Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSV)
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, 'Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?' But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, 'Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.' And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, 'Whose head is this, and whose title?' They answered, 'The emperor's.' Then he said to them, 'Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.' When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The summer when I was sixteen, I had my first job, working at a fast food restaurant on the Boston Post Road in Clinton.
I learned a lot. For one thing, the owner taught via slogans, including "if you have time to lean, you have time to clean." (I still use that one.)
But one of the biggest lessons from that job was on the day I got my first paycheck. Since I'd been working for the princely sum of $4.25 an hour, from dawn until lunch, for a whole week, I figured I was about to make a fortune. I had calculated and recalculated what I had coming, and had mentally spent the whole thing about three different ways.
Suffice to say, I opened the pay envelope, ready to paint the Connecticut shoreline red. And that's when I first met FICA, and had my first real lesson about "rendering unto Caesar."
Now, in Matthew's gospel, when Jesus and the Pharisees debate over that denarius, part of the message is to name where our ultimate loyalties lie. What the Pharisees imagine as a chance to drive a wedge between Jesus and his followers, Jesus recasts as a call to be faithful within the complicated compromises that life demands.
But I wonder if he's also challenging us to reflect on what we calculate - and why.
Like my sixteen year old self, why do so many of us make it such a point to calculate where to put each and every denarius we have coming, but spend such relatively little time and attention thinking of the service we might do, the kindness or the patience we might show, the insight we might develop, or the encouragement we might lend?
Nobody likes the idea of having their taxes audited, and nobody likes having the work of their discipleship audited. Jesus reminds us that we need to do that spiritual accounting with the same commitment, and even urgency, that we find when we track what we've earned down to the last penny.
If we do, we may find that we've been taking a lot more "time to lean" than we realized. And you know what that means?
Giving and Forgiving God, we give thanks for the abundance of your creation and your everlasting love. We ask you to open our eyes so that we may recognize those times when we have been less giving than you call us to be.
Senior Minister of the Second Congregational Church UCC in Greenwich, Connecticut