“What Belongs to God?” (Sunday 10/16/11)

What Belongs to God?

Matthew 22: 15- 22


Here’s what today’s gospel reading reminds me of:   You know how it is when you are in the check out line at the grocery store and you’re thinking, Wow, I put more in the cart than I meant to? Or maybe you’re just thinking, Can’t wait for everyone to come over tonight and watch the movie while we eat these brownies. Or maybe you’re not thinking anything at all, just ready to pay and get out of there, on to your next errand.

And then the question comes:  “Do you want to help the children who starve today?”  It’s always like that, a completely impossible question which no normal person wants to answer “no” to – as in, “No, I do not want to help starving children.”  The question never comes in a format where you can still be a humane human and answer negatively.  They never say, “Would you like to make a donation?”  No, it’s always extreme, demanding a “yes” answer:  “Do you care about homeless grandmothers?”  Who is going to say “no” to that?

I know, I know.  People who didn’t do time as English majors probably don’t fret over these things like I do.  You probably just say, “Can’t today” and move on with your life.  But I fret.  I get annoyed.  I am offended to be asked a question with only one “right” answer – a question that is not really a question but an intimidating invitation to join in whatever they’re pushing.

Of course I’m not here to preach against homeless grandmothers, starving children, or generously giving money to people who ask for your help.  All I’m pointing out is the impossible question and how it sounds like an echo of the one the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus.  The kind of question that requires a certain answer, the kind of question that misleads you or starts from an un-shared assumption.  In the case of the cashier, the assumption is that if I care about starving homeless grandmothers then I will agree that giving money right then and there to that particular fund is the best and most appropriate way to show I care and do something about the situation.

In Jesus’ case the assumption is more devious.  The Pharisees ask him about paying taxes to the emperor (Mt. 22: 17).  Is it lawful?  It’s a simple “yes” or “no” question.   Lawful or not.

But Jesus refuses the initial premise of the question.  He reframes it.  He says, It’s not about paying taxes or not, it’s about knowing where your allegiances lie.

He asks his questioners whose image is on the coin used to pay the tax and they respond that it’s an image of the emperor.  What Matthew (and Mark and Luke) record him saying is, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (vv. 19-21).

It is a question meant to entrap him:  either you choose the emperor and deny God or you choose God and incur the penalty for unlawfulness.  Jesus avoids the trap and somehow manages to answer the question while also going beyond it (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, p. 420).  His answer enables and condones paying taxes but it also renders the question moot.  If I give to God the things that are God’s, isn’t that everything?

During our forum last Thursday night, Annie Thompson asked the question, “How much of yourself do you give to God?”  She was talking about choosing a career.  She was talking about weighing her options between what she’d been dreaming of doing and what –she feared – God was asking her to do.  It’s a great question:  How much of yourself do you give to God?  Everything, all of me, right?

It might be that God asks you to give up something that you have been planning for and dreaming about or it might be that God gives you the dream to begin with and asks you to use that dreamed-of profession or plan for the glory of God rather than for your own glory.  But what does that look like?  Surely it’s not so easy as just doing what we want and then slapping on the press-ready statement, “I give all the glory to God.”  Is it?  It is not an easy or automatic thing to live your life so that a statement like that is unnecessary – to live your life so that it reflects the God who gives you life.

How am I a daughter and wife and sister and step-mother and pastor who gives to God what belongs to God?  How do you live your life as a student for God?  How can you give your love and skill for engineering to God?  What does a nurse who gives everything to God look like?  How about a friend, community member, church member….?  How do we live each day with thankfulness and homage to the One who holds all our days?


I noticed a small detail in the Amanda Knox story a couple of weeks ago.  As you remember, she is the American who was studying abroad in Italy and subsequently imprisoned for 4 years for the alleged murder of her roommate.  Just a couple of weeks ago that conviction was overturned and she was released and sent home to the US.  The week before the freeing verdict was issued, a reporter was commenting on the tense time and how her family and friends and she herself were dealing with all the tension and waiting.  In describing the sort of thoughtful, goal-oriented person she is, the reporter mentioned that Amanda had written two lists of life goals:  one for life in prison and one for life back home.    What struck me about that detail is that the underlying assumption on Amanda’s part seems to be that her life will have direction.  At that point, whether or not she would be freed was largely out of her hands.  But what was firmly in her control was how she would live – no matter where she lived.

How will you live, no matter where you live?  Who will you live for, no matter where you are and who you’re with?

I am not going to ask you an impossible, obnoxious question like:  do you want to be an interior designer or do you want to live your life for God?  That’s a “cashier question” with one right answer and a lot of unshared assumptions.  I don’t think God asks questions like that of us.  I think God might ask to see our lists, might ask how we will live no matter where we live.

The question is too easy and uninteresting.  What about all the options – all the facets for reflecting the light of God in this complex and beautiful world?  You can be a potter who insists on honoring and reveling in the time it takes to create something that will be held and used as people gather for daily meals…an interior designer who brings beauty to homes so that the people who live in them know how to be more beautiful in the world outside their homes…a janitor who knows the kids by name and understands that to be as important as how clean the school hallways are….or you might not be able to figure out how you do your job for God, so you pray about it and in the meantime, do it well, honestly, and don’t limit your “everything for God” life to your working hours.  This can’t be confined to 40 hours per week anyway – it’s a lifestyle and a lifelong pursuit.

Well maybe I am going to ask an obnoxious question:  How are you giving your whole life to God, right now, this week – at the football game, on Facebook, in the dorm, in class, at Starbucks?  That’s exactly where the work is.  Right now is exactly where God is asking something of you – it’s not postpone-able until you have your degree and have settled into your first place and your first paycheck.

In the first worship service of our semester, we listened to the story of Moses encountering God in the burning bush.  I mentioned then that God is lighting things on fire just to catch your attention and get you to turn aside.  Have you been looking?  Are you listening?  What was God saying to you in chemistry last week?  How is God getting your attention in your most-hated class?  In your relationships?  And how are you paying attention so that you can see where you need to re-align your life with God – to give to God what belongs to God?

Thanks be to God!


© 2008, 2011 Deborah E. Lewis