Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
1st Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
In these days of email, it is pretty fun to get a real letter in the snail mail, once in a while. My grandma writes actual letters and so I do my best to answer her by letter, too. Because of this, I still buy stamps. I remember being a little girl and licking the stamps for my mom that she placed on the bills. For a short while I collected stamps. I remember looking at the images on the stamps, and wondering about them. I remember looking at all the colors, all the different subject matter from plants and flowers, to hearts, to art work, to celebrating different holidays, to actors and actresses, and finally images of presidents and important people.
It used to be that you had to be dead to be depicted on a postage stamp, but that rule changed in 2011, maybe because the Postal Service is so much in debt and trying to make up its huge deficit. It was around that time that I started seeing advertised at the Post Office that you could buy a computer program to put the picture of your choice on a postage stamp. The suggestion was that you might like to have a picture of your grandchild on a postage stamp.
The idea was to sell what people wanted, the image that an individual would find appealing, and who would know better than that same individual? Well Caesar had the chance to put the image of whoever he wanted on the coins of ancient Rome, and I doubt there was much of a question that it would be Caesar, himself. He had already declared himself a god. He already pushed his kingdom and rule on all kinds of people. He already pushed his laws and taxes on them. He wanted absolute rule, absolute obedience, absolute power. He may have once had some lofty ideas about making life better for people, but he was a dictator, removed from the everyday life of people. It ended up that his rule benefitted him more than anyone, and those close to him next, and the Jewish people very little, if at all.
In other words, Caesar did show partiality. He treated people differently depending on what they could do for him. He expected everyone to treat him best of all, because of what he could do for them or out of fear because of what he could do to them. And in this context, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether people should pay taxes or not, to try to trap him. First they try to flatter him by saying that he shows no partiality. To him that is a compliment. To them that is an insult. Basically, they are saying he has no taste, no common sense about who it is good to hang out with and share with and who it isn't.
If Jesus says you should pay taxes, the Jewish people will be upset, because they are taxed to the max by the Romans and they get very little in return. If he says you shouldn't, they will tell Caesar and Jesus will be labled a traitor and arrested. Jesus directs them to the image on the coin. There is Caesar's image on it. Give to him what is his.
What is Caesar's in this case? The idea is whatever he stamps his image on belongs to him. He thinks whatever he imposes his values upon, his rule upon, his image upon, become his. The Jewish people were trying to keep their traditions and values, to worship God and make decisions for their own people. Who did they belong to now? God or Caesar? They were seeing Caesar's image stamped all over the place. They were finding it in their pockets and purses. They were seeing the impact on their lives--oppression. And those in power, like the Pharisees, were using this rule to benefit themselves. The tax collectors were collecting more than the tax to line their own pockets. The Pharisees were using the Romans to get rid of people like Jesus who empowered the poor. What is Caesar's? Taxes, oppression, partiality, favoritism, and take, take, take--selfishness.
What was God's, then? God is all give, give, give--selflessness. God made everything on this earth and made it good, to benefit everyone and to give life to all. God had made every tree and plant, every animal, every element such as the gold which formed the coin. Finally, as we know from the Creation stories, God created humankind in the image and likeness of God. Show me the coin—who's image is on it? Ceasar's. Show me the human-who's image is on him? God's image. That's why Jesus shows no partiality. Whomever he encounters, he sees the image and likeness of God.
We are agreed that we also must not treat others with partiality. But what about the image of God we carry within each of us? It means a certain responsibility to carry God's values within us. We all look so different from each other, so what is it about God's image that we hold in common? I think it is the heart of God, the values of God, the focus of God on life-giving ways. And we take that image wherever we go. It isn't just something we wear or embody at church. Yes, we may dress up a bit, shave, put on a clean outfit, to come here. We also try to put on a good attitude and a friendly smile, even if we aren't feeling that social. But God's image is stamped on us every other day of the week, as well. We carry God's image, God's values to work with us. We carry it with us to the store, to the ballot box, to the bank, when we drive our cars, when we take out the trash, when we fill out our estimate of giving card, when we volunteer our time, when we forgive, when we show no favoritism. Jesus' values led him to give his life that we might have life, to disregard his own welfare for the sake of others. We give thanks that he made new life possible for us, that he made that connection between God and humankind, between heaven and earth so clear and so available to us who have done nothing to deserve a place at God's table of grace. Yet, here we are, all valued, all invited, all chosen by God.
Today we estimate our giving for the coming year in a way that incorporates God's values. Our estimates help the congregation create a budget, so we aren't guessing. It helps you set an intentional goal, with prayer, to use this gift from God, money in a way that supports God's values. It also helps separate you from your money, which can so easily become an idol, no matter who's image it has on it.
It used to be that the offering was taken, the first fruits from the field, the best of the flock, and it was burned. Many a pastor has fantasized about taking the offering, putting it on the altar, and setting it on fire. The reaction would be priceless. Nowadays, very little of what ends up in the plate is paper money anymore. Most of it is checks, so it wouldn't be so effective. But the thought of destroying the money, in theory, is appealing. It means the giver truly has to let go and says, “This isn't mine anymore.” Like the prayer says, “We release what has been given to us.” Then no more could one's offering be held over the church's head. No one could say, “Do it my way or I will withhold my tithe.” No one could say, “We can't offend this or that important/rich person in the congregation or they will stop giving.” Destroying the money destroys the power it can have over us, the partiality we might have because of it.
However, if the money is destroyed, it can't be used to do the work that supports God's values of giving life impartially and supporting all in need. Alas, there will be no fire in the offering plate today. We work together to pass a budget that we believe supports God's values. Our budget tithes our offerings to the larger church to pay some administration costs that help us stay connected to other Lutherans and from time to time get support for calling a new pastor or gathering resources to write a sabbatical policy, for instance. Much of what goes to the larger church goes to fight disease and respond to disasters. Furthermore, our budget supports a food pantry that feeds thousands of hungry people in our neighborhood and creates partnerships between our congregations. Our budget pays the staff to carry out the work we see as important.
And our budget pays the pastor--me. This can be an awkward subject and yet, I know, I have a job, a livelihood, insurance and retirement because of your generous offerings. This is the way I see it. You pay me to work on behalf of the poor. I visit the sick and hospitalized and lonely. I make my way around the pantry, praying with clients, listening to them and loving them. I work on issues like immigrant rights and the health of this planet that God made and diversity training for youth. I encourage you to get involved, too. You also have your own areas of interest and focus for community service and your own connections to bring life to those who are struggling.
Maybe a grandchild is the perfect image to have on a postage stamp, just the person to venerate and honor, because of what that represents. For that grandchild, we want to create a world more just, more life-giving, more clean, more beautiful, more peaceful. We can see in that child both our own image and likeness, the face that carries our genetic code, and the face of God, so wonderous and beautiful and full of possibility. That little person is so powerless, and yet with that little voice holds such sway. That little person has no ill will toward anyone, and truly shows no partiality. That little person is truly innocent, knowing nothing of politics and money, but only about forming relationships and being open to new learning, moldable to God's sculpting hands. The important thing to remember is that we are also grandchildren of someone and they once saw in us what we see in them. And I have to think that God still sees that in us. So much possibility. So much good. So many of God's most important values. I have to think that our image can be found on God's postage stamps, God's love letters to us reminding us what is most important. Surely God's image is on our hearts, making us ready to love and give life and share and empower one another and be kind and work for the poor and vote and to give to God what is God's, which is really everything.