Message for Sunday 18 October 2020: “Spiritual Currency”

Today’s lesson from Matthew 22:15-22 illustrates how Jesus’ critics attempted to trap him with a taxing issue. In response, Jesus distinguished between paying a government tax bill and what it is that God expects (hint: God seeks more than just a portion of your income).

Who are the bad guys in today’s tale? They are the usual suspects, the Pharisees who were Jesus’ main critics. Yet there’s also some less mentioned villains, the Herodians, who were an elite group supporting King Herod, the non-Jewish leader of Israel (duly approved by the occupying Romans). This dastardly duo of Herodian and Pharisaic conspirators unfolded their plot against Jesus by first trying to deceive him with insincere praise. Their tactic involved patronizing Jesus with flattering words as if to groom him for their trap.

Then it came. The plotters asked Jesus if it was OK under Jewish law to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. This was one of the most controversial issues that could have been raised. Jesus’ critics were trying to get Jesus to respond with a “yes” or “no.”  If Jesus had said that it wasn’t good to pay taxes then the critics could run to the occupying Romans and get Jesus in trouble for anti-state activities. If Jesus had somehow supported paying taxes then the critics could use this to turn his grass-roots, populist supporters against him.  Given all this, Jesus was perched on the horns of a dilemma.

Taxes. The word conjures images about the IRS, Form 1040, payroll deductions, and other unpleasantries. Then as now, taxes are a profound issue for much of humanity. How did Jesus respond when questioned about taxes? Jesus looked at a coin and asked, “Whose head is this?” “The emperor’s” his critics responded, at which point Jesus made his profound statement: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:19-21).

Can you sense the stunned silence? If you had been there at that pivotal moment you might have given Jesus a high-five as the defeated Pharisees and Herodians slithered away, heads drooped in shame in the wake of Jesus’ brilliant response. Jesus had once again squashed his critics. Jesus’s words echo down through the ages, inviting you to not worry so much about taxes as you should your most valuable investment: what to do with your life. In this way, God encourages all of us to receive and share priceless love.

Regarding taxes, many people take a side in the ongoing culture war over how high taxes should be, who gets the money, government spending, and everything to do with money, money, and MONEY. The problem is that there is not widespread agreement about how much taxing is fair, who should pay how much, what the revenue should be used for. Taxes or not, Paul the great biblical writer warned his faith family about wealth obsession:  “. . . the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Such wisdom is worth more than its weight in gold.

The part about giving back to God is the most difficult aspect of Jesus’ response because there’s much more to consider than coins and bank statements. Pay your taxes and that can satisfy your obligations under the law. As to what you offer God, give the gift that keeps on giving, namely your love of God and the compassion you demonstrate to other people. Do this and you’ll reap a magnificent life. Now that’s a life-changing deal that you can bank on.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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