At the Lighthouse Church of all Nations in Alsip, Illinois, at each of the three Sunday morning services, the pastor draws a number from a bag. The occupant of the seat with that number gets a cash prize of $500. Apparently the attendance has surged from 1600 to about 2500 people a week.
Because I have always assumed that the supreme quality of the teaching of Jesus is that in it morality is religion and religion morality — that there is nothing which does not reach up to God and down to every trial in life — I look a bit askance at the bait and switch idea at work in the Lighthouse Church. If we’re going to talk about money — and the pastor of that church does — he encourages winners of the doorprize to spend down their credit cards with it — let’s think about it so that what we say and what we do are not two different things. To separate right acting from right thinking is to make it not right acting.
In our gospel reading today — Jesus, who has been under attack in the whole chapter by the leaders of the temple, is questioned in hopes, as the text says, “to trap him.” They want to do anything to make the people see that he’s not worth following. That he is a law-breaker. They ask him the famous double-bind question — is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” No matter which way he answers the question, he’s in trouble with one side or the other. And yet, as Henry David Thoreau famously commented it seems that Jesus left his hearers no wiser than before as to what is the proper answer.
If that were the case, why would the story have made it? In fact, all three synoptic gospels record the story. What is so important about it?
It is quite likely that paying taxes to the Romans was deeply resented by the people in Jesus’ community. In fact, the Romans levied all kinds of taxes on the people even before the official tax bill came around. In many ways the taxation issue which drove the colonists to war in Colonial America is a parallel. In Matthew’s story the question was put to Jesus, like we might imagine a Loyalist questioning a patriot on the street in Boston — in an attempt to trap him and prove that the colonists were a bunch of upstarts who should be punished. If Jesus replied that he should pay the king, the people would generally think of him as a traitor, and if he replied that the money was God’s he would put one more brick in the prosecutorial case against him.
His cryptic reply, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” none-the-less did the trick. Why? Why where his hearers impressed while we are left none the wiser?
Jesus seems to imply, for us thinking about our tasks of the distribution of our limited incomes between family, state and church, that that tripartite division is a reasonable and proper division — that some things belong to each one of these categories. This is, no doubt, the way we most often hear the story told. But would this have impressed his Galilean listeners? Would the slant taken by those who argue that to be a good Christian is to be a good law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, have impressed the oppressed peasants Jesus always seemed to have about him? I don’t think so.
If not — than what, in his answer, did impress them?
On the one hand, the Romans let Jesus go, having heard a proper answer that simply you have to pay taxes. But we know that the Romans are not the ones in the Gospels whose thinking we are to take as a guide for the kind of thinking Jesus would have us do. As I said — the supreme quality of the teaching of Jesus is that everything we think and everything we do is to have the quality of being moral and the Romans are not held up as such.
What is held up, in Jesus’ ministry, as an example of right thinking and right acting, is the Hebrew prophetic tradition.
The prophets taught a kingdom of freedom, which by personal insight and consecration delivers people from all slavery to desire or pleasure or lust, and so from a final trust in material safeguards. They did this not simply by stating that insight in some form of abstract doctrine, but by their own ordinary civilian insight into what it must mean that tragedy has not crushed their spirit, but only fanned the flames of the spirit. These are not members of any religious guild, but plain farmers, or artisans and family men who know themselves to be part of a human society trapped by all sorts of pleasures and lusts and wants that rip communities apart, and who yet discovered that God’s meaning and purpose was as a parent to her children, holding them, as one prophet put it, close to her bosom, wrapped in her arms.
As a result, the prophetic tradition took the poor and the wronged to heart because it believed that God did the same. The prophetic tradition would not abide any parsing of the ancient commandment to love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
Jesus calls this prophetic insight the great commandment because in a sense, all other laws follow from it, are articulations of it, or are applications to it. We are called to love God in all that we do and this means to treat people as individuals who belong to God — and not to Caesar.
What Jesus’ peasant friends understood from this little interaction was simple — if not profound — everything, in truth, belongs to God.
What they also understood was that Jesus’ answer amounted to more than a tricky response — it amounted to a challenge. The question is not simply, what belongs to the church, and what belongs to the state and what belongs to the family? The question is “how should we, who do want to seek the way of Jesus, be related to our money? How should we use it morally?”
That’s the question we’ve been after for some time now. There’s not an easy answer to it. If there were, this story would, I suppose, not attract the kind of attention it does. To get at a take-home from this story, for this time, relating to this question let me share a commonplace story.
It is told by Eric Lonergan, author of a new book on Money which is part of a series called the Art of Living. The story is of his daughter and her school which got caught up in the pokemon trading card craze. Don’t ask me what they are all about — some of our younger members would be better than I at that — but suffice it to say that it seems to be like baseball trading cards on steroids. Anyway Lonergan notes that the pokeman cards had become a kind of currency on the school ground. Children would swap sought-after cards for food or for toys. Bubble-like behavior soon emerged. Older pupils would fleece younger, less sophisticated ones to get hold of prized cards. Children bought more cards with credit advanced by their parents. Eventually the headmaster was forced to step in and ban the trading. He comments — whatever form it takes, the use of money as a means of exchange seems to be hardwired; so does its capacity continually to distort human behavior.
That said, Lonergan’s book is call to see money, including debt and credit cards, as tools fostering interdependence. On the playground, the pokemon cards created an environment of interest and creativity. In the market, money is not just an excess either, but enables all sorts of basic structures to be put in place, without which our societies would be almost unidentifiable. Money, he says, depends on society and strengthens it.
Given this Janus faced, complex characteristic of money — it can be Roman-like in destroying community, or it can be Hebrew-like in strengthening community — here’s an interesting idea. While the recession has clearly drained money from society — we have not seen a draining of creativity, nor a pause in community support. We have, seen, on the contrary, a strengthening of one sector of our society.
According to a recent report from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, while US household net worth declined nearly 18% in the past year, individual giving to churches climbed. Obviously with less money in the system some charities suffered. And indeed they did as larger charities saw their giving rates drop by 6.3 percent.
This recession has taught us again the lesson of the prophets — we get by with a little help from our friends. I do not mean in anyway to belittle the suffering that has been caused by the recession — that’s not my point — but it has roused us to see that we can be creative and helpful and caring in ways that are perhaps more profound than in times of financial boom.
Malachi, the prophet of our reading today, writes to a people mired in economic and social despair. Fifty years after the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, following its destruction by the Babylons and 40 some odd years of exile, conditions in Jerusalem were bleak. As Edgar Goodspeed puts it, “ritual was carried on in a slovenly fashion . . . priests were as lax in teaching the law as they were in obeying it. The people offered their poorest instead of their best, and they withheld tithes . . . all sorts of vulgar vices prevailed.”
This roused Malachi to proclaim that a bright, new community could be their business. That depression would not defeat their call to be caring children of God. A Messenger would come, he said, who would jump-start us, who would visit us with the courage and the strength to be creative and caring in the midst of suffering.
Malachi is clear that this Messenger will not fix the economy. The financial wellbeing of his people is important, but it will be as a result, and only a result, of being responsible community members, caring, working, seeking justice. The Messenger will lead us to see, as though as if we’ve been put through a refiner’s fire — that our offerings, our ritual, should not be perfunctory, but should be all of a fabric –all of one moral piece — that they will reflect their sense of being in the bosom and care of God — they will serve to set the people free and they prepare the way for a community of justice and hope and peace.
Then, says Malachi, they will live in a land of delight. The temple may still be a ruins, their economy may still splutter and struggle, and the people may still dress in sackcloth for having nothing else — but they will live in a land of delight for the offerings of their lives will be of a piece with their worship. And they shall see and their hearts thrill. Amen