Show me the money!
Many of us probably remember that famous line from the movies, and it’s really apropos to our Gospel text today.
Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing, New Testament professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago points out that money is in many ways connected to power and influence in our society, and in Jesus’ society it wasn’t any different.
The Roman occupiers, and their puppet king, Herod the Great, controlled the money and the power. Herod built and expanded the Temple and, with it, the tax structure of the day. So when Jesus is asked about paying taxes, he very adeptly answers the question, while avoiding the trap – the pitfall – his opponents thought they had set for him in the questioning.
When he asks them to “show me the money”, he’s revealing a couple of important things –
- He doesn’t carry Roman coins
- His opponents do
Money and power go together in ways that can be very harmful, as in the case of the Roman Empire’s control of their conquered foes. If one failed to pay the appropriate taxes, they faced serious consequences.
But Jesus, who historically, and politically, and socially, and religiously was a radical rabble-rouser, by not carrying Roman coins, is saying, essentially, “I don’t recognize, and I choose not to participate in, the system of power that Rome has established here.” But notice, his opponents do carry Roman coins – they do support the unjust, and ungodly systems of violence, and oppression, and ethnically and religiously and culturally based bias that is necessary for an oppressive regime like Rome to exist and flourish.
Jesus doesn’t have a coin, but his opponents do.
Jesus stands opposed to the unjust system, but his opponents participate in it.
Of course, our political and cultural situation is very different from that of Jesus’. We do not live under military occupation. Our government is elected freely, and we have given it, through the election process, a valid claim to exercise authority. As part of this exercise, our government also collects taxes.
The point Jesus is making in his answer to his challengers is that, everything belongs to God, as the Psalmist says: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Psalm 24:1). As those created in God’s image and likeness, we, everything we are and everything we have, belong to God. Our whole lives, every moment of every day, belong to God. Our money, not just the leftovers, belongs to God. Our world, in terms of the gifts of God’s good creation, and in terms of our social and political and relational spheres, belongs to God. The authority that we grant to those we elect as our leaders, belongs to God. Our everything belongs to God, because God is God. That’s the 1st commandment, right? So if we can’t start there, with that as the foundation of the rest, then we’ll never get to the point of understanding true Christian stewardship as part of living as disciples – faithful followers of Jesus. If we can’t start with the acknowledgement that everything belongs to God, then the whole of Christian living falls apart.
Now this means, of course, that everyone also belongs to God, for all of humankind are created in God’s image and likeness, and so, when we hear difficult truths about things like poverty and hunger we really have no choice but to respond in particular ways that reflect the honor and dignity due to each person as one created in God’s own image and likeness. But this isn’t just a theological issue. This is a missional issue, as well.
As baptized people we have covenanted with God to live in particular ways, namely, to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. The word we use to describe these activities is advocacy. We are called to be advocates for the best use of God’s resources for the benefit of all people, but, especially, for the least and the last.
As you heard last week, Matthew’s Gospel especially, lifts up the least and the last as, not just holding a special place in God’s heart, but as those with whom God in Christ most closely associates – When you’ve done it to the least of my sisters and brothers, you’ve done it to me. Not metaphorically. Not, it’s like you did it to me. Whatever you do to the least and last, you’ve done it to me. And as part of the process, realizing that even political authority belongs first and foremost to God and has been given to us to steward well, we exercise our rights as citizens, and our obligation as Christians (both, together, at the same time), we exercise our rights as citizens and our obligation as Christians to speak up and to speak out for those who live in poverty – who face food insecurity, and those who experience hunger.
Here are some facts according to the non-profit group Legal Services NJ:
The Federal poverty line for a family of 4 is just under $27,000. Adjusted for the real cost of living on average in NJ, a family of 4 needs $64,000 just to make ends meet, and even more than that in Monmouth County, the 3rd highest cost county in NJ. Here in Monmouth county a family of 4 needs to earn over $70,000.
Based on this Real Cost of Living in NJ, between 1/3 to ¼ of New Jersey families struggle to make ends meet.
Of those living in poverty, or facing food insufficiency in NJ, 24% have no high school education, 39% are high school grads, 22% have some college up to an associate’s degree and 15% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
By race, the numbers are far more troubling.
20% of Asians, 22% of whites, 47% of blacks and nearly 55% of Latinos live in poverty or face resource insufficiency in NJ, meaning they struggle to pay for rent, food, utilities, clothing, childcare – the basic necessities of life with nothing left over.
Using the real cost of living numbers, 39% of children in NJ live in households with insufficient resources as do just shy of 34% of adults over 55.
Even applying the much lower, and frankly unrealistic Federal Poverty Line standard, 15.4% of children and 8% of adults over 55 live with insufficient resources.
Now, returning to our basic premise as Christians, that everything and everyone belongs to God, and that as God’s people we bear the God-given responsibility to care for all, especially for the least and the last, and realizing that charity – like our pantry, and clothes closet, and feeding programs like meal at noon and such – is needed and good, they fail to address the underlying causes of poverty and hunger. Charity meets an immediate need, but only advocacy can address the root structures that cause the need in the first place.
It is our Christian duty and responsibility to advocate for change, and to call on those in authority to make the necessary changes in our social structures to bring the scourge of poverty to an end.
So, following worship today, you’re all invited to do a couple of things. While you’re enjoying coffee and goodies, take the time to speak up and speak out on behalf of your neighbors in need by writing a letter (or two or three) as part of the annual Bread for the World Offering of Letters. Bread’s emphasis this year is on U.S. Food Aid. The proposed changes are meant to get emergency assistance to more people, more quickly, by purchasing food closer to where it’s needed, thus spending our tax dollars more wisely. The proposed changes also would allow our government to exercise flexibility and efficiency in responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises.
Such things make a real difference in the lives of the least and the last and acknowledge their dignity as those created in God’s image and likeness.
After all, if we’re going to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, shouldn’t we make sure Caesar is doing the right thing once we do?
And one last reminder, today at 3:00 we’ll gather at the promenade in Long Branch for the annual CROP Walk.
If you didn’t register or fundraise, that’s ok, come on out anyway. Your presence as the baptized people of God makes a difference as we strive together to do justice and peace in all the earth, including right here at home!