Jesus Seminar’s Matthew in Stewardship Season

    Cramers Corner Sunday 19 October 2008

"In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes," wrote Benjamin Franklin to a friend in 1789. In 1936, Margaret Mitchell brightened up the observation with a reference to new life. "Death and taxes and childbirth!" she wrote, in Gone With the Wind. "There's never any convenient time for any of them."

Yes, indeed. Inconvenience and inevitability are the bottom line. In the end, is . . . the end. Ask anyone.

But that seems out of place in adult Sunday school. Why don't we once more look at what Matthew has been leading us to? How to comprehend the last few weeks' parables: . . . doing, or not doing, what a landowner (God?) wants, that is, submitting to authority . . . sons working, or not working . . . tenants "giving" an owner the harvest, as if they owned it . . . guests ignoring rules at a wedding. Matthew (chapters 21 and 22) wants us to see that rules, choice, death, birth, burdens and rewards in Jesus' reality all fall within a realm, God's realm as seen by Jesus, that, even if not easily perceived, is greater by far than all the parts of life ruled by Caesar.

Walter Wink has dramatically represented Jesus' own dramatic depiction of Mighty Caesar. In Matthew 22 we see Caesar is easily able to be represented on a tiny coin.

"This is Caesar'," Jesus answers a question about paying taxes. "Give it to him." And then, opening his arms wide, index finger sweeping a dramatic curve against the distant horizon . . . Jesus cries, "This is God's domain!"

And in this season of stewardship sensitivity, we realize that everything indeed is God's. Everything we know, and have, is God's. We are stewards. God is God. Caesar is only Caesar. We do belong to both -- neither having been our choice -- but we know to whom we are to return the most. Jesus' teaching got lots of Christians killed for insubordination. But Jesus never said God's Realm was easy from a human point of view. He said it was easy. We have left this table each week wondering about discipleship's cost-benefit ratio. Who is Lord, Caesar or Jesus? Is Jesus way too radical?

Thinking of "image" in a different way than Jesus' use of a Roman coin, I came up with two images as I tried to relate today's reading to how we imagine, and practice, Christian mission in the world.

One is a striking example related by Brian Stoffregen. He was in a stewardship workshop. The presenter really startled him. He said he always makes it a point to give more to his church through his offerings than he gives to the government through his taxes. That was a way he could show which allegiance to authority was greater.

The other image that kept pestering me was our tiny UCC public-policy advocacy office, the center of our Peace and Justice Witness ministries, in our nation's capital and in state legislative chambers around the country.

Their work is not only direct witness to policy-makers, giving voice to voiceless poor and marginalized people too often forgotten in the budget process . . . but developing powerful resources that are available for ordinary people in our congregations and conferences to use (as in the Jubilee program). I'm sharing an overview of such resources and commend them to you (go to

There is much to think about here, but I confess it's a lot easier for me to use my head to the exclusion of letting my gut pick up a justice issue in the name of Jesus and ram it through the world's obstacles. How about you? Bob Cramer.

An additional word for those who want to dig a little deeper:
Brian Stoffregen reminded me that biblical languge can be a whole lot richer, more nuanced, than our modern English. Our text isn't simple.

There are four different words, in the New Testament, he says, for taxes. One is telos, for any kind of tax.

More specifically there are three others. Kensos, related to the Latin word census, means what every adult pays to government. That is the word Matthew uses in today's reading. It could be quite burdensome, but at least it goes to one's legitimate rulers.

Luke, Stoffregen suggests, uses phoros in his rendition of today's story. Phoros means the taxes of one nation's people are going to another nation, so the word suggests submission and dependence. That carries a huge psychic load, although perhaps it's not much greater than in our polarized political culture today where one party says the other party wrongfully taxes and wastes.

Finally, didrachmon is used by Matthew for each male Jew's annual tax of two drachmos to support the Temple.

Many commentators figure the tax to Rome's puppet local governors were choked on the worst. Insult may have been as bad as, or worse than, financial injury. The foreign powers worshiped false gods and the hated coins clearly were domination propaganda. In Jesus' time, some said, "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest." How would we like our coins sent to China as interest on our debt paying tribute to President Bush or even a Chinese Communist leader? When we handed over the coin, there would be the hated image.