Do you remember the first time you paid income tax? I saw a video on YouTube recently; a father was filming his son opening his first paycheck in the back seat of his car. As he opened it, his face went from ecstatic excitement to confused pain. The father asked the boy, “what’s wrong?” The boy pronounced, “they got it all wrong, they got my pay all wrong.” His brother, who was sitting next to him, looked at the paystub and said, “look man, you have to pay taxes; they didn’t mess up your pay; they paid the government what you owe.” The boy got out of the car and took a few mins to walk it off while he fought back tears. What an excellent illustration of how it feels to pay taxes!
In the Gospel today, the Pharisees are attempting to setup Jesus. They want to secure their power and make sure Jesus does not upend the way they live. They plan to get Jesus to say something so they can bring him up on charges, preferably to the Roman governor, who can rid them of this new pesky prophet. What they didn’t count on was Jesus being the source of all knowledge, and he wasn’t going to play their game. When they asked Jesus should we pay taxes, instead of answering them, he changed the question. Whose likeness is on that coin? Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s give to God what is God’s.
The heart of the issue that confronts us in today’s passage isn’t about paying taxes. It is about having our lives in proper order. I want to share with you something I shared while teaching a class on social media in March. It is an observation I realized while preparing for the four-part series, and it’s something that scares me more than anything else in the world right now. God created us spiritual beings who also have physical bodies. We are created by God to be, in essence, a duality, both having a connection to the physical world and the spiritual realm. The main human problem is and has always been not recognizing the importance of the spiritual and overemphasizing the physical.
When you read most theology, what you read about is how we must train ourselves to draw on the spiritual, which is a relationship with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our connection with Jesus keeps our physical lives in order. There are hundreds of ways we can allow the spiritual to direct our physical nature. All of you have heard sermons about this very topic for years, right here at Redeemer. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Love your neighbor as Christ loves you. Confess your sins and be released from the guilt and pain that you feel. Love your spouse as Jesus sacrificially loves the church, and you will have a great marriage. I could go on forever. The fact is, being healthy spiritually leads to healthy relationships and a healthy understanding of life.
Remember, God created us both physical and spiritual beings. In the last twenty years, technology created a new form of human existence. It has spread faster than any virus could spread throughout our planet, and it is evolving, it is learning how to manipulate us. We have ceased to be people who live both in the physical and spiritual realms. We have become people who live in the physical, spiritual, and virtual realms. For the vast majority of our society, the most real part of existence can be found in social media’s virtual realm. This is a big problem, and it is a big problem for all of us; none of us are immune. The virtual realm has created a society addicted to getting followers, being an influencer, and receiving likes. Worst of all, we find opinions we agree with to double down on all of our presuppositions and cease intellectual and spiritual growth. We have become living echo chambers whose ability for empathy is diminishing faster than an ice cube on a hot driveway.
There is a place for the virtual world we have created. It can even be lifegiving, as right now there are people watching Masses like this one and other offerings in that realm. Just like all the sermons preached for the past two thousand years about the importance of our physical lives being informed and nurtured by our spiritual lives, we ought to acknowledge that the life we portray in the virtual realm must be that of a Christian. Our relationship with Jesus and His call to all of us to love the citizens of this world the way he loves each of us applies concretely to the virtual world. If you find yourself in arguments in the virtual realm. If it makes you angry or depressed if it becomes a tool to bully and ridicule. If it is the first think you look at in the morning and the last thing you look at in the evening. If you find yourself locked in an echo chamber of your own making, only affirming your preconceived notions, and not challenging them, you need to step back. You need to step back because you are losing yourself; you are replacing your relationship with Jesus with a smart device.
Jesus said render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. That coin bore the image of Caesar. That is why it could be paid as a tax. Humanity bears the image of God. Jesus tells us to surrender to God what bears His image. Our lives, in all their complexity, are living offerings to God. The coins that bore Caesar’s image had to be traded in because they could not be offered in the temple; God would not receive something dedicated to a false god. We must not dedicate ourselves to a false god, whether that god is physical like the golden calf or virtual like many social media platforms. As we have seen, God will not accept an offering that has already been dedicated to a false god. If this way of existence describes you, fear not; God’s love can bring you back; God’s love is the direction home. Turn to God and turn off your device. Receive God’s grace and favor, and then reflect that grace and favor in every realm of your existence.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Christian M. Wood
Church of the Redeemer
20th Sunday after Pentecost
18 October 2020