“DON'T MESS WITH THE IRS”

MATTHEW 22: 15-22

NOVEMBER 20, 2011

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            It is a familiar saying, even to those outside the church: “Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

            According to an old expression, there are only two inevitable things: death and taxes.  And as someone opined, “At least death doesn’t increase every time Congress meets.”

            Some else said, “The Eiffel Tower is the Empire State Building after taxes.”

            And have you ever noticed that when we combine the two words, “THE” and “IRS,” it spells “THEIRS”?

            Some of you may remember the story of Lady Godiva, a real person, who allegedly rode through the streets of her town without benefit of clothing.  What you may not know is the reason for the ride.  She was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and supposedly she made her famous ride through the town of Coventry in exchange for her husband promising to cut taxes.[1] 

            And taxes seem to be on everyone’s mind nowadays.  Should we add more taxes for the very wealthy?   Should we go to a flat tax?  Should we cut tax exemptions for charitable contributions?  Can we cut the national debt without raising taxes?

            Taxes were also on the mind of people in Jesus’ time as well, however, taxation carried an even more sinister connotation in biblical times because when you paid taxes you were helping prop up Israel’s oppressors, the Romans.  Taxes were not paid to Israel or Judah.  Most of the tax dollars went directly to Rome.  To most Jews, this was offensive.  The people of Israel were no different than any other occupied land.  They resented their hard earned money going to the treasury of the people who ruled over them.

            Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the Roman tax could only be paid with a Roman coin.  This coin had stamped on it the image of Caesar himself.  The inscription on it read: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”  This coin with Caesar’s image on it violated the second commandment as far as the Jews were concerned, the commandment regarding the creation of graven images.

            So the Pharisees and the Herodians, that is, those in league with Herod, thought they had a winning hand when they posed a question to Jesus about paying taxes to Rome.  “Teacher,” they said hypocritically, “we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth.  You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.  Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay the taxes to the emperor, or not?”

            It was a no-win question for Jesus, or so they thought.  If he counseled against paying taxes, he would be in trouble with the Romans; if he spoke in favor of paying the tax, the common people would be enraged.  His enemies would have him right where they wanted him.

            But Jesus knew their intent.  He said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.”  They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this?  And whose inscription?”

            “Caesar’s,” they replied.

            Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

            When his enemies heard this, Matthew tells us, they were amazed.  So they left him and went away.  “Render . . . unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

            We know what belongs to Caesar, don’t we?  We get information from the IRS each year reminding us what we owe to Caesar.  But what about God?  WHAT DO WE OWE GOD?  Let’s talk about that for a moment.

            First of all, we owe God our money.  This church would not be here if people before us or we did not believe in giving God our money.  We owe money to our country because we drive on its roads.  Somebody has to pay for those roads.  Somebody has to pay for our schools, our military and all the benefits of living in this land.  In much the same way we give to God in order that the Gospel may be proclaimed and that future generations may have the same spiritual benefits that we enjoy.

            Mark Sanborn is a well-known writer and motivational speaker. In one of his books, he tells about a friend of his, now deceased, who was well-known in business circles.  His name was Charlie “Tremendous” Jones.  Some of you may know about this dynamic sales personality.  Charlie “Tremendous” Jones died in October of 2009 and you can view his moving memorial service in full on the Internet.

            Charlie Jones had a “tremendous” attitude about life.  Mark Sanborn called Charlie “Tremendous” Jones one of the most philanthropic people he knew.  Throughout his life, Sanborn says, Charlie Jones gave lavishly of his time and money.  So Mark Sanborn was surprised when Charlie Jones announced to him and his other friends, “I’ve given up on giving.”  Says Sanborn, “There had to be more to the story. What would cause one of the most giving people on earth to give up on giving?”

            Charlie “Tremendous” Jones explained why he had given up on giving like this: “Everything I have,” he said, “my life, my potential, my time was given to me.  I’ve decided to spend the rest of my life returning.”[2]

            Charlie was giving up on giving because he realized he hadn’t been truly giving in the first place.  All he was, all he had, was a gift from God.  He was simply returning to God was what was God’s already.

            I believe most of us understand that, but it is good to be reminded.  The church depends on mature followers of Christ, like Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, who give because they recognize that all of life is a gift from a loving God, and we are simply returning a portion of what God has bestowed on us.

            Sometime back ABC TV news carried a brief story about Louise Hauser of Houston, Texas who won $50,000 on the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”  Her home in Houston had sustained significant damage in Hurricane “Ike” a few months before.  She was not a wealthy woman.  She could certainly have used all of the $50,000.  Yet Louise Hauser gave $10,000 of her prize winnings that’s 20% or two “tithes” of that money to the West Houston Assistance Ministries, a food pantry where she worked.  In addition to that, she planned to give to her church as well.  By way of explaining her generosity to an astonished reporter, Hauser said, “My husband Nick and I have a very simple life and we don’t require much in the way of ‘stuff’ to be happy.  I’m very blessed.”

            She is blessed.  Louise is blessed with spiritual maturity.  She understands that happiness does not consist in having stuff.  Happiness comes from being in a right relationship with God.  The first thing we owe God is our money.

            The second thing we owe God is our joyful service.  I say joyful service because the people who serve God best don’t think of it as a duty, but as a privilege.  For them service is a natural response to God’s goodness.

            The editorial staff of a Sunday magazine that is often stuffed into the Sunday paper, created a “Faith in Life” award.  The readers were encouraged to submit letters of nomination telling stories of those persons who best lived their faith in their daily lives.

            A large number of the nominating letters that came in mentioned people who either had attended church regularly for years; had given a sizable amount of money to their church or favorite charity; or had done both.  Many of the letters included newspaper clippings that showed the dedication of the person who was being nominated for the award.

            Some folks were surprised when the winner was announced. The nominee’s letter had been written in crayon with no newspaper clippings attached.  The letter read like this: “Anthony is a plumber.  He helped some people fix up a house for my friend’s family because their first house burned down.  He also visits my grandmother in the nursing home and makes her happy with his stories and his harmonica playing.  He is a lot like Jesus. I hope he wins.  But if he doesn’t it won’t matter.  He will still be the same good old Anthony.”  And it was signed, “Love, Anne.”

            I like that.  He “makes my grandmother happy with his stories and his harmonica playing.  He is a lot like Jesus.”  There are people I’ve known through the years like Anthony the plumber.  Some are members of this church.  They take being a good neighbor seriously.  They are continually doing good things for others.

            Anthony is like another man I heard about recently named Arnold Billie. For more than a quarter of a century, Billie was a rural mail carrier in southern New Jersey. His daily route took him sixty-three miles through two counties and five municipalities.  Mr. Billie, as he was affectionately known, did more than deliver the mail. He provided “personal service.”  Anything a person might need to purchase from the post office, Mr. Billie provided stamps, money orders, pickup service.  All a customer needed to do was leave the flag up on their mailbox.

            One elderly woman had trouble starting her lawn mower, so whenever she wanted to use it, she would simply leave it by her mailbox, raise the flag, and when Mr. Billie came by, he would start it for her!  Mr. Billie gave a new definition to the phrase “public servant.”[3]

            There ought to be a special place in heaven for people like Anthony the plumber and Arnold Billie.  There probably is.  Thank God for people like them. 

            What do we owe God?  We owe Him our money. We own Him our joyful service.

But the most importantly, we owe God is ourselves. We need to understand this.  More important than our material possessions, more important than our acts of service, is dedicating ourselves whole-heartedly to God.

            Whose image was engraved on the Roman coins?  That’s easy to answer Caesar’s.  In whose image were we created?  God’s.  Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar and unto God that which is God’s.  In other words, as ones created in the image of God, we owe God everything we are and everything we hope to be.

            Many years ago an American church leader named Wilber Chapman asked the founder of The Salvation Army, General William Booth, if he could explain why his work had prospered so.  “He hesitated for a second,” Dr. Chapman said, “and . . . I saw the tears come into his eyes and steal down his cheeks, and then General Booth said, ‘Sir, I will tell you the secret.  God has had all of me.  There have been men with greater brains, men with greater opportunities, but from the day I got the poor of London on my heart and a vision of what Jesus Christ could do with the poor of London, I made up my mind that God would have all of William Booth that there was.  And if there is any power in The Salvation Army today,” he said, “it is because God has all the adoration of my heart, all the power of my will, and all the influence of my life.’”

            Whose image was engraved on Roman coins?  Caesar’s.  In whose image were we created?  God’s.  “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar and unto God that which is God’s.”



[1] William Hartston, The Encyclopedia of Useless Information (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.. 2007), p. 159.

[2] Mark Sanborn, You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2006), p. 85.

[3] God’s Little Devotional Book (Tulsa: Honor Books, Inc., 1973), p. 229.