Monday, October 23, 2017

If all this is God’s, why do I have to pay for it?

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, October 22, 2017 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  Listen to the audio here.  Read Matt 22:15-22, Eccl 1:1-11 here.

You can learn a lot about kids from their prayers.  At our house, we took turns saying grace at the dinner table.  Sometimes our kids would say the funniest things.  One time, when our son Tristan was about five, he prayed, “Thank you, God, for killing the dinosaurs before making people.”

No matter what else we prayed for, we always made sure we thanked God for the food.  Often we’d also say thanks for the people who prepared it, and, all too often, the people who delivered it.  In the cartoon series The Simpsons they also have the kids take turns saying grace for meals.  Asked to say the dinner prayer one night, Bart says, “We paid for all this ourselves, God, so thanks for nothing.”

As we’re going about our lives, working hard to earn money, saving up to buy the things we need and want, we can easily forget that all this is a blessing from God, and maybe even wonder, “If all this is God’s, why do I have to pay for it?”

This week is the 4th week of our series called “Growing in Gratitude.” How many of you have already figured out that this is the stealth stewardship series?  Really, though, every Sunday is about stewardship, because stewardship is about how we live the lives God has given us.  Everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God to be used in his service and to his glory.  The love we have, the very core of our lives, comes from God. This, however, may be the first week in this series that sounds like what we traditionally expect from a “stewardship” sermon because this week we specifically talk about money.

In our reading from Matthew for today, we find that Jesus is still dealing with challenges and questions from the chief priests and elders. They come when he’s teaching in the temple and want to know where he gets his authority to teach.  Jesus has in several ways already answered their question, but they keep throwing challenges at him, trying to get Jesus to say something for which they can arrest him. This time, they’ve brought some people from King Herod’s court along.  Normally the priests and elders wouldn’t be hanging out with Herodians, but depending on how Jesus answers, the Herodians might also want to arrest him, so they’re working together, and they ask…

“Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (22:17)

Their question seems to us in modern times like a no brainer.  Of course you pay taxes.  Why wouldn’t you pay taxes? But it’s a trick question.1

  • If Jesus says, “Yes, pay taxes,” then he will anger all the people who are struggling to pay the 50% tax the Romans have been demanding, and Jesus will lose his popularity with the crowds that have been following him, and so then the elders can arrest him.  
  • If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay taxes,” then he’s going against the government and they can arrest him. 

It’s so much more than just a simple question, as questions about money so often are.  For one thing, it reveals the motivation of the chief priests and elders.  They’re not asking to learn more about Jesus or to learn more about what he’s teaching.  They aren’t there for a friendly discussion.  Verse 18 tells us they had evil intent.  Jesus calls them hypocrites.  They’ve just lied to him, saying flattering things about his integrity and godliness.  They don’t mean any of it.  They just want to catch Jesus off guard. Their motivation for asking is the problem.  What’s their motivation?  Basically greed.  These guys have money and the power.  They don’t want to lose that.  Jesus is a threat to their position, so he must go.

Obviously greed is bad. It’s one of the seven deadly sins.  It’s the tenth commandment – thou shalt not covet (Ex. 20:17). What’s the problem with greed? We could argue that greed is the underlying sin that prompts all the rest of the sins.  In Buddhist teaching, they say that greed or desire is the root of all suffering.2

Greed is the excessive desire for more than we need, not for the greater good but for one’s own selfish interest, and often at the expense of our relationships with other people. Greed can be for anything, but is most commonly for food, money, possessions, power, fame, status, attention, admiration, [or] sex.3

It’s what makes Eve take a bite of the apple. She wants what God has.  Greed gets us thinking about what we don’t have instead of what we do have.

Greed tells us we don’t have enough.

Two friends met in the street. One looked sad and almost on the verge of tears. The other man said, "Hey my friend, how come you look like the whole world has caved in?"
      The sad fellow said, "Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, an uncle died and left me 50-thousand dollars."
      "That's not bad at all...!"
      "Hold on, I'm just getting started. Two weeks ago, a cousin I never knew kicked-the-bucket and left me 95-thousand, tax-free to boot."
      "Well, that's great! I'd like that."
      "Last week, my grandfather passed away. I inherited almost a million."
      "So why are so glum?"
      "This week - nothing!"4

Why was he sad?  Not because his family members had died, but because this week nobody had given him a huge sum of money.  He was so focused on what he didn’t have, he wasn’t able to see the blessings he did have.

Greed was motivating the elders to set a trap for Jesus, and greed can also be a trap for us.  We may not even realize sometimes that greed is at work in us. We know it’s wrong, so we may not think we need to worry about it.  The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians warns us about that.  He says
“ If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall.” (1 Cor 10:12)

We are more vulnerable if we think we aren’t vulnerable. Greed is not always obvious. But it’s such a common and pervasive problem, that it’s the basis of the plots for scores of books, movies, TV shows and plays.  If we didn’t need to worry about it, Jesus wouldn’t have talked about it so much.5
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21)
You cannot serve God and wealth (Matt 6:24)
We need to keep on examining our motivations, and asking for God’s help and forgiveness.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.  (
Psalm 139:23-24_
The way to work on changing our thinking from being sad about what we don’t have or longing for more than we need is to be thankful for what we do have … to keep practicing thankfulness….which sounds way too simple, especially since that’s been the answer for everything we’ve talked about over the past several weeks, but thankfulness really is key.  The apostle Paul talks about being thankful in almost all his letters in the Bible.  So many of the psalms have something about being thankful. Studies show that the more we practice thankfulness, the more we have compassion for people, and the less we are focused on acquiring things.6

Our theme verse for this series is 1 Thessalonians 5:18 – Be thankful in all circumstances for this is God’s will for us who are in Jesus Christ.

Why? To begin with, it’s about obedience.
Obedience means we love and respect God enough to do what he tells us to do.
Jesus replied, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." (John 14:23)
It may not always make sense to us to be thankful, it may often be really hard to do, but God knows that being thankful is going to help us, and so we need to work on it because God tells us to.

It’s also about perspective. Bart says, “We paid for all this ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus points out that the money has the picture of the current emperor on it.  The government created those coins, so they are the government’s coins.  But consider this. In Genesis, it says that we are made in God’s image.  We have the image of God stamped on us.

What is God’s?

One Sunday morning, a little boy named Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him.

“You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!”

Horrified, the little boy obeyed. After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty?

“Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”7

Everything we have and everything we are comes from God.  You may have heard me say that when we get ready to give our offerings each week.  That’s the basic idea of stewardship.  God our creator made us and all of creation. By God’s providence, we have life and love.  When we give our offerings, we are giving back to God some of what God has given us.

What has God given us?  It all depends on our perspective.

There was a little old lady who would come out every morning on the steps of her front porch, raise her arms to the sky and shout, "Praise the Lord!"

Well, one day an atheist moved into the house next door. Over time, he became irritated at the little old lady. So every morning he would step out onto his front porch and yell after her, "There is no God!"

Then one morning in the middle of winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted, "Praise the Lord! Lord, I have no food and I am hungry. Please provide for me, oh Lord!"

The next morning she stepped onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there. "Praise the Lord!" she cried out. "He has provided groceries for me!"

The atheist jumped out of the hedges and shouted, "There is no Lord. I bought those groceries!"

The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted, "Praise the Lord! He has provided me with groceries and He made the devil pay for them!"8

We’re fairly accustomed to thanking God for our food.  We may not be so accustomed to thanking God for our circumstances, and when things aren’t going our way, we can easily lose our perspective and forget how much God loves us, and that everything is from God.

Years ago, legendary baseball player Lou Gehrig was being honored by Yankee fans on his last day of play. His career was shortened by ALS, which is now called Lou Gehrig’s disease, a debilitating muscle disease that eventually stops the heart. What would you have said in the face of this heartbreaking challenge? Amazingly, he begins: Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” How could he say that? Gratitude. Gratitude for all the gifts he had been given, for all the love he had been shown by fans, for all the opportunities he had. He focused on the joys not the losses. Lou Gehrig cultivated thankfulness!9

Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

We belong to God.  The very breath in our lungs and the love in our hearts are gifts from God.

Ecclesiastes says everything is vanity.  All the things we thought we needed to have will pass away, indeed we ourselves will pass away, but the love we have from God will live forever.

We know this love because of the greatest gift we’ve ever received,  Jesus giving his life on the cross for us.

For this, and for all things, we give thanks to God.10

[1] The Pharisees know that either answer will jeopardize Jesus’ mission—exactly their intent. (Wilkins, NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, pg 720-1)
[3] Psychology Today
[5] Matt. 6:24, Matt. 6:19–21; Luke 12:16–21, Mark 8:36–37, Luke 8:18–25 
[6] and
[8] This joke is on lots of websites.  Today I got it from
[10] The idea of tying Matt 22:15-22 to greed and gratitude comes from The Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series

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