Those pesky Pharisees were at it again. They were trying trap Jesus – “ensnare” is the word Matthew uses in his account. The Revised Standard Version says they wanted to “entangle Him in His talk.” They were hoping to hang Jesus with His own words. And they didn’t do it themselves – they sent their own disciples to do it.
Notice the smarmy way they approach Jesus: “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.” You can almost hear the old serpent from the Garden of Eden hissing in their words.
They call Him “Rabbi” – a term of honor – yet their hearts did not honor Him in any way. They proclaim that He is a man of integrity who only speaks the truth, because he cannot be influenced by people of influence.
They are telling the truth in this rare case, because Jesus has flawless integrity, He cannot speak anything but the truth, and He answers only to His Father. But the Pharisees, their protégés – and their allies from Herod’s fan club, the Herodians – don’t believe any of that. They are simply trying to lure Jesus into telling them what He really thinks so that they can destroy Him.
“Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” As if they really cared about what Jesus thought.
Except that such information could be helpful to them: if He said that all the good Jewish people in that part of the Roman Empire should pay their taxes, the Jewish people would stop listening to Him and He would lose His following. If He said that it was sinful to pay their taxes, then the Pharisees would tell Herod that Jesus was fomenting revolution – so Herod would have Him killed. Either way, the Pharisees would be rid of their adversary.
Jesus, of course, saw right through them. He knew what they were trying to do and called them out for the “hypocrites” they were – in the classical Greek sense of the word. The word means actor or stage player – someone who works very hard to appear to be someone he or she is not.
That’s what the Pharisees were doing – they were pretending to be seekers of God’s truth, when they really wanted to silence the One who is God’s Truth.
Jesus answered their question anyway. But like a good rabbi, He answered a question with a question: “Whose image is on this denarius? And whose inscription?” The Roman Empire had special coins to be used when paying taxes. They had a profile of the Emperor, with his name surrounding it. It was that type of coin the Pharisees’ disciples showed to Jesus.
Only then does Jesus state His opinion on the subject of taxes: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” And rightfully so.
A coin that bore the emperor’s image and name was for paying taxes, so it was only appropriate to use it for its intended purpose.
Jesus also tells them to give to God what is God’s. Let’s think about that: the coin bears Caesar’s image and name, so it belongs to Caesar. And what bears God’s image and name? We do. We were created in God’s image, and as Christians we bear the name of His Son. So to whom do we belong? God.
So we are to give to God what is God’s. We are to give Him ourselves.
Yes, this is a Stewardship sermon – and this passage is often used as leverage to pry more money out of people’s purses and wallets. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. He is saying that WE belong to God and should give ourselves to God – which is not what the Pharisees were doing.
He is not talking only about money – although it does take money to run a church. We have to keep up the building. After all, attendance suffers when parts of the ceiling fall on people’s heads. We need heat in the winter and we like air conditioning in the summer. Lights are helpful – although we don’t need them at 9:30 on most Sunday mornings.
In a small church like this, the lion’s share of the budget goes to pay for a pastor. Most of you like having a pastor – and what pastor doesn’t like being able to pay his or her bills. (Thank you for that.) It also costs money to feed hungry people and send help to disaster areas and support missionaries. So money is part of the equation of giving ourselves to God – but we have to think much bigger.
God wants you. All of you. God wants your time. God wants your abilities. God wants your creativity. God wants your worship. God wants your love. God wants your enthusiasm. And Jesus tells us that we should give all of ourselves to God as faithfully as we pay our taxes.
Does anyone here consider paying taxes to be voluntary? Of course not. Yet experts who study organizational structure classify churches with “voluntary associations” – like the Kiwanis or PTO. Maybe they are for people who don’t see themselves as bearing God’s image and Christ’s name – but for those of us who do, there is nothing voluntary about it.
That’s the point of God’s challenge to His people in today’s passage from Malachi. They were under orders from God to give a tithe – ten percent – which God explained to them many centuries before in Leviticus 27:
“A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD. The entire tithe of the herd and flock – every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod – will be holy to the LORD. He must not pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution.”
God’s command was very specific: one-tenth of everything. No holding back the best stuff. But people then – like people now – were always trying to game the system. They were not giving the whole tithe – and God was mad.
Not because God needed the money – but because He wanted all of all His people. Short-changing God on the tithes was just a sign of a lack of commitment. It was a way of saying, “You may be Lord over my religious practice, but not over my finances.” Or romances. Or ego. Or choice of careers. If we hold back any part of ourselves, we are not fully committed to God.
Thank God for the first verse from our passage in Malachi: “”I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” Because God chose us to be His and put His name on us, He will not throw us away because our commitment is weak. But do we want to tell God so undeniably that our commitment is half-hearted?
Just to be clear – the command to tithe went away with the death of Jesus. His sacrifice paid it all for us. That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” He did not order them to tithe – but he did order them to give cheerfully.
Cheerful giving comes out of recognizing that we belong to God – and that everything we are and everything we have are gifts from God.
So our monetary gifts – while important to supporting the operation of this and every church – are just one part of the whole person that God wants.
Give Him all of yourself – everything about you that you can imagine. Consecrate it all to Him. (When was the last time a Presbyterian used that word? It’s so all-encompassing, it makes us shudder!)
The opposite of the word “consecrate” is found in this story of a minister (Presbyterian, of course), a priest, and a rabbi who meet every Monday for coffee. One day, they got to talking about how they decided how much of the offering to give to God and how much to use for the local church.
The priest says, “We take the offering to the sacristy, where we have a big circle on the floor. Then we throw the money up in the air. Whatever lands inside the circle, we keep for the local church. The rest goes to God.”
The rabbi says, “We do something similar, but we paint a line down the middle of the floor. We throw the money up in the air. Whatever lands to the left of the line, we keep for the local church. The rest goes to God.”
The Presbyterian minister says, “We do something similar, but we don’t paint circles or lines. We throw the money up in the air. Whatever God wants, He keeps …”
God doesn’t want the part of you that lands to the left or the right or inside or outside the circle. He wants it all.
So what are you holding back? In this season of thanksgiving, let’s show God our appreciation by acknowledging that we belong to Him. Consecrate ourselves to Him. Every aspect of us – including our finances. The whole person – made in His image and bearing His name.