Monday, October 20, 2008
Render unto Caesar
“Rendering to Caesar and God.” Matthew 22:15-22
XXIII Pentecost (Creation Season) – October 19, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Well, I found another place where John Bennett and Bob Huntington and I agree.
Oh, there’s lots we agree on. Lots and lots, in fact. A some of you know, John and Bob really prefer the King James translation of Holy Scripture. And, for the most part, I really like Peterson’s translation in “The Message.” That places us about as far about on the ecclesiastical spectrum as it does our personal political affiliations.
The Message translates verse 21 in the 22nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel this in a similar way to the RSV, which is the translation we use in this church every Sunday: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. . .”
Ah, but listen to the KJV: “Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” Now, you have to admit, that’s a really classy way to tell those Pharisees who were trying to trick him to ‘kiss off’, isn’t it?
Truth be told, olde King James had me at “Render.” Render. My Old English Dictionary says that the root word is from ‘rend’, meaning to cut or tear forcibly. As a verb, to render means an act of surrender. ‘Give,’ just doesn’t cut it (you should excuse the expression) – especially since the real issue is that the Pharisees are challenging the authority of Jesus. Indeed, they don’t call him ‘Rabbi’ but ‘Teacher.’
For the Jews of antiquity to give their hard earned coins to Caesar was always an act of surrender, a sacrifice of enormous proportion, especially considering the Roman occupation of their country. A good Jew was also expected to tithe to the Temple, an expected surrendering to God as a thanksgiving for all God had given them. So, the question posed by the Pharisees to Jesus was a not-so clever way to trick him into an act of treason – or an act of blasphemy to the ancient religious practice of the tithe.
The situation isn’t lost in antiquity. Next week we begin Stewardship Season, and many of us will be faced with the same question. We’ll look over our budgets on both the income and expense sides of the household ledger and, for many of us, they will not come as near in balance as they did last year. Many of us do not feel as compelled by the ancient practice of tithing as we do the current demands of taxes.
Even so, the present economic climate may cause more than a few brows to furrow. That may lead you to the trap of trying to reconcile the cost and effect of what we ‘get’ for our church dollar, which is absolutely not where the Christian begins with the relationship we have between our money and our God. Your pledge is your ‘rendering’ – the spiritual surrender you make, as we like to say in this church, ‘with what you do with all that you have, after you say, “I believe.”’
That can breed as much resentment in your heart as we hear deep in the hearts of the Pharisees as they try to trick Jesus with their questions. I understand. Completely.
I’m sure I’ve told some of you this story before, but I clearly remember the first time I started to earn an allowance. I got fifty cents a week in the form of two shiny quarters delivered to me by my father every Saturday night. Right after we had taken our weekly baths, washed out our white gloves and polished our shoes for Church the next day. My father would remind me, every week, that one quarter was to go into my piggy bank and one quarter was to go to into the Church collection basket on Sunday.
I can still feel my teeth clench with resentment as I tried to smile and say, “Yes, Daddy.” Sort of the same way my teeth sometimes clench when I try to read the KJV of scripture. It didn’t take me long, however, to figure out a way to beat the old man at his game.
The collection baskets in the church of my youth were literally baskets with long, smooth handles that the ushers would glide skillfully and smoothly through their hands as you placed your pledge envelope or coins into them. There were three collections in my church: one for the Adults to put their paper money or pledge envelopes, and one for ‘the work of missions’ - usually an order of priests or nuns who were working with people in far off places like Cambodia or Guatemala or someplace in Africa.
The children’s basket was always the last basket to be passed. Since we normally sat in the back of the church, it was filled with shiny coins – dimes, nickels and quarters – rendered with the same resentment I always felt in my heart. The best part, however, before listening for the ‘clink’ of your coin as it went into the basket, was to first move your hand across the cool top of the coins. To a kid, you could almost see the dream of how many ice cream cones or comic books you could buy with that great stash dancing above their heads like the caption balloons of the cartoon characters we watched every Saturday morning.
What was God going to do with all that money, anyway? I was quite certain that God would have been much happier knowing that His children were happy with their mouths full of jaw-breakers or gummy worms we could purchase with those quarters.
That’s when I got the idea. I discovered that if you put your hand over the coins, you could simultaneously drop your quarter in while very discretely picking up one or two more. Then, you would fidget in your seat, pretend to cough into the hand with your ill gotten gain, and then, as your mother gave you the ‘evil eye’ for making noise in church, you simply leaned over and slipped the quarter(s) into your sock or shoe.
Brilliant! It was a positively brilliant scheme which went on for weeks without anyone noticing what I was doing. My parents did get a bit suspicious when I stopped being resentful of giving one half of my hard earned allowance money to the church, so to cover my tracks, I began having conversations with them about how I might have a vocation to become a nun. I have to tell you, this was my first run as a thief, and I was pure genius! I was being a scoundrel and they thought I was trying to be a saint!
Until the other thing they carefully teach you as a good Roman Catholic child kicked in: Guilt. Yup. I started feeling guilty. Which, I discovered, is a stronger emotion than resentment. Eventually, I paid a little visit to ‘Father’ to return my ill-gotten gain.
I’ve since learned that God doesn’t want either my resentment or my guilt, and God doesn’t want yours either. God doesn’t want your clever tricks or your self-deception. And yes, I think God wants us to be good citizens and that means being responsible about things like voting and taxes – as well as ensuring good candidates for election and, if necessary, challenging or changing the system of taxation.
Jesus makes it very clear that God wants your ‘rendering’ – the surrender of your whole self, your whole life to God – in everything you say and do. Money is just a symbol that can become a false idol just as easily as any other engraved image. Money isn’t as important in and of itself as the ‘rendering’ we do with our money – the sacrifices we make with it, not for it.
“Then saith he unto them, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” I only hope you have as much fun figuring out this year’s pledge as you did last night at the Parish Auction. No matter how you translate it, the gospel message is very clear: God wants us to rend our hearts, not our wallets or our household budgets. And the fact that John Bennett and Bob Huntington and I can agree on that must rend a very broad smile on the very face of God. Amen.