The idea for our stewardship brochure came from a document our Communication Coordinator Kara Pearce discovered from an Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. They did a lot of wonderful things, but it was the framing of weekly devotions, of exploring a text in our homes, that really struck us. The one other idea we stole from them was that of the bar chart. We rather dramatically toned down our version in what I think is still a provocative chart – one that, and I really hope you’ll do the exercise in there this week – calls us to think deeply about what we value. In our chart we have a handful of expenses listed – $180 for a cellphone plan for two, cable and internet for $135, $525 for leisure and entertainment, $400 for a car payment, $300 for utilities. Your personal expenses might be more or less than those. The question is what is important – how do these expenses stack up to what you pledge to the church?
We had a couple of good and vigorous discussions within the stewardship committee about this chart. The church in Austin is a large, very affluent congregation – they know it, it’s part of their identity. They say that they are often referred to as ‘the only club in West Austin with no membership dues.’ Then they proceed to list the annual dues of 7 local country clubs, I assume that many of their members are a part of. Club A, Club B, Club C, with their cost lined up, ranging from $5400 to over $14000 per year. Then they draw a line right across all of those bars on the bar chart for their church’s average pledge, $3000, below the dues of even the cheapest country club. They have a sentence across the top of the page asking: "Does your standard of giving reflect your standard of living?"
The Pharisees were suspicious. Jesus’ audience throughout much of the previous chapters has been the disciples. He was talking to them, to the church, about the nature of community, how people live together, about forgiveness and reconciliation. But, once they made the move into Jerusalem in chapter 21, on Palm Sunday, the anxiety has continued to build. Jesus turned over tables in the temple, left for the night, returned, and has been teaching right inside the courtyard of that same temple. Here his audience is the religious leaders. Jesus has told three parables – of two brothers, then of the wicked tenants and then, as we heard last week, of a wedding banquet.
Today’s text kicks off a series of four exchanges between Jesus and various religious leaders. The Pharisees and Herodians take the first at-bat. Next come the Sadducees (and their lawyer), then back to the Pharisees. The Pharisees end this chapter with egg on their face; but their revenge comes soon.1 Matthew signals to us what is happening in verse 15: "Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said."
The gospel writers tend to use the Pharisees as a punching bag. A lay group within Judaism, they are people who, above all, value the law, seeking to obey it – perhaps too zealously – with every ounce of their being. They were good church folks, trying hard, but sometimes missing the bigger picture. The Herodians were a priestly group whose power base in Israel was largely based on a set of alliances forged with the occupying Roman government – with Herod, hence their name. It is a testament to the anger Jesus had stirred up within both groups that they approached Jesus together. For the Pharisees especially, compromise with the pagan Romans would have been theologically unthinkable.2
They begin with flattery. Since Matthew has tipped us off, we hear their tone: Teacher. We know you are sincere, teach the truth, show no partiality. So should we pay taxes or not? Jesus pushes back: "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?" And then, in a brilliantly calculated move, he tells them to show them the coin used for the tax. The Pharisees reach into their pocket, pulling out a denarius. By simply having one of the occupier’s coins in their pockets – not something that was necessarily common for a Jew – Tom Long argues, "they unsuspectingly reach in to their purses and withdraw the evidence that exposes them – not him – as…hypocritical compromisers. They are the ones carrying around Caesar’s money, not Jesus; they are the ones who have the emperor’s image in their pocketbooks; they are the ones who have already bought into the pagan system."3
This is a text about the place where loyalty and money meet. Our money is perhaps the most powerful way we have of making decisions. Companies depend upon it, as does our government, as do churches. It is no wonder when people, in any of these places, really want power, they point to their money. Do this, they say, and the money goes. If people are excited, care deeply, money follows. The way we make these decisions shows who we are – demonstrates, quite clearly, what we are about. When Jesus asks, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" in verse 20, about the coin, the Greek word Matthew uses, the one the NRSV translates as head, is the word eikon, which can also be translated as image, likeness. It is the same word the Septuagint – an important Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures – uses back in Genesis 1: "So God created humankind in God’s own image."4 Matthew is making clear this connection between us being created in the image of God and living under the power of Caesar. So then, the question becomes, whose image will we bear?
Because the question the church in Austin was asking, really, was: Do you care about your country club more than you care about your church? Where do you place more loyalty? Money isn’t the only way we express this – so many of you give time, do so many things, things you get noticed for and thankless tasks. There is something about loyalty that is even deeper, that gets at how you feel, in your gut, the deep love we feel for the people and the places that cared for us, where we see God at work. Even if I gave Montreat all the money I had, it would only get at a portion of the gratitude I feel for the way that place and its people helped raise me. I feel the same way about Davidson, though I only spent 4 of my 37 years there. But even below all of that, is my love for the church of Jesus Christ, and for this one in particular. I am constantly astounded by the ministry you all are doing, and am so grateful for the ways God IS at work.
One way Carrie and I express our love, our loyalty to God in this place, is with our pledge. We have been working hard to increase our pledge and aren’t tithing yet, but by next year will be giving 10 percent of our income here. This church is one of our significant expenses – more in the category of the mortgage, cars, education – than the smaller ones, for our YMCA membership, for sports the kids play, for our cable and cellphones and internet access. We are trying, trying, to spend our money as an expression of what we care about most. This place and its people. To God.
There are plenty of good reasons to give to the church, many you know. For the many amazing helping organizations we support, the mission projects you are a part of. For the working out of the mission of God through our facilities, packed all the time. For the ministry staff does with you, on retreats and trips, in small groups, down at Urban Ministries, in the hospital, the sanctuary, the memorial garden. For the music that soars, for the kids running around all over the place, for the image of God we see reflected in each other. We have had a 17% increase in the number of children of members in our nursery in the last 3 years. We need to hire some more nursery staff. But because this is a busy area, we have had 14 families in the last 16 months move out of town, be called to jobs or family needs in other places. Gifts go with them. There is a lot of work God is calling us to do here as we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God as we see the image of God reflected in the work of Wheels for Hope and Housing for New Hope, in Tara’s life, as we bless this car, this amazing gift, towards the end of worship.
And this is different from the way the world works, too much too fast, without enough time for each other, for community, for those whom God calls us to serve. Because our loyalty lies with God, who made heaven and earth, who created us, in God’s own image, and calls us to live a life of service, making it more than clear whose image we will bear to the world. Its is Gods. It is Gods. All praise be to this One. Amen.
1. Much of this background comes from Michael Kirby’s most helpful paper on this text from the 2008 meeting of the Portable Snack, in Kansas City.
2. WBC: Matthew, by Tom Long, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 250.
3. Long, 251.
4. This exegetical point also comes from Kirby’s paper.