October 18, 2020
Most of you have heard the Benjamin Franklin saying, “Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.” Next week is our annual service of Remembrance and we'll talk about death. Today's gospel leads us to the other surety, taxes. Of course, the question wasn't really about taxes, it was designed as a trap. “The Pharisees (and Herodians) went and plotted to entrap Jesus.” We get from time to time in the gospels these groups that the first readers may have known well, but two thousand years later we don't know too much about. Professor Raj Nadella summarizes the situation here, “ The Pharisees have been making deals with Rome even as they were opposed to its rule. While the Herodians did not oppose the Roman rule, they did not always share its political agenda. Nevertheless, they were often in bed with Rome in order to pursue their political and economic interests. Hence, it was hypocrisy on the part of the two groups to suggest that Jesus explicitly commit to collaborating with or defying the empire.” It would not have been normal for these two groups to agree on anything; but they were in agreement that Jesus needed to be stopped. The trap they set was a question that would put Jesus at odds with either the Jews or the Romans-- no matter how he answered.
Any government needs a system to collect their taxes. So the Roman version of our IRS in that time was individual tax collectors called publicans. You may recall that was the job of the apostle Mathew when Jesus called him. Also, at the birth of Jesus, the reason for the census was to allow the leaders to collect more taxes. They needed an organized, strong system to make sure everyone paid their “fair” share.
A local bar was so sure that its bartender was the strongest man around that they offered a standing $1000 bet: The bartender would squeeze a lemon until all the juice ran into a glass, and hand the lemon to a patron. Anyone who could squeeze one more drop of juice out would win the money. Many people had tried over time but nobody could do it.
One day this scrawny little man came into the bar, wearing thick glasses and a polyester suit, and said in a tiny squeaky voice " I'd like to try the bet."
After the laughter had died down, the bartender said OK, grabbed a lemon, and squeezed away. Then he handed the wrinkled remains of the rind to the little man. The crowd's laughter turned to total silence as the man clenched his fist around the lemon and six drops fell into the glass.
As the crowd cheered, the bartender paid the $1000, and asked the little man "What do you do for a living? Are you a lumberjack, a weight-lifter, or what?" The man replied, "I work for the IRS."
We can make light of the power of the tax collectors, but taxes are a necessary part of life, the government is God-ordained. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 13:6–7, "This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor". And so Both Paul and Jesus give direction to pay taxes, render unto Caesar. But we must not miss the second point, render unto the God the things that are God.'s What parts of our lives are God's? And honestly, even our responsibility to pay taxes comes under the authority of God. If we fail this responsibility, consequences come our way.
Here's a letter from a woman who worried about those consequences, both to the IRS and to God. "I have been unable to sleep, knowing that I have cheated on my income tax. I understated my taxable income, and have enclosed a check for $150. If I still can't sleep, I will send the rest."
She might agree with this person: I'm ready to file my taxes and I'm going through the Yellow Pages trying to find someone to help me. I came across one called The Christian Tax Services. Now, I believe in God, I believe in Jesus -- but when it comes to taxes, I want the lyingest, cheatingest bums on the planet to help me beat the government.
I want to make clear, First Presbyterian church does not endorse using the lyingest, cheatingest bums for your taxes. But if we think about the life of Jesus, even in this final week when today's encounter occurred, he did spend much of his time with sinners and tax collectors... liars and cheaters many of them.
As I began, it is often said that the only two sure things in this world are death and taxes. Maybe God has a message for us in the second, taxes, to help us with the answers for the first death. The IRS makes sure the taxes are collected. That is their job and it can be done in obedience to God's call to live life honestly and with integrity. As Don read in today's reading from Thessalonians, we are called “to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” Our message about taxes is to be honest and upright. Our message for death is that even when we fall short of perfect integrity, we still live ultimately in hope because Jesus has rescued us from the wrath that we would face without God's mercy and grace.
One final twist on this account. When Jesus held up that coin, it had been created with the image of Caesar on it. So the people owed it to Caesar, as Jesus pointed out. My question for us this morning, in whose image are we created? In confirmation on Thursday, we read the account of the creation of us human beings. Listen to whose image we carry, “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1; 26-27) So to whom do we render our lives; in whose image are we made? God's and so we are God's, God has made us and claimed us as children; adopted and saved by God's grace. In reading this account of the propriety of paying Caesar his due, let's not forget to give to God what God is due—all our lives, all our goods, all our thoughts, all our actions, all our sins and all our good works. In God's image, God's pride and joy, God's people.
Our next hymn is likely unfamiliar to all of us, but the tune is familiar—“Be Still My Soul”. It's title reminds us of today's message, “O God, We Bear the Imprint of Your Face.” We will sing of the differences we see in the races and in individuals, but also of finding our common identity in Jesus Christ our Lord. As we sing, let's remember the wonder of God's creation; the world and humanity. And let's commit to live as a family with each other; loving, forgiving, listening to, sharing; dying to selfishness and living out Christ's love.
Render unto the Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's. Let's render all things to the one who has claimed us, the one in whom we live and have our being, the one in whose image you and I are created. Amen.
Hymn: O God We Bear the Imprint of Your Face