The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2017
You may notice each week that the front cover of the leaflet usually features a Northern European woodcut that somehow comments on the gospel reading itself--an image depicting the scene in the gospel, or somehow commenting on it. This pairing of art and text is the exegetical work of our fine parish administrator, whose attention to the service leaflet is itself a ministry, and for which I am grateful. This week, however, the image that best suited the reading was a small one, one buried inside your leaflet, the image of the denarius, with the emperor Tiberius’s likeness on it. This coin, probably worth about a day’s wage for a farm laborer, is probably the same one that the Pharisees brought to Jesus when he asked them to show the coin used to pay taxes to the emperor.
The image of the coin was too small to feature well on the front page of the service leaflet, however, and so we defaulted to the image of the interior of Christ Church, the engraving you see there before the rood screen was added. This prompted a conversation about what it might mean to have a picture of the nave on the front of the leaflet. If the image on the front cover of the leaflet is usually a commentary on the gospel, what does it mean for the pictureto be the building itself? What are we saying by putting an image of a physical thing, real property, the building itself, on the cover of the leaflet? Can a building be gospel commentary? What need does God have of physical things like buildings, like money?
The Pharisees have plenty of questions like this for Jesus in today’s gospel reading. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? The Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus. They’re trying to get him to say that the Jewish people, that his followers, that anyone in earshot can ignore the demands of the Emperor to pay taxes. That everything belongs to God. Jesus surprises them by pointing out that the emperor’s image is on the coin, and, as the old Authorized translation says, they should “render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) But Jesus surprises them by saying, yes, do your duty. Pay taxes--give what’s required for the common upkeep of society.
And we get that. We understand that we have to pay taxes. Or that we have a moral obligation to pay taxes. A commitment to one another in the social contract that is our common life together in society.
We even understand that we have an obligation to give above and beyond the tax, the amount needed to fund our civil society. And we call that not an obligation but a duty--philanthropy--the love of humanity, expressed in our generous giving to help one another, especially those in great need. Philanthropy is a great thing. It’s our duty.
We are obligated to pay taxes, to participate in our part of the social contract. We are bound by duty and moral conscience to help one another, to participate in philanthropy, the love of humanity, by giving to causes that help our fellow humans--the arts, disaster relief, poverty relief and recovery programs. All of these are deserving of support.
But what about God? What are we to give to God? What does God need from us? Sometimes I miss that second part of Jesus’s directive--render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, sure, we understand that. That was what the Pharisees were listening for. Would he upset the political order. But the far more radical thing that Jesus says is the second part of that statement: “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”
Well, what are we to make of that? If God made the world, everything belongs to God, right? So where do we draw the line? What is it that Jesus is saying, really?
And why would God need our money anyway? Salvation has been paid for by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can’t buy our way into it. We can’t earn salvation through good works. It’s only available through the grace of God. And besides, what would God do with money, anyway? Isn’t asking for money in the church just a continuation of a collusion with empire, the Constantinian model of doing church continuing into our present day, dying a long, slow death? Think about it. Maybe Jesus could buy a bunch of bread with a denarius, or some clothes, or new sandals, but the resurrected and ascended Jesus surely doesn’t need coin. God doesn’t need our money. God is, after all, fully spiritual! God has no need of material things like money.
I hear those arguments sometimes when I talk about tangible things like money, or buildings, or heating bills and roofing slates. And there’s a great story that Antony Bloom, the late Orthodox Metropolitan of London, tells about material things and God. It’s a story about Moses and a shepherd.
Moses spent the day with the shepherd in the desert, tending his sheep together, observing, milking, herding them. At the end of the day, as they were settling down for the night, Moses noticed that the shepherd poured a little of the best milk into a bowl and set it on a rock away from the camp. Curious, Moses asked what the shepherd was doing. He replied, “Each night I take some of the best milk from the day and set it aside as an offering for God.” Moses, much wiser and more sophisticated than the simple shepherd, was amused, and asked, “Well, does God drink it?” The shepherd assured him that, yes, God drank the milk! It was always gone by the next morning.
Moses smiled and explained to the shepherd that God, being spirit, has no need of material things. There was no way that God could drink the milk. The shepherd was mistaken.
To settle the disagreement, the little shepherd hid behind some bushes and stayed awake all night, hoping to get a glimpse of God coming to drink the milk.
Later that night, while Moses was sound asleep, the shepherd, barely able to keep his eyelids open, spied a little fox creeping across the desert towards the rock. The little fox sneaked over to the bowl, lapped up all the fresh milk, and ran off as quickly as he’d come.
The next morning, the shepherd dutifully reported to Moses that, indeed, Moses was right. Crestfallen, the shepherd conceded that, indeed, God had no need for his milk—it was just a little fox drinking it. “Why, this is good news!” Moses told the disappointed shepherd. “Now you know more about God than you did before.” But the shepherd was still sad. He explained to Moses that the one thing he could do for God was now useless. His act of love was useful only in his own head. His eyes now opened to the truth, that night he set out no milk on the rock.
Moses, surprised by this turn in the shepherd’s emotions, thought about this for a while. And that night, while he slept, God appeared to him in a dream. “Moses, why did you deprive me of the milk the shepherd used to offer me?” God asked. Moses, rather stunned, said to God, “But you had no need of it! I was only trying to help the shepherd know you better. To teach him that you are spirit!”
“Moses,” God replied, “you were wrong. It’s true that I am spirit and that I have no need of the milk. But the little fox quite likes milk. And it was my joy to share it with him.”
It is exactly true that God has no need of our gifts, our offerings, our money. But God can use them for God’s good purposes. The shepherd had no idea he was feeding the little fox. But God knew. His gift was taken and transformed by God, sent back to do God’s will, God’s work, in the world. Cyrus the Great, whom we hear about in our reading from Isaiah today, wasn’t even Jewish, and yet God used Cyrus to free God’s people in exile in Babylon. Mary, engaged to Joseph, unmarried, just a young girl, had no idea that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Jesus, the Christ, and yet God used her faithfulness to accomplish God’s good purposes of reconciliation, of salvation, in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. God can take our offerings of ourselves, our souls, our bodies, our time, our involvement, our prayer, and yes, our money--the resources given to us by God--given back to God--and, like the bread of the Eucharistic feast, take them, bless, break, and give them back, transformed, to do the work of building God’s kingdom.
It’s true, friends, God does not need our gifts. But he can use them, just as God used the action of the simple shepherd and used it to accomplish God’s ongoing creative will in the world. The little fox was fed through this simple action of the shepherd’s gift to God.
But what’s more, the shepherd himself needed to make that gift to God. When it was taken away from him, his relationship with God was broken. Sharing the milk, giving the first, the best of his milk back to God, from God’s gift to him--this was an act of love and service to God. He didn’t even mean to feed the little fox--that was God’s work--but his work was loving God. Being in relationship with God. And giving the milk, setting out that small saucer each night, was his work.
And that’s what Moses learns in the story--that the shepherd needs to give. That giving is a part of the shepherd’s right relationship with God. That in giving, the shepherd is transformed. That the shepherd is incorporated into the saving works of God, through God’s grace, involved in this simple act of sharing. Taking, blessing, breaking, and giving--the cycle of thanksgiving into which we are invited, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the Mass, in this very moment, in all time.
Moses surely knew this; he would have known that Abraham gave a tithe, one tenth, of what he had as an offering through the priest Melchizedek. (Gen 14:20) Jacob at Bethel, after his dream, promised a tenth of what he had as an offering to God. (Gen 28:22) The law assumes an offering, a tithe, one tenth, of what the earth yields, of produce or livestock, is offered to God. (Leviticus 27:30-32, Deuteronomy 14:22-23)
The shepherd knows about the law. He knows that we’re expected to give one tenth of our first fruits, the bounty of our labor, gifts given to us from God, back to God. And that’s what he does with his little saucer of milk. But he’s not giving out of obligation. It’s not an obligation, like a tax. It’s not even a duty, like philanthropy. This is a wholly different sort of giving. The shepherd is giving out of joy. He’s giving because his gift describes a relationship--a love for God--a reflection of the love that God has for him, in God’s creation and perseveration of the shepherd and his sheep, in the relationship and love that the Great Shepherd has for us.
Friends, we give out of joy, of the first fruits that God has given us. And this giving changes us. It is an expression of our love for God. It is a way of keeping God first. It’s an expression of God’s love for us.
Render unto Caesar, sure. We know how to do that. We have forms and accountants and laws for how to do that. But rendering unto God the things that are God’s; are we quite as clear about that? The second part of the commandment is the big one!
And sure, there are plenty of reasons that we might not give. That we might not give enough. Or even at all. Maybe it’s not convenient to bring cash. Maybe you don’t use cash or even checks--just your bank card or electronic payments. Well, there’s a url right in your bulletin where you can make a gift online. There are cards in the back of the church that you can drop in the almsbasin when it comes by that say you’ve made a gift online so that everyone can participate in this action of offering--the taking, breaking, blessing, and giving of thanksgiving, of the Eucharistic feast.
But I suspect the real reason we’re uncomfortable around conversations about giving is far larger.
Over the last few weeks you may have noticed a new wooden almsbasin in the lady chapel. It replaces a wooden almsbasin that was taken a few months ago. When the almsbasin was missing from its usual spot in the chair in the front row of the chapel, often the mass server would forget to bring out an almsbasin from the sacristy, and often we’d just forget to pass the plate entirely at the weekday masses. We’d forgotten to give. Last week at a daily mass I was in the congregation, and I made a point of asking a parishioner to pass the plate. There were nervous twitters and even a good-natured laugh as the plate was passed around and came back empty. No one had prepared, no one had cash on hand, to drop in the plate. I asked someone, one of the Hildans, actually, afterwards why he thought folks had laughed--what that was about. And he replied, “Well, we all know each other pretty well in the House, and we know how poor we are. We didn’t have anything to offer.”
I suspect that’s more true to the point about all of us. We believe we are too poor to offer anything to God. Like the little shepherd, we are doing the very best we can to care for our own sheep, to lead our own lives, and in this time of scarcity there’s not enough to do any more.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
We have every blessing we can imagine. We have life, and health, and hope. We have Christian community. We have the very presence of God amongst us--a God who creates and sustains, who redeems and loves us, who longs to be with us so much that God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
The shepherd is not rich by earthly standards. But his heart is full of love for God. And God takes his saucer of milk, the first fruits of his labor, and blesses it, and uses it for the healing of the world.
Friends, today, this week, this month until Advent, I invite you to think about how we give. How we render unto God the things that are God’s. How God has given to us. And I invite you to be always giving. How will you give that saucer of milk, that tenth of what God has given you, that first fruits of your labor, to God? If you don’t believe you can, what’s stopping you? What barrier is in the way, and what does it mean? God has broken every barrier down to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ. Let us render unto God the things that are God’s, of the great love he has for us.
 The story of Moses and the fox is told by Anthony Bloom in Beginning to Pray (New York: Paulist, 1970), pp 48-49. (Also published as School for Prayer, London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd)