Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…and other clever ideas.

It has been a week I’d rather forget. Two round trips to Sackville; a funeral at the Kirk; a troubling surgery for Lea’s mother; an Anniversary service to plan…and then there’s Synod starting tomorrow. In the midst of it all there are the ordinary tasks, and a visit from family…did I mention a session meeting? Not that I’m complaining – all of this comes with the territory when you accept a call to ordained ministry. I’m quite happy (on most days) to serve where I am needed, and accept that there will be good days and bad days – just as in any other vocation – but this week was not one of my best. My best intentions were hijacked by circumstances that seemed beyond my control. No hospital visits this week, no office hours, or careful and prayerful moments for the selection of hymns and the consideration of Scripture.

I offer this to illustrate the obvious; most of the time, my “work” and my “life” are tightly woven together. On weeks like this, it is very difficult to keep one from affecting the other, and the gospel for the day taunted me all week, that clever punchline echoing in my head; “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

At first reading, it seems only that Jesus has escaped a legal trap by means of a clever twist of language and logic. Taxes were necessary then as now ( and the means of payment was with the coin of the realm. No one was exempt; if you participate in society, you are required to share in the costs – so religious or not; faithful or not; there are obligations on us that cross boundaries.  Jesus tells the crowd what they already knew – that the two sphere’s of life are often difficult to separate. So to pay ‘god’s tax’ with ‘Caesar’s coin’ seems ironic at best and unholy at worst , and Jesus’ answer does not solve the problem.

It is the influence of Greek thinkers that suggest some sort of separation between holy things and ordinary things. We inherit a system of thought that is ancient and seems to make sense; there are ‘ideals’, we say; things we should aspire towards – levels of excellence that drive us to do and be better. But we have unfortunately applied this to the Christian faith in a way that is not at all helpful.

There are ‘faith moments’ we say – times when our faith should influence us, or affect the way we behave; and they are distinct – there is a time for everything under heaven, says the teacher – so when we grieve, it is appropriate to talk about what our ‘faith’ means to us, but not necessarily when we are joyful. We in the church are no better at this, I’m afraid. Sunday morning is all well and good, but when budget time comes, we talk of practical necessities and grim truths about deficits as though they had nothing to do with the lives we lead in the service of Christ. I am grateful for the courage of those individuals who do see the connection, and who are willing to ask questions in terms of our faithfulness and our devotion to God, but most of the time, our discussions sound like the one Jesus was tricked into having with the leadership of the day; “Is it an act of faith to talk about such worldly things as money and budgets, or not?”

These discussions frighten us, because the reality is pretty plain – fewer faithful people = fewer gracious givers. The work of God is not stopped by a budget shortfall, but it is hard to offer joyful praise in a cold, dark sanctuary. So what should be our priority? How do we answer the question? Fundraising is not enough, because it doesn’t address the real problem, it only prolongs the inevitable. We need the money to do the work, we say – but when the purpose of the work is to find the money, have we not stopped being people of the Gospel? What do you say, Jesus? How do you answer the riddle…

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” That is still the answer, and a clever one, at that. For Jesus was surely remembering those ancient hymns that were the praise songs of his youth; “the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it.” 1. The soverignty of God is an ancient idea too, and suggests that there is nothing in this life or beyond this life that does not concern God, or falls outside the limits of our faithfuness. The catch in Jesus response is that Caesar only thinks that coin belongs to him. God’s dominion is not limited by our opinion. So we cannot pretend that our budget issues are merely practical issues. This is a crisis of faith, and we need to treat it as such.

We need to ask ourselves what we might do to further the gospel, of which we are both stewards and witnesses. We need to rediscover the purpose of these communities of faith – which were once vital and outward-looking, rather that maintenance minded and self-protective. We need to recognize that there are no neat and clear lines around “church stuff” and the rest of life – if our faith means anything at all to us, and if God is anything like we say, then all things fall under the umbrella of our faith work.

Our congregations and our churches should be comfortable places, full of helpful people doing good work in our communities. But to do that – do be those places – takes a constant and conserted effort on our part. It is up to us – all together – to identify what is important, what is necessary, and what will best serve the cause of Christ in this place. Then, we will have to roll up our sleeves and do it.

Is it right to be mixing the things of the world – common things – with the things of God? You’d better believe it is.

1 Psalm 24: 1


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