By Nathan J.A. Humphrey
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “A preacher got up in the pulpit one Sunday and announced to his congregation: ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have enough money to pay for our new building program. The bad news is that it’s still out there in your pockets.’”
So begins the typical, tiresome stewardship sermon, the kind that preachers hate to preach and parishioners hate to hear. Yet thinking and talking about money is a necessary part of our spiritual lives, perhaps because it is one of the things that perpetually limits our choices and frustrates our plans — or, conversely, that makes things possible. Is it just me, or do you feel yourself tightening up, at least occasionally, when the subject of money is raised, even if you’re not being asked to give any of it away?
I imagine the tension around Jesus in the Temple increased significantly when the crowd heard the Pharisees’ disciples ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Part of what would have charged the atmosphere was the presence of the Herodians, whom commentators believe were a political party that supported the regime of Herod the Great, the puppet-king of the Roman occupiers.
The Herodians would have been particularly interested in Jesus’ reply to this question, since if he answered in the negative, he could be arrested for inciting rebellion against Herod and Rome. Yet the Pharisees also knew that if Jesus answered in the affirmative, the people would view him as a collaborator at worst and a wimp at best. Either way, Jesus would lose his reputation, and possibly his life.
But Jesus plays it cool. I get a kick out of the way Jesus handles his opponents in how he answers them, for two reasons. First, there’s the simple beauty of the way he escapes entrapment by the Pharisees and Herodians and gives a pithy teaching point at the same time. But second, his response, while clear-cut on one level, is deceptively open-ended, for it does not answer the question, aside from the concrete case of the Temple tax, of what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.
Of course, the easy, pious answer is, “Everything belongs to God.” Sure it does. That’s a no-brainer. But how do we live out that truth? For when I look at my own life, it seems to me that I all too often render much more to Caesar than I do to God, “Caesar” being shorthand for the proportion of time, talent, and treasure I expend in pursuits that distract me from the pursuit of God and service to God’s people. Maybe that’s just the way of the world. Still, it leaves me feeling uneasy, wondering whether God might be calling me through this text to re-evaluate my stewardship, and to challenge us to do so as a community.
Luckily for me, my wife is far more solid on stewardship issues than I am. In fact, I remember that on our second date she provided a detailed critique of her parish’s stewardship campaign, faulting it for not having any real theological depth. What a turn-on that was! All joking aside, Anne takes commitment seriously, which is a big part of why I felt called to commit to her.
This year, for instance, although Anne recently moved to a new, lower-paying job — not to mention the downturn in the economy — Anne suggested that we increase our pledge not by 8 percent, as our rector and wardens requested, but by 25 percent. When we factor in our giving to other churches and schools, not to mention our capital campaign pledge, we are already tithing. I share this with you not simply to toot our own horn (though that feels pretty good), but because we believe strongly in the principle of sacrificial giving. When the stock market is down, our pledge goes up. How about you?
So there’s a challenge for you: If you think the economy or a change in circumstances lets you off the hook, it doesn’t. We can often choose to budget our resources differently, but Jesus’ dictum will always, I hope, challenge us not simply to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but unto God the things that are God’s.
What things are you keeping from God? Certainly, giving to this parish isn’t entirely synonymous with giving to God. And giving doesn’t mean only money. But if you believe in what we’re doing (and I don’t mean just in terms of our building project or music and education programs, but in our mission “to restore all people to God and to each other through sacramental worship and Christlike living”), then I challenge you to examine whether you are truly giving sacrificially.
If you are, I want to thank you; so many people in this congregation give countless hours of their time and invest so much in this place. But Anne challenged me out of my complacent assumption that I was already giving sacrificially and needn’t reconsider what portion was God’s, and so I would like to pass on the favor to all of you here today.
Think about it. Pray on it. What more might God be calling you to invest in this place? It may be more than an 8 percent increase in your pledge. Or it may be more than an 8 percent increase in the time you spend being formed by this parish for Christian living and Christian serving. Or it might be the widow’s mite. In any event, it’s a matter worth considering, because while the coin for the tax bore the image of Caesar, we bear the Image of God, and are called to live into that Image in our stewardship every day.
The Nathan J.A. Humphrey is rector of St. Thomas’s Church, Toronto.