Who you gonna pay?
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For October 22 2017, 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time and Pledge Sunday
Based on Matt 22:15-22
This reading comes from a section of Matthew’s gospel focused on Jesus as a teacher. We depart from a series of parables to a story of value. The set up is familiar: the Pharisees try to draw Jesus into a public debate. They also try to set up a no-win situation with the way they pose their question. The King James has Jesus respond “Render unto Caesar” – a phrase still so familiar it frequently shows up on quizzes to identify which phrases come from the bible or Shakespeare. Hear now Jesus most familiar comments on how to use money.
When I was in high school there was a story about Mr. Hill, the science teacher. Once upon a time, he administered an exam with a question something like “Explain why two hydrogen atoms bond with one oxygen atom to form one molecule of water.” A mythic student responded “Because God made it that way.” Mr. Hill gave full credit for the answer.
So it was with excitement that almost everyone entered Mr. hill’s classroom. And the day before the first exam, he would confirm that, yes, indeed, that story did happen: one student long ago had answered an exam question “Because God made it that way” and Mr. Hill did award full credit for the answer – because as far as Mr. Hill knew the answer is true (and according to the laws of physics it cannot be disproven). However, Mr. Hill stated, having accepted that answer once he would not again accept that answer – so no one should try it. If anyone dared, (and every year there seemed to be one student who tried it) they would learn he took off the maximum points for the answer – because, he said, this is a class in science, not theology. (That was the first time I heard that there were actually classes in theology …)
Chemistry, physics, algebra, trigonometry: there’s one right answer to the exam question. So much of life is much more complex. We’d like to be able to reduce these complex problems to simplified either/or options, because then there’s a right way and a wrong way.
The Pharisees want the use of money to be either/or: either use it for holy purposes in God’s name or use it for secular purposes connected to empire. They know the question is more complex than that. Still, they want to embarrass Jesus, so they ask a trick question. If Jesus says money should be used only for holy purposes, then he is being treasonous – and under Roman law could be arrested. If he says money should be used only for secular purposes, then he is demonstrating allegiance to Rome instead of God.
Jesus refuses to be drawn into an over-simplified either/or option. Jesus says the answer is not that simple. We have to be diligent in discerning what is God’s and what is the world’s. We have to apply our wisdom, our insight to identify what is needed at this time. Is it more faithful to give money to the church or to devote your volunteer time to the church? If we say money, then we are discrediting a large number of acts of faith like prayer and visiting those in need and upholding integrity. If we say volunteering is more faithful, then we are denying the importance of financial responsibility as an act of faith.
Good stewardship requires an answer that is less simple. We have to be diligent in the way we financial support the congregation. We also must be steadfast in the ways we work on behalf of the congregation to provide ministries of grace. Is this an individual decision or congregational discernment? It’s not either / or. Sometimes we are called upon as individuals to step forward, to take initiative, to be in charge. At other times we need to work together on a shared sense of moving together, because our witness is within our ability to work as a community.
Through all of our resources, through all of our skills, through all of our experiences, we are called to greater wisdom to discern how God is at work in this circumstance, among these people, at this moment. It might be like how God acted before, so we might be able to respond to God the way we always have – but then again this might be a new action of God’s that requires us to respond in a new way. This is the more difficult call to stewardship today: not only must we be faithful, not only are we to be generous, but we must also be wise.
My prayer for Lyonsville is that this time of considering financial stewardship has also been a time for considering the stewardship of your many gifts, material and immaterial, personal and corporate, honored by time and emerging with the future. Thank you for your dedication to this expression of God’s compassion.