Whose Coin Is It?

“For a small reward, a man will hurry away on a long journey; while for eternal life, many will hardly take a single step.” ― Thomas à Kempis

PRAYER: (from the Lectionary)

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ You have revealed Your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of Your mercy, that Your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of Your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

SCRIPTURES: (from the Lectionary)

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:15-22 NKJV)

PRAYER FOCUS: God and Government

The sit-in protesters in Zuccotti Park were angry. They didn’t have the things they expected to have. They wanted—no, they demanded—that someone should do something about that. They “occupied Wall Street” by camping out in one of New York City’s tiniest green spaces.

The youthful protesters wanted “the rich” to pay for a growing list of services including Free College Education (#4) and Forgiveness of All Student Loans (#13). They lamented the lack of “good” jobs available. They demanded a “living wage” for all work, however menial. And, of course, they demanded to have it all right now.

The mainline news media initially reported these protesters as a nascent political movement. And yet, as time wore on it was clear they were no such thing. Reporters and cameramen meandered through the gaggle searching for a soundbite—the weirder, the angrier, the better.

Your humble writers were there, Christian, and witnessed this event first-hand. Our first impression was the smell—a noxious cloud of marijuana smoke, urine and alcohol whiff, plus several days’ worth of body odor that drifted for a city block or two. There was trash and detritus everywhere. It was not pretty. Our next impression of the protest was its size. We had been led to believe this was a large movement. It wasn’t. There might have been three hundred people at noon on a Saturday in New York City. They were outnumbered by the news crews and police.

In an exquisite irony never captured by the media, the Zuccotti squatters were surrounded by monuments to the opportunity and success they claimed to crave—massive skyscrapers, profitable businesses, the economic engines that power a national economy. A mere block away, two more giant buildings were going up, including the new Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center. Help Wanted banners and Union flags hung from the mid-level floors, testifying to the fact that work can be a profitable, accessible, endeavor for all.

In another irony, also ignored by the media, two blocks away from the protest circus, the Trinity Episcopal Church was holding Alpha-style seminars on Christianity for the benefit of the protesters. May God bless the leaders of this historic church who initiated the outreach, as well as those who stepped up to have one-on-one discussions with some young people who very much needed to hear about Jesus and the Gospel message.

The “Occupy” crowd may not have accomplished very much during their time in the park. But they did manage to bring wide attention to the question of government, work, and taxes.

Two thousand years ago, in the middle of another tax revolt, Jesus of Nazareth was asked whether it was “lawful to pay taxes—or not?” Except Jesus didn’t say whether it is right or wrong to pay taxes. His careful response comes in the form of another question: “Whose image and inscription are on this coin?”

Jesus disarms his questioners and their agenda with, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Although this week’s Lectionary Scripture is from Matthew, all three of the Synoptic Gospels recount this episode essentially verbatim. It sets up a certain tension between our allegiance to governmental authority and our allegiance to our Heavenly Father. It also clarifies the hierarchy in these allegiances that we confuse at our peril. The relationship of Christians to secular authority can become fraught with moral questions over which things are Caesar’s are which are God’s.

The coin bore the likeness of Tiberius Caesar and a Latin inscription identifying him as the sovereign Emperor of Rome. The coin, and the tax, belonged to Caesar. Likewise, we owe our nation a large measure of allegiance. We can be called upon to serve in the military, participate in a jury pool, and though we grumble, we are routinely called upon to pay taxes.

Human beings are created in the image of the Living God. As Christians, we have His Word inscribed in our minds and His Eternal Spirit in our hearts. We belong to Him. We owe to our Lord our ultimate allegiance, tithes and offerings, our worship and praise, even our lives.

In Jesus’ time, economic life and success were governed by civil authorities that included the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar and Jewish King Herod. They were corrupt, oppressive, deviant and idolatrous tyrants, and yet there is not one recorded word of Jesus directly opposing them. In our Scripture we see Jesus tacitly acknowledging the authority of earthly governments—even bad ones. Paul explicitly acknowledges this in Romans 13:1. Absence of civil authority is a disaster.

Jesus came to save people, not governments. Consider the church that was quietly reaching into the congregation of misguided youth in Zuccotti Park. We may never know who those faithful brothers and sisters were, or what the fruits of their labor will be. But we do know the Lord’s laborers were in the field that day, “persevering with steadfast faith,” sharing the gospel and handing out coins of the heavenly realm.

This week please pray for all those who labor, and for those who are seeking work. Pray for business leaders, elected officials, and church leaders. And pray for the lost among all of them.

It’s Monday Morning. Like the coin in this week’s Scripture, whose image and inscription does your life bear?

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