“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Even those of us with a nominal working knowledge of the Bible recognize this saying of Jesus. But while the expression is widely known the context is not. Jesus was not approached by a group of local pastors and asked to give a quote or two for Stewardship Sunday. His enemies were plotting to bring Him down. Their efforts began with a rumor campaign, extended to trick questions, broadened to legal entrapment, and found their culmination in the lies that led to the Crucifixion.
In today’s lesson two groups come together to trap Jesus. The Pharisees were religious leaders who set out rule after rule for those who desired to live a holy life. The Herodians, a less familiar group to us, supported the kingship of Herod as the best means for Israel to maintain security and wellbeing. Both groups were highly invested in the status quo, either of the church or of the government, and each felt Jesus was a threat to its best interests.
So together they come up with a question: is it lawful for a good Jew to pay taxes to the emperor? This is no theological exercise for them. They are not interested in resolving a spiritual dilemma that keeps them awake at night. Plain and simple they frame a question that gives Jesus no easy way out. If he says that it is permissible to pay taxes then the devout Jews, led by the Pharisees, will be up in arms. If he says that the faithful should refuse to pay taxes then the Herodians will have all the ammunition they need to arrest Him for insurrection. It is important that we think about Jesus’ response in light of this context.
That Jesus has to ask for someone to produce a coin hints at how poor he was… that he did not have any money on his person. “Whose face is on the coin?” he asks. “The emperor’s,” they respond. “Well, give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God the things that belong to God.” It is an answer that does two things. First, it gets Jesus off the hot seat and, second, it places the burden of interpretation squarely in the laps of the listeners.
And more than being a clever answer that extricates him from the trap, Jesus speaks to the heart of all Christian stewardship. He offers no detailed, strict set of rules and regulations to follow, as the Pharisees so often did. He simply says that each one of us will have to find our own way to resolve the inherent tension between being residents of this world and citizens of the next. Each of us will have to make our own way in the challenge that is meeting our tax burden, paying bills, putting food on the table, saving for the future, and contributing to God’s work in the world. No one can or should make this decision for us. It is ours and ours alone to make.
At its heart, Christian stewardship is about the desire to be in relationship with God. When a small child draws a picture and then gives it to a grandparent that child is expressing a desire to be in relationship with the recipient of the gift. In a very real sense the gift is an offering… given out of a sense of joy, love, and thanksgiving for all that the grandparent means to the child. Often the meaning of that relationship is beyond words, so the offering becomes a tangible expression of what the relationship means to the child. What we offer to God holds the same meaning. It is a tangible expression of our desire to be in relationship with God… an offering that often says more than we are able to put into words.
We might also acknowledge that the child’s drawing for the grandparent expresses a desire to be a part of the family; to be in relationship with all who are a part of the valued social unit. In the same way what we offer to God often connects us to those who make an offering similar to ours. Our common act of giving is a part of what binds us together as a community of faith.
The first recorded act of offering is found in the fourth chapter of Genesis. Cain, a farmer, brings an offering of grain to God while his brother Able, a herdsman, brings an offering from his flock. The narrative describes Cain’s offering as being “some of the grain” from his field while Able’s is described as being “the fattest portions of the firstborn of the flock.” Perhaps you remember how the narrative goes. God looks with favor on what Able offers, but not on what Cain gives. Cain offers some of what he has (and possibly this portion comes after all his other needs and obligations have been met) while Able offers from the first and the best.
Imagine two children, one who puts a great deal of time, effort, and creativity into making a card for grandma, and the other who at the last minute scratches out a note so as not to be empty-handed. Grandma will receive both cards with joy, but will know in her heart whose offering means more. She will know that both children want to be in relationship with her, but for one it is a high priority while for the other it is an obligation. One child makes an offering that is truly representative of all she is because it is the best she has to offer. The other child has not offered much of herself and, frankly, will expect grandma to make more of the card than it is really worth.
There are many ways that we can make an offering to God. Money is one of them. It is not the amount of money that you give that matters, it is the meaning behind it. Remember how Jesus pointed out the widow who gave a small coin, saying that she had put more into the offering than everyone else had. Here at St. Paul’s stewardship means much more than giving money to support an operating budget, although in practical terms that is one of the things our collective stewardship does. But stewardship is also about serving in the Food Pantry, teaching a class, singing in the choir, bringing a dish to a common meal, tending to the property and buildings, participating in the liturgy with vigor, and on and on and on.
Each of us must figure out for ourselves how we want to be in relationship with God. Each of us must determine what we will offer to God to signify our desire. We will have to ponder how we want our offering to connect us with others. And, perhaps most important, we will have to decide the degree to which our offerings will reflect our best efforts.