Many centuries ago there was a warlike tribe in Europe that had no contact with Christianity. Eventually Christian missionaries reached this tribe and many became converts. The story goes that when these people were baptized in a river or lake the missionaries noticed that they would hold one arm above the water, even as the rest of their body was submerged. The missionaries thought this was odd! Later, however, they learned the reason: When these new Christians went to battle against the Romans, they would hold their sword high in the air and shout, “This arm is not baptized!”— which in their minds allowed them to continue to slaughter their enemies just as they had before they were baptized.
The idea of intentionally withholding some parts of our body from the waters of baptism might strike us as odd—or even funny! But the practice of those ancient people is not really that different from what each and every one of us does, often without even realizing it. By the choices we make and the values we embrace we essentially say, “These parts of my life I choose to give to God; these other parts I choose to do what I want.”
But is this what Jesus taught? When he said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”—was he saying that we have on the one hand a religious life in which we play by God’s rules and on the other hand a secular life that we play by our own rules?
No! When Jesus says “Give to God the things that are God’s” our first question should be, “What doesn’t belong to God?” You know the answer to that question: Everything belongs to God! The only question is, What will we do with what belongs to God?
The fact is, we do hold one arm above the waters of baptism. More accurately, we hold a hand clutching a wallet above the baptismal waters! Jesus knew human nature. He knew the temptation to organize our
lives according to our own self-interest; he experienced that temptation many times himself! Today’s story from Matthew is way ahead of its time because two thousand years later we’re still talking about wealth and taxes and power—often in a way that calls attention to ourselves and our own needs rather than giving glory to God.
I read this past week that Americans have the lowest tax rate of any industrialized nation—and yet people use terms such as “tax burden” and “tax relief” as if taxes were some evil thing. We just got our property tax statement in the mail this past week. This is really helpful because unless we see what it pays for the word “property tax” sounds like “some big bad government’s attempt to steal what is mine.” But here’s what our property tax goes toward: state, local schools, county, the port, fire departments, hospital, library, ferry, flood control—and so on. Those sound like pretty good causes to me!
These services sound to me like the kind of thing that no good citizen could object to funding generously. But as I look out over the congregation this morning and see Mallorie and Otis and these other young people, it’s not clear to me what kind of future these young people have because of the attitudes toward money among many grown-ups in our day.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor it was a trick question designed to avoid responsibility for themselves. But he gave them a trick answer to their trick question. When he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” he wasn’t saying that some things don’t belong to God. Instead, he was reminding them that everything belongs to God! As baptized people of God, therefore, how will your attitudes and choices reflect the love of God for you and for all people?
Pick up your worship bulletin and see the illustration on your front page. Here is an image of Jesus.
At first blush he seems to be imitating the practice of those ancient Europeans you heard about earlier. It almost looks like he’s following their example of holding one arm above the baptismal waters to do with as they chose, while the rest of their body was submerged and dedicated to service of God. Jesus is holding one arm up, one arm down.
But look! In the lower hand he holds a coin, as if to say, “This, too, belongs to God.” All our wealth belongs to God. It, too, is submerged in the waters of baptism. We submit all we have in every area of our lives to service of our God.
The other hand is held high but not in a way that exempts it from service of God. Notice what Jesus is doing with that hand: pointing up to God. Taken together the message is, All that I have and all that I am is given in service of and glory to the God who created us, all people and all that is.
Today’s readings are not just about money. They’re about idols– anything that takes the place of God in our lives. The scriptures invite us into the stories to ponder our baptismal identity and what it is that we clutch and hold above the waters of baptism, away from God’s transforming love. It could be our wallets that we cling to fearfully; it could be our financial identity. But it could also be our national identity. Jesus spoke of God and Caesar. We are daily tempted to believe in our country above all else and hold our beliefs above the waters of baptism.
Beyond these things that are explicit in the Jesus story for today idols could be anything: political party, personal freedom, prejudice against others who are different because of race or immigration status or sexual orientation. It’s common in our society to find these attitudes and beliefs but even we Christians sometimes hold these ideas above the waters of baptism, refusing to submit them to the teachings of Jesus and the gospel message of God’s love for all people.
Our Lutheran message to the world is God’s Work, Our Hands. People of God, we were given at birth two hands. Following Jesus’ example, with one hand we hold all that we have and all that we are beneath the waters of baptism, subject to the teachings of Christ based on the love of God for all people. The other hand we hold high; it contains nothing…except a finger pointing up, reminding us that all things—our whole lives—are meant to give glory to God.
We do fail at times, and we confess that. Even as the Pharisees tried to justify themselves and avoid changing, so do we. But God is in the forgiveness business. The Holy Spirit is hard at work, waiting in the hearts of all for an invitation to turn those areas of our hearts and minds that cling to fear and selfishness into instruments of love, compassion and above all– gratitude–for all that God has given us.