‘Render to Caesar the things that Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, October 19, 2014 - 9:30am


 

I have a friend called Charlie, who was very nearly an Olympic rower. He trained with the British team as part of the squad for Beijing. Not only is he a fine physical specimen, but he is one of the nicest chaps you could hope to meet. The reason why you never saw him on the podium is a very sad story.

 

One night he was walking home from an evening with friends, and he found his way blocked by a gang of young men who demanded his wallet. He didn’t have much money on him, but in the heat of the moment he decided that he was blowed if he was going to give it to them. In the scrap that followed he did significant damage to his assailants, as you might imagine, but he was himself left badly wounded, and by the time he was out of hospital his Olympic opportunity had come and gone. His sporting career was at an end.

 

Now thankfully since then he has excelled in other ways which bear witness to his remarkable strength of character, but ever since I heard it, his story has always stood for me as an example of how lives often turn on the fleeting decisions we make in the moment.

 

He must have asked himself since: ‘Why didn’t I just hand over my wallet?’ It wasn’t greed. Maybe it was just pride. But had he known then the cost of holding onto his wallet. Had he weighed it carefully, perhaps he would have decided otherwise. But, I think it is true of all of us that our actions don’t necessarily match our priorities.

 

Our gospel today is all about priorities. Jesus adversaries are seeking to entrap him by making him publically oppose the paying of tax to the Roman Emperor. A charge could be made against him if only they could force him into making a slip. But his answer is an elegant side-step:

 

‘Render to Caesar the things that Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’

 

The coin belongs to Caesar because it bears his stamp, his image. It has value because it is underwritten by his authority.

Likewise, if we ask what bears God’s stamp and image, what exists by his authority, then it is we ourselves – all humanity – all creation in fact. The Pharisees are silenced because Jesus draws them back to what they actually believe. They have upheld the law of the Romans whom they despise in order to get the better of Jesus, but in truth their lives are built around the total sovereignty of God.

 

This is the character of Jesus- to draw us back, carefully, often inconveniently, sometimes painfully, to what we truly most believe. This saying stands as a challenge not just to the Pharisees, but to all of us. Do we live our lives in a way that reflects the truth of God’s sovereignty? Do we use our belongings as those who have received them from God’s treasury? Do we spend our money as those who hold it in trust?

 

Jesus implicitly contrasts the pragmatic, cynical hypocrisy of the Pharisees with the open-handed generosity of God.

Whereas the Pharisees, seeing their opportunity in the heat of the moment, were prepared to put their deepest convictions on hold, God’s limitless and abounding love expresses itself in the abundance of creation. He never ceases to pour blessings upon us, he never stops to ask whether we deserve it.

 

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection bear witness to the fact that in the face of our hostility and ingratitude, God poured out the life of his only Son for our sake. Not because he had to, or because we were able to compel Him, but joyfully and out of the purest love. Because it was there to give.

 

Now, giving money to the church is not the only, or even the primary way in which we can lead lives that are rich towards God. The care that we take of one another, the generosity that we show to those in need. The way in which we welcome a stranger as if they were Christ himself. These are all ways in which we might reflect the grace that God shows to us. But giving money to the church is surely part of it.

 

The parish churches of the Church of England are almost entirely funded by the contributions made by those who attend. Some of that money goes towards buildings and churchyards, some to running costs and administration, but by far the largest chunk goes towards paying the stipends of clergy. The Parish Share contribution that we at St Mary’s make to the Diocese goes, in large measure, to pay for priests – to care for others, minister the sacraments and conduct weddings and funerals, not just here, but in parishes across the diocese, with the wealthier churches subsidising those in poorer areas.

 

The money that we put into the plate on a Sunday, or pay in our envelope, or by standing order, or Direct Debit is effectively money that we give to sustain the presence of the church in the inner city and on council estates where churchgoers cannot hope to meet the cost of ministry. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is money given to the poor.

 

I am proud that the people of St Mary’s over the last two years have been able to exceed a little the minimum that was asked of us, but as costs continue to grow, we need to take care that our giving keeps up.

 

Giving- giving joyfully of our time and energy, giving joyfully of our love and compassion, and giving joyfully of our resources, is the stamp of the Christian life. Jesus invites us to take stock of our priorities in the light of God’s overwhelming generosity, and to reveal ourselves as those who are created in his image, bearing his stamp, and sharing his gifts.