Drew Tucker, Columbus, OH

Warm-up Question

Think of something that affects everyone, that’s often unpopular, and that’s necessary for living in a society. Share with a group or a trusted friend how you feel about that thing that you’ve named. 

Taxing Question

Thanks to the recent threat of a government shutdown, averted by a last-minute stopgap funding bill that President Biden signed into law on September 30th, 2023, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we fund living in our shared society. From infrastructure like roads and utilities to people like first responders and postal workers, our taxes pay for many services we utilize frequently without ever having to think about it. Thanks to taxes, I’ve never had to build a bridge to cross a river or put out a fire at my neighbor’s house or pay for disaster relief after a hurricane. In that way, I’m thankful for taxes. 

But  I’m aware that I’ll never even see about 20% of my income because it goes directly to federal, state, and local governments. When I’m being selfish, I think about the vacations I could take or how much more quickly I could afford a new car if so much of the money I earned didn’t disappear into the vacuum of government tolls. And as the recent specter of a government shutdown revealed, even when we pay our taxes, that doesn’t mean that the things we need are necessarily guaranteed! 

Ultimately, I know that taxes are necessary because they help us to connect with one another.  They provide support for those who don’t have the same access to resources that I have and ensure we can weather the literal and metaphorical storms that face our country. So I guess today’s news is this: taxes are complicated.

Trust me, I know that it’s no newsflash that taxes are complicated. Indeed, throughout my life, I’ve vacillated from thinking we all pay too much in taxes, thinking we all pay too little in taxes, and thinking some people should pay more taxes than they do while others should pay less. Amidst all that confusion and imperfection, which is often what makes taxes so unpopular, it’s clear that taxes affect everyone because most pay them and all benefit from them. To live in a society where we share one another’s burdens, taxes are necessary. 

Discussion Questions

  • What are your favorite things that taxes provide? 
  • How does the possibility of a government shutdown make you feel? 

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 45:1-7

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year A at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

How much we pay in taxes and to whom we should pay our taxes isn’t a new question. Ben Franklin once said that “nothing is certain but death and taxes,” a phrase that’s evolved into a popular aphorism for people of all political persuasions. Jesus’ ministry preceded Franklin’s politics by nearly 1,800 years, but as we see in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus also took on the question of taxes. 

The Pharisees didn’t necessarily hate taxes in themselves, but as religious purists, they hated the idea of sending taxes to Rome and its Gentile allies. The Herodians, so named for their allegiance to King Herod and his descendants, accommodated with Rome and generally supported the empire’s efforts, including Roman taxes. In other words, this wasn’t an argument about whether taxes should exist; no one in this passage is claiming that taxation is theft.

Instead, the question is to whom we should pay taxes, about who has the appropriate authority to demand taxes. While the Pharisees and Herodians disagreed on who had the authority to demand taxes, they agreed on one thing: Jesus was dangerous to their power. In asking whether to pay the imperial tax, they tried to frame Jesus either as a rebel to the empire or a traitor to the Jewish people. 

Rather than take sides, Jesus takes this as a teaching opportunity about generosity and identity. The coins in circulation, with Caesar’s image, carried value because the Empire said so. The same is true for money today. When Jesus says, “give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21), he’s subtly reminding his listeners that, just as the coin’s carry Caesar’s image, so too people carry God’s image. 

To this Hebrew audience, who would all be quite familiar with the Torah, the idea of an image stamped on a coin would deeply resonate with the divine image God gives to people in their sacred creation stories. Jesus encourages his followers to recognize we have a place in a political society, even as we have an ultimate allegiance to God.

The Lutheran tradition adds a layer of reflection to this when it recognizes that God doesn’t exclusively work through the church, but also through the government. This theology of Two Realms (often called Two Kingdoms, though that wasn’t Luther’s language) emphasizes that the political or secular realm serves a purpose in God’s creation.  Ideally, it ensures that civic life promotes the good of all. Giving ourselves to God doesn’t mean we have to avoid paying our taxes.  We live in two realms simultaneously; God is ultimately in control of both. We give ourselves to God in lives lived with grace and we share our wealth with Caesar (or Uncle Sam) because God is at work in first responders who offer care in natural disasters. God is at work in utilities that provide warmth to survive the cold weather.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think taxes have been so confusing and polarizing for thousands of years? 
  • Share one way you can render to God what is God’s that makes a positive impact on your neighbors. 
  • Share one of the ways you notice God at work through political or civil organizations outside of the church. 

Activity Suggestions

  • God’s Image Affirmations – Sit in a circle and have one chair in the center. Take turns having members of the group sit in the middle seat and have every person in attendance share one way that they see God active in that person. Emphasize that the image of God is not necessarily a physical trait prior to beginning the activity. You can also choose to write everyone’s name on paper bags, have participants write their responses, and then deposit them in the bags to ensure participants leave with a constant reminder of God’s work through their lives. 
  • BiblOpoly – Yes, this is a real thing, and yes, you should play it. To win, rather than defeat your fellow players, you work to assist them in succeeding as well. It can help players experience the benefits of rendering to Caesar and rendering to God. With the recent resurgence in popularity of tabletop games, consider more broadly how you can use these as tools to teach and apply Christian values and biblical teachings. 
  • Making Change – Get a sampling of all types of coins and have everyone choose one at random. Group people by the coin they chose and challenge them to identify whose image is stamped the coin and share as much information as they can about the person. To elevate the challenge, do one round without their phones and another allowing them to utilize the internet. Use this activity as an opportunity to discuss why we celebrate certain people, what values they’re meant to represent, and what values we carry as people stamped with God’s image. 

Closing Prayer

Generous God, remind us that your work is not limited to the church. Inspire us to give generously to your work in all arenas of life, even when we are not in control of the outcome. Remind us that you are at work in all realms of life, and that in those realms you seek justice for all, peace for all, abundance for all. Ground us in the witness of Jesus and empower us to give all of ourselves to you, whose image we bear. Amen.