Who first said, "Show me the money?" No, not Cuba Gooding, Jr, but in today's Gospel, it is Jesus who says, "Show me the money ... used for the tax!" (RSV) The Gospel is not about the separation of church and state. Such a thing never would have occurred to anyone in first century Israel. What it is, is very funny! The religious and political authorities tried to set a trap for Jesus and ended up being hoist upon their own petard!
Jesus, rather than answering their question directly asks them a question, thus turning their trap inside out and upside down. By simply producing a coin with the emperor's image on it, they have exposed their own hypocrisy. It amounted to an idol, a graven image claiming to be divine. Then, never missing the teachable moment, Jesus declares, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's!"
"Oops! I guess we are no match for this guy," they say to themselves, and slink away.
For after all, what is there that is not God's? What is there that is not from God? Seen and unseen, we say, God has made it all, and continues to make new and marvelous things for all of us. Which is why we sing in our Psalm this morning, "Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the whole earth ...declare his glory among the nations, and his wonders among the peoples... As for all the gods of the nations they are but idols..."
Idols are what the Pharisees and Herodians were carrying in their pockets -- gold and silver, money cast as religion.
The Bible gets really worked up over this business of idols. And it has to do with where one places one's security base: with the God of the Exodus and Resurrection, or with the gods of money, commerce, property, accumulation, acquisition, and consumption?
Much of the Bible reflects on this question. And Jesus talks about this more than any other single topic after the Kingdom of God. And the question really revolves around life's hard places. In the Bible the "hard places" would be wilderness, exile, and crucifixion. Places of experienced abandonment, scarce resources, enslavement to a place or a system, and so on. So who or what is going to save you in the end, is the primary question of faith.
Since Jesus makes a joke out of the situation, we might reflect on one of the funnier places in the Bible to work on this, Psalm 115, which paraphrased goes something like this:
Our God is in heaven
And our God gets to do whatever he wants to
You don't get to vote on it, you don't get to challenge it,
What A God!
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of human hands
They have mouths and they cannot speak,
They have eyes but they cannot see,
They have ears but they cannot hear,
They have noses but they cannot smell,
They have hands but they cannot feel,
Feet but they cannot walk,
And they cannot make a sound with their throat!
Which is the punch line, because in Hebrew the word for "to make a sound with their throat" means, literally, to clear your throat: unh unh unh!
And the argument of course is that any god that cannot go "unh unh unh" is never going to get you out of Egypt, out of the wilderness, out of exile, or out of the tomb.
So the idea is to commit yourself to the God who has done these marvelous things.
One way we make that commitment is by the gifts we bring to the altar. And we are to sing about it, and we are to proclaim it to all people, and we are to honor his name, and we are to bring offerings when we come into God's courts.
In ancient times people brought sacks of flour, goats, sheep, loaves of bread. We still use bread in some form in the Eucharist. We still recall the life of the ancient church as we place bread on the altar to be taken, blessed, broken and given; bread that recalls the manna in the wilderness, and the "bread of life" who comes down from heaven.
Today we bring our offerings of money and place them on the altar as a reminder that our cash offerings signify our commitment to the ministries of the Gospel, the activities of the Risen Lord. Then with the Bread and the Wine we bless these gifts that they might be sufficient to do the work God in Christ calls us to do in this place and in the world outside these doors.
These gifts are to represent the first fruits of our labors. God asks for the first and the best. We are all tempted at times to keep the first and best of all we have for ourselves. But our God to whom we ascribe honor and worship and praise can take the first and best of all we have and transform it all from what we want to what we need.
An example of how this works is the story First Tomato by Rosemary Wells (Dial Books: New York, 1992). It's about a little bunny named Claire for whom everything is going wrong: she spills her breakfast on the floor, her boots fill with snow, math class goes on for two hours, she cannot do a cartwheel at recess, and the bus is late! It is the wilderness journey and exile all over again in one morning! She needs a trip to the Bunny Planet where the Bunny Queen is Janet, who says:
Here is the day that should have been: I hear my mother calling when the summer wind blows, "Go out in the garden in your old, old clothes. Pick me some runner beans and sugar snap peas. Find a ripe tomato and bring it to me please." A ruby red tomato is hanging on the vine. If my mother didn't want it, the tomato would be mine. It smells of rain and steamy earth and hot June sun. In the whole tomato garden it's the only ripe one. I close my eyes and breathe in its fat, red smell. I wish that I could eat it now and never, never tell. But, I save it for my mother without another look. I wash the beans and shell the peas and watch my mother cook. I hear my mother calling when the summer winds blow, "I've made you First Tomato Soup because I love you so!"
When we offer God the first fruits, the very money and things we want to hold onto, God like the mother in the story transforms those first fruits into what we need most: Soup and Love, whatever that soup represents. Each gift counts. Every pledge enables and empowers ministry. Every pledge, every dollar, touches a human life and brings it closer to God. Every pledge, every dollar given is transformed into Love and First Tomato Soup for someone else and for ourselves.
The smallest gift like the widow's mite can take on the power and proportion of all the gifts together. And we would do well to note that in that story, Jesus sits and watches to see how much each of us puts in the plate!
So this day we are invited to sing to the Lord! We are invited to sing a new song!
That new song might be an increased pledge to the work of Jesus Christ in this place that makes it possible for more people to have their lives touched and changed by the God of Jesus Christ. That new song might be a new pledge made for the first time to make it possible for us to continue to support our new youth groups for our middle and high school age young people.
Our prayer might be that the new song we sing will be that every household in this parish makes a pledge no matter how big or how small to insure that we can do all that is in our power to support one another in our life in Christ, whatever that takes, whenever it is needed. Whatever we do, may we remember to offer to God that which is God's.
And may we always sing new songs with the Psalmist, who prays,
Ascribe to the Lord the Honor due God's name,
Bring offerings and come into God's courts!