The Meaning of Money

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”   Matthew 22: 15-22

So … what’s in your wallet?  What does your money say to you?

What the coin said to Jesus was: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus in a trap when they send their disciples to him, along with the followers of King Herod.  The disciples of the Pharisees try to bait the trap with some smooth talk, by saying:  “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

It doesn’t work.  He’s aware of their nastiness, and is definitely on guard when they say, “Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

The trap has been set, and Jesus is going to have to move nimbly to avoid springing it.  Jesus asks:  “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”

Jesus knows that they’re asking about a particular tax, one that can be paid only in Roman coin.  Problem is, the coin contains an image and an inscription — “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, high priest” — a person considered heretical by devout Jews.

If Jesus says “Yes, it’s lawful to pay,” he alienates the Jewish nation; if he says “No,” he risks arrest by the Romans.  It’s a lose-lose proposition.

But Jesus spots a way out.  He asks the disciples of the Pharisees for the coin used for the tax, and they give him one — notice that the Pharisees are in possession of the sacrilegious coin, not Jesus!  He asks them:  “Whose head is this and whose title?  The emperor’s,” they answer, wondering what he’s getting at.

Then, in one quick move, he slips completely out of their trap.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”

By saying that what is already the emperor’s should be given to him, Jesus avoids a direct yes or no response — one that would get him in serious trouble with either the Jews or the Romans.  But in answering the way he does, he gives an indirect yes.  He implies that paying this tax is not against the Jewish law.

But he then goes beyond the question asked by the Pharisees and says that what is God’s must be given to God.

Loyalty to God is on a different and much higher level of importance than simple earthly loyalty to the emperor.

What about the disciples of the Pharisees?  They realize that Jesus has escaped.  Amazed, they leave him and go away.

There’s certainly a lot of meaning to be found in money.  Jesus knows that money is a major factor in the shaping of our lives, and he focuses on it a great deal in his ministry; in fact, his focus on money is second only to his focus on the kingdom of God.

For Jesus, money is to be used to pay taxes to the emperor, but also to advance God’s work in the world.

The meaning of money is that it’s an asset, a resource for us to put to work in the world.  If you listen carefully, your money is saying, “Use me.”

As good stewards we are called to use the resources that we have been given to advance the interests of “the master” in the world.  That’s precisely what it means to be doing in the work of Christian stewardship.

Everything we possess has been given to us by our loving Lord in a wild gesture of generosity.  We don’t really own anything ourselves, but instead we care for the things that belong to God for as long as we are allowed to walk this earth.

We relish them, we delight in them, we manage them … but then we let go of them.  So why not let go in a way that advances God’s interests?  It’s true that we have to give some coins to the emperor — death and taxes are two of life’s certainties.  But beyond this we have a great deal of freedom to exercise in the use of our assets, and it is good for us to learn how to be generous with the money we have.

Anne Lamott, author of “Traveling Mercies,” says:

“I know that if I feel any deprivation or fear about money, the solution is to give.  Because I know that giving is the way we can feel abundant, giving is the way that we fill ourselves up.”

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Lloyd, the former dean of Washington’s National Cathedral, has some tremendous insights into stewardship; he makes the point that since we live in a consumer culture, we need help in learning how to be generous.  He says:

“The poor can help us, since they tend to practice greater generosity than the rich.  The Bible can help us, since it recommends the tithe — a 10% gift that helps us to give in a disciplined way.  Money is an important part of our spiritual life.  We need to learn how to express our beliefs not only with our words, but with our wallets.”

In the religious cartoon Pontius’ Puddle, a pastor is shown giving Pontius a basket full of fruit, saying, “Here, Pontius. I’m giving food baskets to members who earn below the poverty line.”  Pontius asks, “What makes you think my salary is that small.”  The pastor responds, “I took your annual giving to the church and multiplied it by 10.”

So … what’s in your wallet?  What’s it saying to you?  And how are you going to use your money?

At a Wednesday evening church meeting, a very wealthy man rose to give his testimony.

“I’m a millionaire,” he said, “and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life.  “I can still remember the turning point in my faith, like it was yesterday. I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work.  I knew that I only had a dollar and that I had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole dollar to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.”

As he finished, it was clear that everyone had been moved by this man’s story.  But, as he took his seat, a little old lady sitting in the same pew leaned over and said: “Wonderful story!  I dare you to do it again!”

Dr. Lloyd notices that people will give generously when they believe that there is an important mission at work, and when they see real opportunities to advance God’s interests in the world.  This requires being clear about the mission and ministry of the church, and adding concrete details to the invitation of Jesus to give “to God the things that are God’s.”

People will give with boldness and generosity when they see:

  1. Mission projects that heal the sick and liberate the oppressed…
  2. Christian education programs that shape the hearts and minds of children and adults …
  3. Worship services that glorify God and uplift the people …
  4. Fellowship activities that move people from isolation to community and from casual acquaintance to deep-spirited friendship.

These are all opportunities to advance God’s interests in the world, and to serve a Lord of love and generosity by living lives of love and generosity.

We tend to worry a lot about money; we follow the stock market on a daily basis, we closely monitor our portfolios and our 401k’s, it can drive us crazy as we track all the ups and downs. What are we to do when the market goes down; we can yell and curse about our losses, we can complain and play the blame game or we can make peace with it and understand that loss is a part of life and that life can be rediscovered in loss.

It brings into question what really matters, what really counts in life?

Rabbi Steven Leder in his book, “More Money than God,” tells the story about one of his high school youth group members who returned to Los Angles after a semester of living in South America.  He asked her what was the biggest difference between the village she lived in and where she lives in Los Angeles?

She answered without hesitation:  “People are happier there, they have so much less than any of us, yet they celebrate more.  They sing and dance more.  Their families eat together.  People take care of each other when they’re sick, and they help their neighbors when they are in trouble.”

How often do we sit down to eat as a family?  How many of us know our neighbors, let alone reach out to them when they are in trouble?

When was the last time you sang and danced?

What is true wealth, if not friends, children, family, and a life spent helping and cherishing others?

Today in the midst of this church’s time of transition, today in the midst of this year’s fall stewardship campaign, we have a chance:

  • to rediscover the meaning of money;
  • to rediscover the meaning of life;
  • to make peace and to understand that loss is a part of life and that life can be rediscovered in loss.

This is the day to stop wishing for a better life and to start making one.  Don’t wait until it is too late to be grateful for what you have.  Ask yourself:

  • Do you spend enough time with your spouse and children?
  • Do you lose your temper with your children, your spouse, or your parents?
  • Do you abuse your bodies with too much food and drink?
  • Do you abuse your mind with too much time on the internet, too much television, or too much gossip?
  • Do you abuse the earth with too much careless waste?
  • Are you really doing something for the poor and hungry?
  • Are you fair and just in your business dealings?
  • Do you practice hospitality here at church and in your daily lives?
  • Are you kind to strangers whom you will never see again, in line, in traffic, or on the telephone?

These are simple acts of goodness, but they ultimately are what make our lives and the lives of others so much richer.

Let us take advantage of the opportunities that are right before our eyes:  Opportunities to advance God’s interests in the world;

Opportunities to serve a Lord of love and generosity by living lives of love and generosity.

Take a look at a typical American coin and you won’t see the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”  Instead, you’ll see the words “In God We Trust,” and “Liberty.”

The phrase “In God We Trust” challenges us to rely on our good and gracious God, and to believe that God will care for us in the future, just as God has cared for us in the past. The word “Liberty” reminds us that we are free to be generous in our giving, as faithful stewards of the great abundance that the Lord has given us.

Let us trust in a loving and generous God; let us do so with liberty to support God’s work that takes place in and through this church.

I like the quote that is attributed to Winston Churchill:

“We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

That’s the meaning of money.

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”