1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
How are you with handling tricky situations? We can all find ourselves in them; hopefully not too often. Some people are quick on their feet and can get themselves out without much fuss. They have an ability to say or do the right thing just at the right time. Many of us probably fudge our way through, praying the situation will end quickly. If you are like me, you will think of a brilliant rebuttal after the situation is over and then wish you had said whatever it is when you had the opportunity.
It is one thing to watch a politician squirm on breakfast television as they get pressed for an answer and something else to be on the receiving end of a trick question. This is where Jesus finds himself in the Gospel reading this morning.
Last week’s Gospel reading was a parable of Jesus; the wedding banquet for the king’s son, where none of the invited guests attended. This week’s reading is a real-life situation. Matthew sets these parables and events in the final week of Jesus’ life as chapter 21 has the palm-waving, triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. These are some of Jesus’ final messages; understanding this helps us to experience the urgency in the tone. This story also appears in the Gospels of Luke and Mark as well. When accounts and parables appear three times and even four – you know that these are significant!
On its face, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel is about taxation. A very exciting topic! It is also a divisive topic as there are likely many different opinions on the subject in the church this morning as there would have been 2000 years ago. The Pharisees and Herodians were looking for ways to expedite Jesus’ arrest and devise their clever question to him, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ History tells us that this was a trick question.
The Jews of the day were deeply unhappy at paying taxes to Rome; it was a hot topic. Imagine how you’d like it if you woke up one morning and discovered people from the other end of the world had marched into your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having stolen your land! (Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, volume 2).
This question puts Jesus in a lose-lose situation; He knows that this question comes not from curiosity but from malice. In his very typical Jesus way, he responds to a challenge with an even greater challenge. Jesus takes a Roman coin, bearing the image of the emperor, and answers, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ This is not the answer that was expected.
Jesus is not saying there are two distinct realms, the religious and the secular, and that both require equal loyalty. Jesus is saying that the hated coin already belongs to the emperor, his face is stamped on it; so give the emperor what is his. There is a much harder and more complicated question to answer: What belongs to God? Everything.
From the very beginning we were created in God’s image. Go back to Genesis. As we were created by God, his image is stamped in us, we are God’s image bearers. Like the coin with the emperor’s face that belongs to him, we belong to God. We are far more valuable than an old Roman coin. This also means that we owe God everything, our whole and entire selves. It is a fairy tale to think that we can divide up the sacred and the secular. We cannot separate them when everything already belongs to God.
God knows how much tax you pay, he knows down to the last pence what is in the bank or under the mattress. More frighteningly, God knows how and on what you spend your money; along with your attitude towards it. This is not a Stewardship sermon, I promise! However, you will hear me say this more than once but the most honest document you have is your bank statement and/or credit card bill. Think about that for a moment.
These statements are recorded proof of how you spend your time and your money. If you really want to know someone, ask to see their bank statement! This is also true for a church. If I want to know what the priorities of this church are, the bank statements are very helpful.
What does it mean to give to God what belongs to God in these challenging times? How can we be God’s image bearers while families and communities are struggling, while war wages in the Middle East and Ukraine, poverty is on the rise and all the other things that are troubling us? If everything does belong to God, then our spiritual, Christian lives and our secular (political, work, social) lives must agree.
How we behave at work, must be the same as we behave at church. How we love our neighbours, as difficult as they can be, must be the same as how we treat ourselves. Whatever we render to Caesar must always take second place to what we render to God.
What is God asking of us? The words of the Shema from Common Worship sums it up rather well: Our Lord Jesus Christ said; The first commandment is this: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (modern day Thessaloniki in northern Greece) he expressed his relief that the church had survived some recent attacks. Paul is trying to encourage and reassure the church family to continue to stand firm in their Christian faith.
Paul lists all the things that he is thankful for; their faith, all the labour done in love, steadfastness of hope in Jesus. The Thessalonians have faced some hard times, as had Paul and Jesus. Paul is clear that there is more to the story, Jesus is trying to convey that in his parables and teaching in the last days of his life.
When the questions are tricky and the future seems bleak and the weight of the world is bearing down we can find our refuge in Jesus. He is everything. Love God. The emperors and their reigns in this world are temporary; we are to give the emperor what belongs to him. So yes, pay your taxes. Remember that God’s reign is eternal and encompasses everything. Give to God what is God’s. Give God everything. He gave everything for us.