It is Not About Taxes, it’s About Us.
21 Pentecost, Proper 24-Year A
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Tax Day is the day that ordinary Americans send their money to Washington, D.C., and wealthy Americans send their money to the Cayman Islands.” — Jimmy Kimmel
So that was a joke about taxes, but today’s gospel is not about taxes, it’s not even about money. Jesus’ message is a reminder that the coins the governments produce have no value in the Kingdom of Heaven. Money is a human resource, created by governing bodies and tendered to a vast array of enterprises, both humanitarian and horrific.
“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God’s is neither a condemnation of taxes nor capitulation to the authorities of Caesar. Whichever we use it, money is not of God.
What is of God? Who represents the image of God? You and I are representative of the image of God. The 1400 massacred and 200 kidnapped men, women and children who celebrated together at a music festival and families in the Kibbutz near Gaza are representative of the image of God. The Palestinians suffering in the line of military attacks in the West Bank are representative of the image of God. The people of Ukraine, Iran, China, Venezuela and Lewiston, Idaho are images of God. Every one of every nation, race, religion, political persuasion, economic class, gender or age is a prefect image of God. All people without exception are loved images of God. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Render to me what is mine. It is us. We are the Kingdom that God cares about. What does God want? Us. God wants us.
In Exodus 33 Moses speaks to God about the mission set before him by God. He speaks of his confusion of not being able to see the face of God. He says, “Lord, show me the face of your Glory”. And God replies to Moses that he will not see the face of God while he lives as a human on earth, but he will experience the hand of God holding all the Glory needed to lead and rescue the people of God to safety.
How do we begin to understand the glory and majesty impowered by the hand of God? Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “For we know, brothers and sisters you are beloved by God, we know God has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit. Paul praises them as being “imitators of God” in the way they welcomed strangers and willingly turned away from the fakery of the world in wait of Jesus’s rescue.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who were well versed in the power and glory of God’s image. Their rhetorical trick only made Jesus’s point that we belong to God. Sure, we live in the world and we, for the most part, play by the rules; but God wants our hearts, our intentions, our values for ourselves and each other. It is not about who we are to each other, it is only about being in a relationship with each other.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote this week about a Jewish term, “righteous gentile”. It means someone who entered redemptive relationship with Jews though they were not a Jew. A righteous gentile is one who looks beyond the self-interest of their own people to serve a higher purpose for another people. If you Google “righteous gentiles” today, you’ll be led straight to the website of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, which keeps track of the Righteous of the Nations in its database. There are more than 28,000 names on the list now, from 51 countries—righteous gentiles who protected their Jewish neighbors at great risk during the Second World War.
Oskar Schindler’s name jumps out thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s movie about him. He was a member of the Nazi party, so he was no paragon of virtue, but that was not a requirement. What mattered was that when he saw a way to prevent more than a thousand Jewish workers in his factories from being sent to concentration camps, he did it. But not everyone on the list that Yad Vashem keeps is so famous.
Feng Shan-Ho was the Chinese Consul-General in Vienna in 1938, when Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany and Jews needed to show visas or boat tickets to other countries to leave. Ho issued hundreds of visas to Shanghai for anyone who asked for them, over the direct orders of the Chinese ambassador to Berlin.
Adolf and Maria Althoff ran a circus that traveled all over Europe during the war, which made it possible for them to shelter an illegal family of four for years without getting caught. When Gestapo officers showed up for routine inspections, the whole circus—over ninety artists and their families—kept the secret.
Vesel and Fatima Veseli were Albanian Muslims who took one Jewish family into their small home in the mountains—then another—five adults and two children, who stayed with them until the end of the war in 1944. Afterwards, their son Refik went to live with one of the families in Yugoslavia until they were able to emigrate to Israel.
None of these people set out to be righteous gentiles. Most of them didn’t plan to be saviors at all. They were just ordinary people, like you and me living in a world of deep division and danger. Some surely decided to help based on their religious values or their politics, but that, clearly, could go either way. So, there was something else at work that made them do the right thing when they could, for as long as they could, though there was great risk in it for everyone involved.
Wouldn’t it be great if every religion kept a list like that. I wish the Freedom from Religion Foundation kept a list like that, along with every political party: a list of people who have entered redemptive relationship with each other though they don’t read the same books, believe the same things, follow the same teachings, look up to the same teachers or hang in the same algorithm.
But in general, the lists do not exist. But God knows.
Let us pray.
Lord, we know we are not always feeling worthy of your glory, and we do not always live up to being the image of God. But in the name of Jesus Christ let us be your light in the world. Let us feel your hand and glory so that we stay firmly on the rock you set us on.
Let our path be clear so that we are doing your will in the world. Keep us safe and give us the tools and opportunities to bring others to your safety.
Keep us secure in the knowledge that we are born in your image, and we belong to you only, to be the Kingdom you have set forth for your Glory. Amen