This is the second installment of a series on stewardship based on Matthew 22:15-22, which focuses on money and our attitudes about how and why we share our money.
Last week focused on the story of the wedding feast and the ways in which we might or might not respond to God’s invitation to participate in the life and work of the faith community. There are many aspects of our participation but one of the most important is the attitude that we bring to our faith community.
The story today begins with Jesus and the disciples in the temple. Jesus is approached by some Pharisees who ask whether or not they should pay taxes. Jesus responds by challenging them about the very fact that they have Roman coins within the temple precinct—something prohibited. Then he asks whose image is on the coin. Of course it has the image of the emperor. And then we have a fairly well-known line from scripture: “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God the things that belong to God.” These words become the crux of the matter.
What belongs to the emperor, and by extension, the world and what belongs to God? We don’t have an emperor but we do have a Canadian government that prints money with images of various historic figures and Canadian images and symbols. We might then say that the money is only good for secular activities and has no place in a church. Some folks might even be uncomfortable with the idea of talking about money in church. But money, whether it is Roman coins or Canadian dollars is at the center of many choices that we make. You might think the hottest topic in the Bible is love or Heaven but, actually, the most common topic in the Bible has to do with money and possessions. In the NRSV love is used 791 times and heaven is used 863. Verses about possessions and money? At least 2000. In order to be faithful to the gospel story we need to talk about money.
Within the congregation there is great diversity of income and wealth. This conversation is not intended to shame anyone but there may be some discomfort. Sometimes the things that make us the most uncomfortable are the things we have the most to learn from or about.
One of the questions this story raises is about what belongs to God and what belongs to the secular world. One of the places to begin this conversation goes back to the creation stories. God created the world and everything in it. If we start with this assumption, everything—including our money—belongs to God and we are simply being stewards of whatever has been entrusted to us. In that sense, the money isn’t ours to give. It already belongs to God.
But Jesus makes the distinction between what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God. Within Jesus’ context, much like our own, we recognize that taxes are a part of our existence and a part of where the money we have access to ends up. Paying taxes is an obligation towards whatever country you happen to live in. Choosing to support a faith community is a choice.
The story also requires that we decide who is in control of us and our money. By distinguishing between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar, Jesus is also asking people to think about who is in control of their lives and their choices. Caesar doesn’t really care about the people, only the money. God cares about the people and their lives and Jesus is inviting people to choose God over Caesar.
Everything belongs to God but we are stewards or managers of particular pieces of God’s creation. A portion of that is our money. So in our lives we have many things that demand our money: food, mortgage or rent, heat, power, water—some basic necessities. Once we are able to make these ends meet we have some choices to make.
Do we take a trip somewhere? Do we travel to visit family? Do we buy a second home or a fancy car? These are all choices but where is God in the midst of our choices. These are choices that primarily benefit us and immediate families.
But taken within a Biblical context, the choices about money and how we use it are much more complex. Scripture over and over again reminds us to care for the people on the fringes of our society. It reminds us to work at levelling the inequalities that we find in our society. Scripture reminds us that our money is not ours but God’s.
We have an opportunity to look around the world and see all the places where God’s work is being done by many different organizations and individuals and support that work financially. As a church, we invite people to support the work and ministry that happens here. And as church we need to be aware of the same pitfalls as individuals. It is easy to get caught in worrying about ourselves and our organization and forget that what we have is not ours, but God’s. We need to spend our money in ways that support the ministry and work of the church because it is God’s ministry.
We support God’s ministry because we think the work God is doing through various organizations in the world makes a difference. We support God’s ministry not because we have to but because we want to.
Each year my spouse and I spend some time talking about what organizations we want to support and we set those gifts up as automatic withdrawals from our bank account so that they become a priority. The gifts we make to various organizations doing God’s work in the world are as important to us as food, mortgage payments, heat and water. It is a choice that we make because we hold as one of our core values that what we have is not ours but God’s. We are responsible for how the money we have access to is used in the world. St. Andrew’s and the Mission and Service Fund of the United Church are only two examples of where our money ends up.
In Biblical reference, there is a term called a tithe which is generally understood as 10% of a person’s income. The idea is that 10% is set aside and returned to God. Historically, this might be equated with a church tax. I’m not suggesting that each person should turn over 10% of your income to the church but I would suggest it is important to decide what portion of income will be set aside for God’s work—whether it is through this congregation, the Mission and Service fund or other organizations whose work in the world you value. Choose to do this not because you must or even because you should but because you understand that God is at work in the world and sharing our financial resources allows us to be part of God’s work in the world.