Elise Ashley Hanley
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A, 22 October 2017
Trinity on the Green, New Haven, CT.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
I find it a difficult lesson to keep learning and relearning in life: that of being prepared to give things back – to return things to whom or whence they belong when it is time.
It starts when we are very small children – little ones don’t yet understand sharing, and may cry and scream, and refuse to give back the toy they’ve been playing with that belongs to another child! Throughout our development as children into adults, we continue to learn how to give things back when we are done with them – and returning things can entail a sense of loss, even when we are just returning our library books, or giving away hand-me-down clothes that no longer fit us. It can continue to hurt when we learn how to pay back our student loans and our credit card debt. We also begin to learn to return those we’ve loved, and that comes with feelings of sadness and loss: perhaps as a child you gathered with your family around the toilet to flush away a beloved goldfish, or put a dearly departed hamster in a shoebox to bury in the garden. At some point, we likely gathered around a beloved person who had died, to see about returning that person into the ground – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – returning him or her to God.
Ultimately, even as adults, it is much easier to hold on to everything we are given – to clutch it with all our might. Sometimes, it seems the more that has been taken away from us, the more likely we are to hold onto what we have: to file and save it, to put it in storage, or even hoard it! Sometimes, we grow so accustomed to having all that we have, that we start to believe that it will stay with us forever, and then we are even more shocked and devastated when it is snatched away, pulled out from under us. I bet we can all think of the first great loss we experienced in our lives – one that shook us to our core, and taught us to never take anything for granted in life. Despite this loss, and even countless others, we may still have found ways to move on, and once again become accustomed to having things “our way” again – to take things for granted once again. The shock of losing a job, a home, a relationship, or a loved one always reminds us that nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever – not even Styrofoam.
Loss or near-loss can begin to change us, by teaching us a new way to live: to live life in such a way that we don’t take what we are given for granted. To live in gratitude, day by day, moment by moment. To begin each prayer and petition to God with “thank you.” Thank you. To slow down, and to savor what we have – to delight in loving someone. To relish the moments when our child is young, or when our dog is still a puppy. To appreciate the good experiences we have, while we still have them: good health, no aches and pains yet, our elderly grandparent or parent still active and alive. To care fully and deeply for what and who we have. And then – we need to live fully knowing that what God has given us, we will ultimately give back to God. That is living a life of stewardship: a way to live in love, faith, preparation, and gratitude. And we are to practice that now. On this Giving Sunday, that is what we are to practice.
In our Gospel today, the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians go to Jesus to ask him a loaded question, and to trap him in his answering of it. The Pharisees would have opposed the Roman government, and the Herodians would have supported it. The Herodians would have supported paying the tax to Caesar, while the Pharisees, who were committed to following Jewish Law, would have opposed it for religious reasons – having a coin that carried the image of the “divine Caesar” broke the first and second commandments – it was an abomination.
Despite their differences, the Pharisees and the Herodians have colluded! They have come together to trap Jesus, and to drive him out. So, they ask him this loaded question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The Pharisees hoped that Jesus would say that it was, so that the colonized Jewish people would see Jesus as a Roman sympathizer. The Herodians hoped that Jesus would say that it was not lawful, so that they could accuse him of treason against Rome.
Instead, Jesus’ answer left them amazed.
Jesus shows them the coin with the emperor’s head on it and says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus suggests that his followers have dual obligations to the teachings of God, but also to the systems and governments in which they live. Jesus allows room for loyalty to the empire, but subordinates it – he makes it secondary to loyalty to God. One may give to the empire its due, but only if it does not conflict with what is due to God, because ultimately: everything belongs to God, the creator of heaven and earth – of all things seen and unseen. And after all – the coin belonged to Caesar – it was marked as such! So, return it – give it back.
We all belong to God. Our lives belong to God. As a coin may bear the image of the emperor or the government, but we are made in God’s image – we bear God’s image. I cannot tell you to pay or not pay your taxes today – I leave that decision to each of you as informed and intelligent citizens! But I urge you to practice giving back to God. I urge you to practice living a life of love, care, preparation and gratitude. When we fully come to understand that nothing belongs to us, that everything is on borrowed time from God, it can become just slightly easier – albeit still painful – to give things back when they are due: knowing that ultimately, we can’t take anything with us – knowing that ultimately, we will give our own selves back to God.
We practice that every Sunday when we come to the Table. We give of our time, and our talent, and of our treasure into the offering plate. And as it is in the Rite 1 Eucharistic Prayer, we pray that we may “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”1
By living a life of generosity and preparation – by giving back to God what is God’s, we live a life of love, knowing that we are all one body in Christ, and that in the fullness of time, all earthly things will pass away, yet we will all be united together through Christ in everlasting life.
1 The Book of Common Prayer 1982, page 336.