Sermon for Third Presbyterian Church on February 6, 2022 with special thanks to our friends at Waverly Presbyterian Church for their example of God’s love in our neighborhood.
Mark 12:13-17 (NRSV)
The Question about Paying Taxes
13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
Jesus sees the false flattery, hears the trick question and instead of answering yes or no (either of which gets him in trouble) he gives them a command, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “The yes answer would lose Jesus support with those who value resistance; a no answer would present Jesus as treasonous.” (Wisdom Commentary p. 333) Instead, Jesus gives new meaning to paying the tax and affirms that everything belongs to God.
The Greek translation offers some help in understanding exactly what this payment represents. The Wisdom Commentary explains that “The NRSV translation of the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question refers to paying “taxes” in the plural (12:14). The Greek term, though, , is singular, referring to a poll tax, or a tax per head, levied after the defeat in 70 CE. Emperor Vespasian co-opted the temple tax and repurposed it to mark Jews as a defeated people. He added insult to injury by using it to maintain the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome, the deity understood to have blessed Rome with victory!” (Wisdom Commentary p. 333) The tax in question is only paid by Jews to remind them of their defeat. If they don’t pay it, they are charged with treason. And just to drive home how oppressed the emperor wants them to feel, he earmarks that money to the idol that he claims gave Rome the victory. The only thing that belongs to Caesar is what has come from him. Jesus is telling them give the idiot his god-forsaken, idol-worshipping, narcissism back. Rid yourselves of the image of the emperor on that the idol coin in your pocket, and instead focus on giving God what belongs to God.
What Jesus says we interpret as a reference to Psalms. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” proclaims Psalm 24. For the people listening to Jesus, Cesar has defeated them, but they believe in what Psalm 24 tells us about God. Our God is the king of glory, the God who won the battle over chaos to create the world. The king of glory enters the gates of the temple and the gates of the heavenly realm. Psalm 24 has a ‘was, is, shall be, forevermore’ feel to it. God is eternal. The emperor is not.
God creates everything, initiates relationship with us that we then maintain with God’s help, to care for creation and each other, as we prepare for the inbreaking of the reign of God again. We prepare for God’s inbreaking by living in a way that God has shown us. Having clean hands and pure hearts means we have not wronged our neighbor and that we love God. We love God who is righteous, just, loving, and faithful we must also be these things to stand in God’s presence. Psalm 24 is a cycle of God conquering chaos, bringing life (or renewed life), and helping us maintain relationship with God and each other. This cycle is kin-dom without end, it is transformative work. The mighty will be brought down, the oppressed will be lifted up. The values of this world, the values the emperor holds, will be turned upside-down.
Third Church we are not an oppressed people paying a tax because we have been conquered. But what this text tells us is that we can let the idiots have their day, because we believe that everything ultimately belongs to our eternal God. Those in charge won’t always be in charge (and that includes us). Nothing lasts forever except for the love of God. But when we give to God what belongs to God, our loving relationships will last forever. The things we build will come crashing down, like bridges.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Fern Hollow Bridge and even though we all knew it wasn’t the most structurally sound bridge in the city we didn’t expect it to fall like that. We think people have built bridges that will last, but physical structures fail. Next to the bridge is a structure where our friends and neighbors’ worship. That building won’t last forever either, but what has been show to last is the bridges that community has built with God and neighbor. Waverly Presbyterian Church loves their neighbors without exception, and this week they got to prove it.
Our friend, their pastor, Caitlin Werth organized volunteers from Waverly and the surrounding neighborhood to open their church as a refuge for the first responders and those affected by the bridge collapse. Around the clock volunteers have kept the doors open, the heat on, the bathrooms clean, and the coffee hot. I talked to Caitlin when I saw a post that they needed more Styrofoam coffee cups but that need was abundantly filled before I could get cups from our pantry to Waverly. She says that the community has really rallied, and she is overwhelmed by people’s generosity. If you are following Waverly Presbyterian Church on Facebook, you can see the love that is pouring out from them and the community around them. One of their posts has a picture of their church and the road closed signs and the first responder vehicles and reads “Don’t be overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world. All things can be broken, and all things can be mended – not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go, love intentionally, love extravagantly, love unconditionally.”
Friends, Waverly is describing the love of God. They are giving to God what belongs to God by loving their neighbors. The Saturday January 30th Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Joel Jacobs and Jesse Bunch, quotes Rev. Werth, she says, “We really believe as a church that our call to live in this world is to share God’s love, and to do that requires action”.
The kingdom of this world, the sick system we pay taxes into to build things that don’t last is crumbling and the kin-dom of God is thriving. We can witness it in our own neighborhood.
So, go ahead and pay your taxes this year. Give to our government what belongs to our government. I’ll pause here a moment so you can fill in what that means to you, so I won’t get into trouble saying out loud what I think it means. Pay your taxes, but also, as Jesus says, give to God what is Gods.
Friends, implementing our mission study is all about giving to God what belongs to God. It’s time to be done with the reading and studying and analyzing and begin anew the work of love that requires action. Let us as a congregation, as partners with our neighbors, as people who believe in the enteral God, invest in the kin-dom of God. Let us move forward in our mission to the city and the world. Let us put our love in our actions.
“Don’t be overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world. All things can be broken, and all things can be mended – not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go, love intentionally, love extravagantly, love unconditionally.”