|coins by Pimthida. Creative commons image on flickr.|
I was at the checkout counter at a chain drugstore to buy a bottle of cough syrup.
The cashier was a young man, about age 20.
He asks me if I’d like to donate to a charity serving sick children, and I say, “no, thank you.”
Immediately, he rolls his eyes and says, “it’s sad people don’t help. Your total for the cough syrup and not caring about children is $8.99”
I’m too stunned even to react. I don’t know if he’s joking or if he was serving me up with a passive-aggressive guilt trip. If it was the latter, he was extremely successful. I left there asking myself, would it have been so bad if I’d given a dollar?
I soon realized: I don't like being asked for my money. The IRS, the landlord, and the utility companies already take plenty—which is why I wanted to keep my dollar. But does it really belong to me?
Ownership was at the heart of Jesus’ answer to the question, “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
Taxes were a sore subject for Jews living under the Roman occupation. For starters, most working people barely earned enough money to live on. They already had to pay taxes to support the temple and the religious establishment. Adding insult to injury, they were required to pay the emperor for the “privilege” of living under his ruthless, godless rule over a land and people that ultimately belonged to God.
What a perfect way for the Jesus’ enemies to trap Jesus into one of two capital crimes: blasphemy against the temple or treason against the emperor.
When Jesus says, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his words are more than just a rhetorical “check-mate.” This is reality.
They and we are subject to our rulers (whether we like it or not). You can’t go “off the grid.” You are a citizen of this world’s kingdom. Death, taxes, and daily bread are but a few of the debts you can’t escape.
The coin Jesus uses in his show and tell proves a major point: it contained the emperor’s face and was inscribed with the words, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” That’s a claim of ownership. It’s a claim of divinity. Caesar is making an idol of himself—which is how things go in the world’s kingdom.
You live in a vast marketplace of idols. An idol is anything you for which claim ownership for your exclusive benefit. They give you power and control. They are possessions and positions that boast of your success and prestige. They are the commitments that dominate your time. They are the voices that occupy your attention. They are your beliefs that you’re righteous and superior and that God is in your side, against another. They are the desires for which you will sacrifice anything to achieve.
Sin is selling your soul to these idols, believing they will deliver what they promise. You can’t own them, but they can own you. Idolatry happens whenever you let something or someone take ownership of your time, talent, treasure; your body, your mind, your soul. And they will.
Though they may make you happy for a time, they will ultimately deliver you into exhaustion, discontent, and fear. They create poverty and oppression and divide neighbor against neighbor. They will pollute God’s creation. As long as you worship them, you are in their debt.
But remember: idols are false gods. They cannot deliver what they promise. Anything or anyone that sets itself up against God will fall. Everything in this world belongs to God —and that’s great news.
Life is better with God owning your body, mind, and soul. Idols divide and destroy, but God saves. God forgives. God loves. God makes all things new. Even though you own nothing, God has entrusted you with gifts by which you are joined to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. The Church is the assembly of God’s people exercising God’s gifts so that love destroys hate, grace destroys greed, abundance destroys poverty, and life destroys death. Stewardship multiplies the blessing God’s gifts bring. God can always do greater with everything you would attempt to keep.
Jesus is here to break down the altars you raise up to this world and its idols—to raise up an altar for the healing of a nations; to set a table where the feast of life is spread.
If you want to know the idols God is about to break down, follow your exhaustion. Follow your stress.
When you say “I’m busy,” why is that?
Where is your cash flowing? Is it for daily bread or something else?
Whose voices are you listening to? How much news are you digesting? What are you angry about? Offended about? Stressing about? Who or what is occupying your mind?
Rather than being owned by and indebted to these idols and all the heartache they create, remember that God owns you—in order to love you, accept you, and save you. You belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to you. His kingdom is yours forever.
Seek God’s kingdom and its righteousness—and God will surely add to your blessing.