This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, March 22, 2015. Throughout the Lenten Season, we will be reading through the Gospel of Mark. To find our 40 day reading plan, click here.
Reading: Mark 12:1-17
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.
It’s that last verse from our reading for today that I’ve been thinking a lot about these last few days; I think mostly because I’m finishing up my taxes. For those that aren’t aware, clergy taxes are really confusing. In certain instances we’re considered self-employed in others not; and, just to set the record straight, we aren’t given the break many think on our taxes We’re considered self-employed—15.3% of my income goes to pay my FICA taxes—and, most people don’t realize this, but I pay self-employment tax on the parsonage. This is the first year that I have ever owed the government more than I put in. So, this morning’s text hits pretty close to home, especially that last verse: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17, Common English Bible).
The answer was clever. The questioners—the supporters of Herod and the Pharisees—were trying to trap Jesus.
If he claims that one should not pay the Roman tax, he identifies himself as a political rebel. If he claims that one should pay the tax, he sets himself against the populace for whom the tax was a great burden. His opponents have one of the Roman coins with them, coins that bear the image of the emperor, in contrast with the Jewish prohibition of graven images (see Lev 19:4). Jesus answers that what bears the image of Caesar should be given back to Caesar, but what belongs to God…should be given to God.
from The Wesley Study Bible (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2011
It was an answer that left his opponents “overcome with wonder.” Frankly, while I find Jesus’ ability to weasel his way out of the trap quite amazing, I find his answer less than satisfying. He doesn’t offer any clarity. What belongs to Caesar? And what really belongs to God?
Perhaps the answer to the first questions is the easiest. What belongs to Caesar? Perhaps, the taxes that he asks for. There’s no pass here. If the going rate is 7.65% or 15.3%, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s: pay your taxes. That’s a pretty easy one. But what really belongs to God? The government asks pretty clearly for its stake. But what about God?
What belongs to God?
The scriptural concept here is clear: “all things were created by [God],” writes Paul to the church in Colossae (1:16, Common English Bible), “both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible…all things were created through him and for him.” “The whole world and everything in it already belong to me,” says God through the Psalmist (50:12b, Common English Bible). “The silver and the gold belong to me, says the LORD of heavenly forces” (Haggai 2:8, Common English Bible), “every forest animal already belongs to me, as do the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10, Common English Bible).
Everything belongs to God. That idea is very strange to many of us. We like to think that it’s our money and our possessions: that we have made ourselves and all that we are and have. Whether or not we believe the creation narratives in the book of Genesis to be literally true or not, the point needs to be heard. You and I, we didn’t make ourselves. God did. God created the world and all that is in it. God made you. God made me.
27 God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. 30 To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. 31 God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.
God made everything and then gave it all to us in trust.
Now I want to be clear, because there is a spurious idea that is wreaking havoc in the church today, precipitated mostly by “false shepherds” (see Ezekiel 34), preachers trying to use the church for their personal gain. Yes, God created everything and God gives all that God has to us in trust, but that does not mean that God has given us the huge amount or little amount of wealth we have. The fact that the income and wealth gap in this country and around the world is widening is not because God thinks some should be wealthy and some should struggle to eat each day. It’s not because God thinks some of us are more responsible than others. The gap between those who have and those who don’t isn’t God’s doing, it’s a result of our sin: the hoarding of the resources God makes available for the benefit of all. All that God has made has been given away; and, in Jesus Christ, all that God is, God freely gives in love for the sake of the world.
God has given everything, including Godself, to us in sacred trust that we will use not just 10% but all that God has given us for the sake of the world God so loves and has come to save.
There’s a great story, it was actually in our daily readings this past week, of a man who
came running up, greeted [Jesus] with great reverence, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?”
18-19 Jesus said, “Why are you calling me good? No one is good, only God. You know the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother.”
20 He said, “Teacher, I have—from my youth—kept them all!”
21 Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him! He said, “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”
22 The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.
23-25 Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who ‘have it all’ to enter God’s kingdom?” (Mark 10:17-23, The Message)
The man failed to realize that everything he was and had was meant to be used not in service to himself. The man held tight to what he believed was his own. Note: whatever heading might be above this story in your Bible, it doesn’t actually say how much wealth the man actually had. We don’t know that he was rich, he just had some amount of wealth that he believed was his. But, it wasn’t his own. It was God’s and it was meant to be used in service to God’s purposes which always move beyond the self. The man’s wealth wasn’t meant to be hoarded but given away that those who did not have could, that those who were struggling might find rest.
Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” What belongs to God? Everything: so, use what’s been given—use all that you are and have—for the benefit not just of yourselves but for the benefit of all.