In God We Trust
There is one word that is heard more often in human history than any other: taxes.
From the familiar “the two certainties of life are death and taxes,” attributed to Ben Franklin, to countless other comments about taxes the variety and content is endless.
Here are a few:
“If you make any money, the government shoves you in the creek once a year with it in your pockets, and all that don’t get wet you can keep.” Will Rogers
”The taxpayer — that’s someone who works for the federal government but doesn’t have to take the civil service examination.” Ronald Reagan
”America is a land of taxation that was founded to avoid taxation.” Laurence J. Peter
“I’m proud to pay taxes in the United States; the only thing is, I could be just as proud for half the money.” Arthur Godfrey
“Unquestionably, there is progress. The average American now pays out twice as much in taxes as he formerly got in wages.” H.L. Mencken
And from today’s Gospel lesson:
“Tell us, then, what you think. (Say the wily Pharisees) is it lawful to pay taxes to emperor, or not?” But Jesus aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites?”
And then Jesus says: “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
Jesus said to them: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” The Pharisees answered: “The emperor’s.” Then Jesus said to them, “Give therefore the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Matthew then writes: “When the Pharisees heard this, they were amazed…”
There are a couple of things that the church has done with this portion of Matthew’s Gospel that are just plain wrong.
This is not about the separation of church and state. This is not dividing the world into two neat little categories, the world and religion. This is about Jesus, once again, turning the tables on the Pharisees and turning their world upside down.
Jesus knows what they want and the answer he gives is most probably the answer they would have given to the same question.
In the face of the struggles of daily life, in the face working and paying taxes, Jesus attempts to get the people of his day, and us, to think not about death and taxes and dividing the world into neat little categories, but rather Jesus is asking us to enter into the kingdom of God right now, in this moment in this place.
Our lessons over the last few weeks have been about the kingdom of God. This is about God turning the world upside down. This is about making real the music of the Psalmist who says: “Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.” Sing a song of life.
I hate taxes. I hate the process of paying taxes. Tax forms paralyze me. I was audited seven times in seven years. I was on a first name basis with an auditor long ago. I had boxes of receipts and endless reams of paper justifying my tax return (which I did myself) and the auditor smiled the sly smile of authority and denied every one of my deductions.
Taxes and the paying of taxes have always been a hot topic in the life of the human community. Christian or Jew, young or old, ancient or modern, we all think we are paying too much in tax and not taking enough money home for ourselves. The very word taxes will ensure an endless debate over paying or not paying, what tax money is used for or not used for and why do we have to pay taxes in the first place.
The same debate was part of life in Jesus time.
And in the midst of the debate, Jesus says, live in the Kingdom of God. Jesus says, be the Kingdom of God.
Being in the Kingdom of God is not rocket science. It is living a life caring about people, more than we care about whether or not we pay taxes. It is living a life that is more involved in the celebration of, and appreciation of, life than it is in constantly working and arguing about the things that are not about love, or relationships or the people who matter to us.
That is what the Kingdom of God is about and that is what the Kingdom of God celebrates.
We all have lots of stuff and for most of us we would like even more stuff. We don’t like taxes and most of us don’t even like the government. We have people in the streets right now protesting about taxes or about the government or about corporations. And here in the midst of all of this is Jesus saying hey folks remember give to God the things that are God’s.
What are God’s things in our lives? What makes sense for us to say, “this belongs to the government”, “this belongs to God?”
Could you go home today and label the things that belong to you, the things that belong to the government and finally the things that belong to God? Where would you put your labels?
If we are honest, if we give to God the things that are God’s, there is nothing else left. It’s all God’s.
Our conversation is about our arrogance. What is important in our lives is not what we think we own, but that God in God’s infinite mercy and grace owns us.
What does obedience to God, and not the tax code look like?
What kind of life would you live if everything you did you put God, the cross, the power of the Spirit at the center, rather than on the edges where you pay taxes?
When we live a life with God at the center we live out our baptismal DNA: God is in us, God is with us, and with God we are empowered to live compassionate and mercy filled lives.
Give God what is God’s. It makes a difference in you.
P.S. Look at a dollar bill. What does it say? It says what Jesus wants us to do. It says what happens when we become the Kingdom of God, right here, right now.
It says: “In God we Trust”.