Give to God What is God’s
Have you ever had one of those moments when you feel like somebody asked you a question and was just setting you up for a trap? Like this time this girl I was seeing asked me if she looked better in pictures or in person. What do you say!? It’s a trap question, you’re wrong either way!
In the Gospel reading we just heard, the Pharisees ask Jesus a trap question. They try to pin him into saying something wrong. They figure by asking this question whatever answer he gives will get him in trouble one way or another. If Jesus answers that it’s not lawful to pay taxes, then he’ll upset the tax collectors and Romans. And if he says taxes are lawful, he might lose the support of the people who hate Roman occupation. They introduce their trap question with a bunch of flattery, telling Jesus how great a teacher he is and how wise and sincere he is. Then they act curious and then throw this question at him: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?
Jesus can tell that they’re trying to trip him up. But he plays along, and asks if any of them have the coin that’s used to pay taxes with. They show him a denarius. It’s important to note that Jesus wasn’t carrying one himself. A denarius had a picture of the emperor on it and would have included a phrase about the emperor being divine. So Jesus was abiding by the commandment which forbid graven images and obviously these hypocrites were not. So they present this coin to Jesus, and he asked who’s image it was on the coin. They tell him it’s the emperor. Jesus replies “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Masterfully, Jesus avoids falling into their trap. He doesn’t give into either/or thinking. Instead he thinks beyond and above the problem they pose. Jesus doesn’t answer with yes or no, but turns this into a teaching moment and shifts the whole premise of the question.
Far too often we try to figure out complex problems with either/or thinking. Our tendency to always think in terms of dualistic, either/or thinking convinces us that there’s a right way and a wrong way to look at everything. And this leads to our feeling the need to pick a side, refusing to compromise, and the outright rejection of other points of view. On the personal level it leads to arguments and broken relationships. On the town, state, or national level it can lead to divisive, polarized politics. And on the international level it can lead to war and violence on massive scales.
The dualistic, either/or mind can’t stand nuance. It wants a right and a wrong answer. We see this level of thinking at work all the time. It appears in every election and its polarizing effects infect every political debate. The dualistic, either/or mind tells us we need to support either Israel or Palestine, and cannot comprehend how we could possibly feel sympathy for both sides of a conflict. Such a mindset has led to immense suffering and conflict in the world.
That said, our dualistic either/or thinking does have its place. We better use it when we’re driving and see a red light. We better have very logical minds building bridges and flying airplanes. Logical, either/or thinking has helped humanity immensely and has greatly advanced civilization. But when we rely on it too much, we get lost in thinking there must be a clear cut yes or no answer to everything. And it is this mindset that the Pharisees are coming from when they try to trap Jesus. They think they’ve got him stuck. They think that if he says yes or no, he’ll be in trouble either way. But then Jesus shows them that he clearly is in touch with a higher order of thinking, one that can use the logical mind for practical things, but which can think beyond it for deeper matters as well.
Contemplative teacher and Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault calls this “third way” thinking. She says this third way is what Jesus models throughout the Gospels whenever he’s faced with an either/or choice. It’s what he models when he’s asked about the woman caught in adultery and says the one without sin cast the first stone. It’s what he models when he says unless a grain of wheat dies it remains a single grain but if it dies it bears much fruit. And it’s what he models here in this passage when he tells the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
This passage invites us to cultivate this third way of seeing in our lives too. It invites us to follow Jesus in moving beyond simple either/or explanations, and to see the beauty of both/and thinking, what teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr call “nondual thinking”. Nondual thinking moves beyond the polarities of right and wrong, good and bad, with us or against us. It moves beyond that mindset and moves us closer to true wisdom and deeper insights into the nature of reality.
We can welcome both/and thinking in our personal relationships, by putting more effort into understanding others than into proving ourselves right. We can welcome both/and thinking into our political thought, seeking to understand where both sides are coming from, and learning to recognize when a politician is clearly trapped in a dualistic mindset. We can welcome both/and thinking into our religious worldview, understanding the truths of our tradition more deeply, while not needing to deny the truth of other traditions in order to be secure in our own.
And of course, we are invited to welcome this third way of seeing, this nondualist mindset, in our relationship with money. That’s what Jesus is doing here beyond anything else. He’s encouraging us to not fall into the trap of thinking dualistically about money. To not be so focused on gaining or losing, but to understand it is all a gift from God to be used for the benefit of all.
Learning to be faithful with our financial resources is part of spiritual maturity. Rather than spending recklessly on ourselves (the one extreme), or hoarding our wealth and not spending any of it (the other extreme), we are called as followers of Christ to be generous and loving with our financial resources. Using our money to support organizations that further God’s mission is how we can live into the third way in regard to our relationship with money. To use our dollars to help those in need, to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to support our congregation’s mission in the world.
As we reflect on Jesus’ call to give to God what is God’s, let us remember that all we have is from God. And God calls us to be faithful stewards of our resources. Faithful and generous and wise with what God has first given us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, October 22, 2023.