As I prepare to do battle with Schedule C and Form 4562 for my taxes, the story of the agents of the Jewish rulers who were trying to trap Jesus popped into my head. Their question: was it allowed under Jewish law to pay taxes to Caesar?
That was a rock-and-a-hard-place question if there ever was one. To answer yes would anger the Jewish people who hated the Roman overlords. It was salt in the wound that those taxes paid for the Roman troops that occupied their land. To say no was to commit treason in Roman eyes and invite execution.
Jesus’s response was brilliant. He asked for a denarius, the Roman coin that was used to pay taxes to Rome. The head of the emperor was stamped on one side of every denarius. When Jesus asked his questioners whose portrait and inscription was on the coin, they had to say, ”Caesar’s.”
I can imagine a smile on Jesus’s face as he replied, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 (KJV))
But the question of how we divide what we have between God and Caesar goes way beyond taxes.
I’m glad I don’t live under an imperial dictator. But if I think of Caesar as all the demands placed on me over which I have little or no control, Jesus’s words take on a broader meaning.
Do we reluctantly “render to God” the things we should want to give him gladly?
It’s almost time to file tax forms again. As I gathered the information about the charitable donations we made in 2016, I started thinking about “good deeds” and what Jesus said about them.
I think most of us can agree that good deeds are desirable things to do. That’s why they’re called “good” deeds (duh!). There’s a real need for us to share our material wealth and our time with others who haven’t been as fortunate. It’s good for the folks who need some help, regardless of why we give.
But is it always good for us? The answer is…it depends.
Every one of us has a purpose.
It’s easy to forget that sometimes. We get so caught up in the demands of daily living that we sometimes lose sight of the longer timeline, the broader view, the deeper perspective.
Time is precious. There’s a set limit to how much I have, whether it’s the 24 hours of a day or the total years of my life.
If I was 20, I might think I had another 60 years, give or take a few months. However, average life expectancy is a probability, not a promise. I could live to 100, or I could die tomorrow. No matter how much time I have left, the problem remains the same.
There are too many options for how to spend my time. Will I simply spend it, or will I invest it in something worthwhile?
It was a small plate, gilded with gold and silver in the ancient Japanese art of Chokin. A Japanese pagoda sat in front of Mount Fuji with cherry blossoms on one side. I bought it in an antique shop for a few dollars on a trip to visit family in Texas. Not what most would consider a treasure, but I loved looking at it where it hung for years on the bathroom wall.
Then one misdirected flip of a shirt, and it hit the floor. It didn’t shatter, but a crack ran across it. The two pieces were held together only by the metal picture in the center, and an inch of the gold rim lay in chips and flakes across the floor. I cleaned it up, keeping all the pieces. I might be able to glue it back together, but it will never be the same.
But in the greater scheme of life, does it really matter that my lovely little plate is lovely no more?
There are no luggage racks on hearses, so why do we sometimes live our lives as though there were?
When Jesus was sharing his last meal with his disciples before his death, he gave them a new command: love one another.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit―fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:16-17 (NIV))
Unlike the Greek language of Jesus’s day, the English language makes it hard to capture that command in a single word. We use “love” for many different kinds of affection, sometimes showing the deepest engagement of our hearts and sometimes just meaning we like something a lot.
The four words for “love” in the Koine Greek of Jesus’s day are phileo, storge, eros, and agape.
Phileo is the affection between good friends. It’s a give-and-take kind of love that grows out of companionship.
Storge is the natural affection for members of one’s own family. While it doesn’t have to be earned to start (it’s normal to love a newborn baby), it can be either strengthened or destroyed by the actions of the one we love.
Eros is the emotional involvement based on physical attraction. It’s a self-centered kind of love where one’s own pleasure is most important.
The love that Jesus commands is agape love, love that is unearned and unconditional. It’s not a natural emotion for one person to love another even when there is a good reason to dislike or even hate that person. Agape love is an act of will, not an emotion.
The quality of our love for our fellow believers, for people not especially our friends, for those who wish us harm―that speaks more loudly about our faith than anything we say.
In an individualistic culture like the United States, it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking about God only in terms of our personal relationship with Him.
There’s no doubt that’s important. When Jesus was talking with his disciples during their “private retreat” to Caesarea Philippi, he asked them two questions. The first was who did people say he was. After giving them a chance to answer, he zeroed in with the question of vital importance.
“Who do YOU say that I am?”
While our relationship with God depends on how we answer that very personal question, it doesn’t stop there.
We are a fellowship of sisters and brothers with the whole being much greater than the sum of the parts. The importance of the whole versus just the parts extends to the gifts of the Spirit.
While each gift of the Spirit is a personal blessing, that’s not their main purpose.
Every so often, it’s good to go back and review the basics. We need to re-examine those underpinnings that we once learned but now unconsciously assume rather than thoughtfully consider. The end of one year and the beginning of the next can inspire us to do that. Perhaps that’s the best kind of New Year’s resolution we can make.
For a Christian, that can mean rereading the Gospels to see once more what Jesus said, how and to whom he said it, and what he did.
It’s funny how each time I read one of the Gospels, I discover something I never saw there before.
The end of 2016 is almost here. Time to think about the year just past. Time to plan for the year ahead.
When I look back over 2016, some decisions bring a wry smile. Some were surprises that I never expected. If someone had told me at the end of 2015 that I would have a business license by the end of 2016, I would have choked with laughter. The last thing I ever wanted to be was a small business owner.
But sometimes God calls us to do something, and to get that done means we have to learn new skills and step out into unknown territory. I feel His call to write novels about human conflict and difficult friendships that grow into love as characters discover their own faith in Christ. He’s also called me to use them to support orphans overseas. To keep the rights to the novels so we can do that in creative ways, I’ve had to become an independent publisher. That’s both exciting and more than a little scary.
But if God is calling us to the work, shouldn’t we be eager to do it?
The first time I heard the Christmas song, Mary, Did You Know, my son was six months old. As the song played in the background, I sat in my bentwood rocker, feeding and cuddling my baby boy. As I gazed on his face, I wondered who this tiny human would be when he grew up. Would his life be happy or difficult? What talents had God given him? How would he use them?
I wanted to shield my son from whatever was hard to bear until he was strong enough and wise enough to carry the load. Mary must have felt the same about her baby boy two thousand years ago.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Matthew 18:21-22 (NIV)
Today I stand in awe of my brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston, South Carolina. They have shown in the worst of circumstances what it is to live as Jesus taught.
The whole nation has been following the trial of Dylann Roof, who gunned down nine members of a Bible study group at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in July, 2015. One of the victims was Myra Thompson, who led the Bible study that evening.
Her husband, Rev. Anthony B. Thompson, is the vicar at Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church. Less than 48 hours after the shooting, the bond hearing for Roof was held. At that hearing, Rev. Thompson and four others whose family members had been killed said they forgave their murderer.
How many of us would be able to do that?