wouldn’t they? They’d be about something more than a competition to lower them and just arguing over who will benefit most when we lower them, and the long-term habit of demanding a government that does more of what benefits us while we also insist on lower taxes, or (at least people like me) paying a smaller share of the cost.

In all the debates and arguments over taxes, where is the conversation about who we imagine ourselves as a nation to be, what we think it’s important or vital to provide one another? …When do we ever look honestly at what we think is important to do, and what it really costs, and how we might divide up that cost fairly and justly among ourselves?

If agreeing on the purpose and goal of having taxes were our starting point, then politicians could differ and argue all they want about the various programs and policies that could best accomplish those goals, but at least we’d agree on what the goals were, and maybe even begin to consider our taxes a positive and practical way to achieve them. 

Christians, of course, are not the only ones who care about the common good, or who should be willing to pay for what they think is important for us to unite in government to do, or who feel called to protect the vulnerable and poor. We could certainly count on many allies of other faiths and of no religious faith to work alongside us at finding sound political solutions, if we’d start asking the deeper spiritual questions first.

Maybe I’m just dreaming. Maybe I’m expecting too much good will from a nation in short supply of it these days. But we do owe Caesar something for what Caesar provides us and what Caesar helps us provide to one another. And we certainly do owe everything to the God who made and owns both us and Caesar and who rules over all. Perhaps one way to “practice generosity” is to re-think what our faith has to do with paying taxes, and whether requiring politicians to promise to lower our taxes before we will vote for them is a path that has helped or hindered our goal to provide for, much less pay for the common good.

Don’t mis-hear me. The institutional separation of church and state in our country is good and important but it has never meant that our communal and political and governmental life is not to be shaped by the imaginations of our people’s faith, including the image we Christians bear as children of God and disciples of Jesus -  and the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Is it too crazy to imagine offering a prayer of thanks for all that our government provides even while we write a check to “give” instead of “pay” our taxes? Could giving to Caesar be just another way that we give back to God, for all that God provides us through good and responsible government? Might taxes, of all things, be yet another opportunity for us to practice generosity?  Can you even imagine such a thing?      AMEN