Archives For Taxes

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It’s an easier question for Muslims to answer than it is for Christians…

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Dear Pastor, 

     We’ve never met. I don’t attend your church (or any other for that matter). I’m not what I guess you’d call a practicing Christian, but I do believe in God. A friend of mine who goes to your church told me you were taking questions for your sermons so I thought I’d write you with my question. 

     My husband and I have been married for fifteen years, and our marriage has been a real struggle for at least a dozen of those years. We’ve tried several different counselors over the years but counseling has never amounted to more than a short-term fix. Now I’m wrestling with whether to give the marriage another chance or to end it. 

     I don’t want to put my kids through a divorce but neither do I want to keep exposing them to a marriage that isn’t what it should be. I think I know what the Church says about divorce, but I also know how far we are from the vows we exchanged. I don’t want to know what you think I should do. I’m not looking for advice exactly, and at this point I certainly don’t need more counseling. What I want to know is: how do I know what God wants me to do? 

     How do I know God’s plan for me?

She ended her note with a PS: Maybe no one else has a question like this, but I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

She was wrong, of course. About her question.

In so many words or sometimes in those exact words, people ask me that question all the time:

Should I give my son another chance, or should I stop bailing him out of trouble?

Should I kick my daughter out if she won’t stop using or should I not?

Should I tell my wife the secret that may prove the last straw or shouldn’t I?

Should I do what my parents what me to do with my life or should I do what I’ve always dreamed?

Should I tell my parents the truth about me or should I stay in the closet?

Should I let my doctors try another procedure, or should I help my family say goodbye?

Should I or shouldn’t I?

What am I supposed to do?

How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know God’s plan?

Should we? Or shouldn’t we? They sink their teeth into Jesus with the question.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and in what may be the Gospel’s strangest coalition the anti-Roman Pharisees ally with the Herodians, Roman collaborators, to trap Jesus with a question which was hotly disputed in first century Israel: is it lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied by Rome on every adult registered in the census. The tax was levied to pay for the Roman occupation of Israel, and it could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor and on the other side the inscription: ‘Caesar is Lord.’

It’s a dicey question.

For the strictly observant Pharisees, not only did the tax pose the insult of forcing Jews to pay for the army that was occupying them against their will, the tax also violated the Torah.

It broke the commandments: ‘You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any graven idols.’

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean. It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

So for the Pharisees and other Jews, the tax was theological TNT and had ignited not a few messy rebellions in Jesus’ day.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were civil servants of King Herod- Caesar’s stooge in Israel. Not only did they not have a problem with the tax, they lined their pockets with the cash extorted from it.

For the Herodians at stake wasn’t idolatry but their livelihood.

Therein lies the trap.

If Jesus says ‘pay the tax’ he risks offending his followers while saying ‘don’t pay’ would be tantamount to revolution. The Herodians would then have all they need to march off to the King and out Jesus as a threat.

No matter how he answers, Jesus is guaranteed at least half the crowd will be out for his blood.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus? Pick your poison.

By asking for the coin, Jesus makes clear he’s not carrying one and that the Pharisees are- even though carrying it made them the sinners they accused him of being.

Jesus looks the coin over and then pronounces: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.’ 

Which means….?

What exactly?

All who heard Jesus’ answer were ‘amazed,’ Mark says.

Confused is a better translation.

Jesus doesn’t answer their question but raises another question: What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?

Jesus has already made abundantly clear in his ministry that everything comes from and so belongs to God.

If God is the One from whom all blessings flow, then what really and truly and finally belongs to Caesar?

Nothing, right?

So if everything belongs to God and nothing ultimately belongs to Caesar, then should they pay the tax or not? If everything belongs to God then what does it mean to give everything to God?

Should we or shouldn’t we? Which is it Jesus? How do you know what God wants you to do?

brian-boitano

The first time I can remember anyone asking me that question- I was a college student at UVA. A girl named Rasha was friend of mine. She was from Jordan. She was an English major and a committed Muslim.

It being college, she and I were about the only religious people either of us knew on campus. Probably for that reason, we talked religion a good deal of the time.

We were both at a costume party one Halloween night. She came dressed, ironically, as a Catholic nun. I’d come to the party wearing what I thought was (self-evidently) a pirate costume. I had the black boots, crushed velvet tights, flowing white blouse and earring for the part. It turned out, however, that an eyepatch or sword were essential pirate accessories. Not recognizing me for a pirate, everyone mistook me for the Olympic figure skater, Brian Boitano, thus marking the last time I’ve put on a Halloween costume.

I was busy sulking and listening to a scratched House of Pain CD when Rasha just came up to me and asked: ‘How do you know what God wants you to do?’ She wasn’t looking for advice or counsel. She was curious.

‘I just read the Gospels for a class,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know how you Christians ever know what God wants you to do.’ 

I asked her what she meant, and she said:

‘Jesus never gives a straight answer to people’s questions. I think that’s the biggest difference between the Gospels and the Qu’ran.

Muhammad tells us exactly what God wants on every possible question, sometimes in more detail than I want, but with Jesus…it’s like he wants to leave you searching for the answer.’

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It took a Muslim to bring Jesus into focus for me, to notice how Jesus has this annoying habit of evading a straight answer to our questions.

Instead Jesus almost always responds to our questions by provoking other questions. He insists on answering our questions with unexplained stories. Even when it seems Jesus gives an answer to a question, as soon as you turn it over you realize just how slippery an answer it really is.

‘What’s God like?’ the disciples ask. And Jesus responds with a story of an old lady sweeping her house for loose change that fell behind the sofa. A simple question about divorce, and Jesus answers by talking about committing adultery in the heart. A straight-forward question about the difficulty of forgiveness, and Jesus answers by raising the degree of difficulty and offering no concrete advice on how to accomplish it. A predictable question about what the Kingdom is like and Jesus answers by telling us we have to become children without saying what that means or how we do it.

And ask Jesus about taxes and he answers with:‘Give to Caesar that which bears Caesar’s image; give to God that which bears God’s image.’ 

You bear God’s image. You’re made in the image of God. You’re God’s.

That just begs a whole other question:  What does it mean for you to give yourself to God?

Should they pay the tax or not?

It’s like Jesus knows if he just gives us the answer then you and I would be quite content to have just the answer.

And not have him.

So, to this question and so many others Jesus answers in a way that forces us to pursue him, to follow after him and ask another question and then ask another, to wrestle with who he is and what he means.

As much as we’d like God to give us the answer to our every question, the answer God gives us for everything is Jesus.

God doesn’t give us ten more commandments. God doesn’t give us more law or rules to obey.

He gives us a person to follow.

Where we want to have the right answers from him, he wants us to have a friendship with him.

Should I give my marriage another chance, or not?

Should I kick my daughter out or should I not?

Should I tell my wife? Should I tell my parents?

How do I know what God wants me to do?

How do I know God’s plan?

The fact is most of the questions people ask in my office lack easy answers. And any honest pastor will tell you: few of life’s questions come with neat chapter-and-verse Gospel answers.

But that’s the way it has to be. Listen up: this is the part where I offend all you closet Calvinists and all you fans of the TV show Lost.

As much as each one of us likes to speak of ‘God’s plan for my life’ that’s not something Methodists have ever believed.

For John Wesley, God isn’t just the All-Knowing Maker of the Universe. He’s also Love. More so than Power or Providence or Almightiness, in Jesus Christ God defines himself- binds himself, by Love.

Sure, if God wanted God could be in control and have a step-by-step, micro-plan for your life.

But instead God chooses to love us and God invites us to love him in return and God gives us the freedom to live our lives and struggle with our choices and wrestle with our decisions in a way that honors and reflects that love.

The bad news is that that doesn’t make your life any easier. The Good News is that you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to get everything right.

God’s not looking down waiting to see if you get every decision in your life right according to his pre-prescribed, mirco-managed plan. He’s waiting to see if you’ll love him. God doesn’t have a plan for your life; God has promise: if you will be his People he will be your God.

Always.

The Politics of Jesus

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2013 — 3 Comments

121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1Here’s this weekend’s sermon for our Counterfeit Gods series on idolatry. You can download the sermon here or in the iTunes Library under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

You can listen to it on this blog, to the right under ‘Listen’ widget.  

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We’ve been doing a sermon series during Lent on idolatry; that is, giving to earthly things what we should give to God alone. Wednesday afternoon Dennis told me he wasn’t going to be able to preach this weekend as planned.

    I said, ‘No problem.’

He said, ‘Thanks.’ 

I said, ‘Remind me again what idol we’re talking about this weekend.’

He said, ‘Partisan Politics.’ 

I said, ‘Oh___________.’

And Dennis nodded ruefully and then he said, ‘Well, at least not many people in the congregation are politically active.’ And then, like Satan himself, he laughed diabolically and disappeared in a cloud of sulfur.

So there it is.

I think we can all agree that our fearless leader has given me a poopy-flavored lollipop. I mean, Jesus gets crucified right after today’s passage. If I can just do better than Jesus, I’ll be happy.

Given our hyper-partisan culture, if we can all just take a deep breath, if you can just trust me for the next few minutes, and if we can make it, in Jesus’ name, to the end of the sermon together- if we can just do that then Aldersgate Church will be like a light to the nation, like a city shining on a hill. 

To insure I don’t end up on that (the cross) at the end of the service, I want to be as simple and straightforward as I can today. No jokes, no inspiring stories and absolutely no personal opinions- you have my word on that.

     I just want to open up today’s scripture passage, unpack it for you and then offer you one clear, bipartisan recommendation that I believe comes out of this scripture.

So open up your bibles to Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12. For you liberals out there, the Gospel of Mark is in the New Testament. Just kidding…That’s the last joke.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we or shouldn’t we? Yes or no?” 

      The first thing this passage makes unavoidable is that Jesus is political. It’s not that he’s not.

I know some of you have a Joel Osteen notion of Christianity: that Christianity is a private religion of the heart, and Jesus is about spiritual things. The only problem with that kind of Christianity is that it requires a bible other than the one God has given us.

Mary’s pregnancy begins with her singing of how her in-utero Messiah will one day topple rulers from their thrones and send the rich away with nothing.

Jesus kicks off his ministry by declaring the Year of Jubilee: the forgiveness of all monetary debt owed by the poor.

And for 3 years, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and, because Jesus was a Jew, he didn’t have pearly gates in mind. He was talking about the here and now.

Jesus is political.

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. The Gospel story ends with Pilate killing Jesus- on what charges? On charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar. 

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen. The head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter.

So it’s not that the tax was onerous.

It was offensive.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: ‘Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.’ Carrying the coin broke the first and most important commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ 

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean. It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

You see how it works?

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

What they’re really asking, here, is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that, to see what they’re really asking, you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies. On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome. On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus has a temper tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip.

And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.

Why?

To answer that question, you need to know a little history.

 

200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer.

The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.” 

So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.

     Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. He traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before Judas the Sledgehammer becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.

That was 200 years before today’s passage.

About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean- he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax.

With an armed band he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna,’ he cleansed the Temple

And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King.

Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.

You see what’s going on?

 

Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers.

The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is declare a revolution. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax: 

Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? is the real question. 

Come down off the fence Jesus.

Which side are you on? 

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan co-sponsoring a budget bill.

And that’s not even an exaggeration because the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.

The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus.

But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties.

The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options.

And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.

 

The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought government was good. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and- even if it took a sword- Rome had brought stability to Israel. The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in. 

 

The Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. The Pharisees were bible-believing observers of God’s commandments.They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and ‘Son of God’ printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions. 

The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down. 

 And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff, and they’ll write him off and walk away. 

 That’s the trap.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’ 

If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.

If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.

 

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?

Which is it going to be? The Sword or the Sledgehammer?

Which party do you belong to?

You’ve got to choose one or the other.

What are your politics Jesus?

 

Jesus asks for the coin.

And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’ 

And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is ‘eikon,’ the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be ‘eikons of God.’

Eikons of Caesar, the coin. Eikons of God, you.

 

Jesus looks at the coin and he says ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.’ 

But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for ‘give’ isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question.

When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means ‘give,’ as in ‘to present a gift.’

 

But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word. 

Instead Jesus the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier. Jesus says: ‘Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.’ 

 

You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is?

What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him.

But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.

And what does God deserve from you?

Everything.

Everything.

 

Jesus is saying is: ‘You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.’ 

 

Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation- you can’t give to those things, what they ask of you: your ultimate allegiance.

You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question.

The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.

They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now.

Or another kingdom not too different.

They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.

But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise.

He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides.

Because Jesus the Galilean was leading a different kind of revolution than Judas the Galilean.

A revolution not with a sword or a sledgehammer.

But with a cross.

 

    Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

Because his movement wasn’t about defeating his opponents.

His movement was about dying for his opponents.

 

And that’s a politics that qualifies and complicates every other politics.

 

If you were to ask me: ‘Jason, what’s your absolute, A#1, favorite part of ministry?’ then I think I’d have to say it’s: getting email forwards.

Who doesn’t love email forwards?

Some of you only get email forwards from your family or your circle of friends. I pity you. I’m blessed to have an entire congregation thoughtful enough to send me email forwards. How awesome is that?

And much like you, I’m sure, my favorite email forwards are the political ones. Seriously, I don’t know what Christians did prior to the internet. They must’ve had to ask questions and engage in civil conversation and listen patiently.

I can’t even imagine.

Here’s one that has a special place in my heart:

 “Jesus said his disciples were to be as wise as serpents. So how can any Christian with a brain be so stupid as to vote for __________ candidate? If you’re a Christian with a brain please forward this to a Christian without one.’ 

I sent that one to Dennis 🙂

But see, aren’t you jealous? Just imagine what your life could be like- getting a dozen forwards like that a day from people who pay your salary?

It’s awesome.

Seriously, I could filibuster my way past Pentecost just reading the political email forwards I get from you.

On every imaginable issue, I get emails. Emails asserting that God is on this side, not that side.

Emails demanding:

that bible-believing Christians check this box, not that box,

that Jesus is with this party and against that party,

that to support this agenda instead of that agenda is simply to do what Jesus Christ himself would do.

 

    The Bible has a word for rhetoric like that.

      Idolatry.

     And for some of you, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.

 

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan recommendation. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

I wanted to get you all plastic bracelets with the acronym on it but the shipping was too expensive.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Don’t put Jesus in a box. Don’t make Jesus choose sides. Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.

Don’t say Jesus is for this Party. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this or that agenda.

Because we all know it’s more complicated than that. And so is the Gospel.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

I mean, this might be an epiphany newsflash for some of you, but you can find good, faithful, sincere, bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians everywhere all along the political spectrum.

You know how I know that? You’re sitting in front of me.

    But what you must not do is insist that Jesus is for this or that politics. 

    Jesus wouldn’t do that to himself so why are you doing it to him? 

     You’re mixing up God and Caesar.  

     You’re making Jesus fit your politics instead of conforming your politics to Jesus. 

      You’re committing idolatry, using your ultimate allegiance to bless and baptize your earthly opinions. 

    Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Because when you do-

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes too easy to believe that the problems in the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what the Gospel says: that the problem in the world is what’s in here (the heart) in all of us.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes harder and harder to like your neighbor and it becomes impossible to love your enemy.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection kicked off isn’t a Kingdom that any political party can ever create.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom launched by Jesus’ death and resurrection is a Kingdom 

where trespasses are forgiven, gratis; 

where grace is offered, free of charge; 

where enemies are prayed for on a weekly basis; 

where peace isn’t won and isn’t a soundbite it’s a practice; 

where money is shared without debate so that the poor would be filled; where our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this Table together. 

     When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus brings is you. When the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit doesn’t cast a vote for Emperor. The Holy Spirit creates the Church. 

Us. You and me. The Church. 

We’re Jesus’ politics.

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Yesterday afternoon, Dennis (my associate pastor for those of you outside the congregation) let me know he couldn’t preach this weekend after all.

So I’m up at the plate this weekend as we continue our Lenten sermon series on idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. And what absolute, crap, spit-ball of a topic do I get?

The idol of…

Politics and Political Partisanship.

Fun.

At least, you know, church people aren’t known to get their panties in a bunch over preachers mentioning politics.

The text for this weekend is the question put to Jesus about taxes. They crucify him right after he answers.

Let’s hope I fare better but I suppose if I’m faithful to the text, I shouldn’t expect to get treated any better than Jesus. 

Here’s a video with some bona fide Jesus truth from Tim Keller on how our poisonous partisan culture is a faith issue and how CIVILITY IS A CHRISTIAN VIRTUE.

If you think being right on an issue is more important than how you speak to or about someone who disagrees with you, then you’re wrong.

At least as it concerns your faith.

And which is the more important? Your faith or your issue?

Don’t believe me, check out Jesus’ brother:

The tongue is placed among Christians as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 

7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 

10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters. 

This ought not to be so.

– Book of James, chapter 3

Scroll ahead to 4:40 for the bit on Civility and Politics: