Micah 6:6-8; Luke 20:20-26
November 6, 2022
- What we owe to God and to each other
One of the most dangerous questions these days: how much do I owe you?
Many of you have lived through tough economic days a number of times. Some of you even lived through a depression. I have seen a recession or two in my years and have felt the price creep, maybe jump. It has actually been creeping every year, so I guess jump is more appropriate. Things we used to take for granted – the specialty drinks at a coffee house or those pleasurable nights out at your favorite local restaurant – all have a little more sticker shock. Forget about cars or homes. Of course, the bigger jobs with supply chain issues and material costs, home repairs and the like, leave you with a bigger hole in your bank account. While sure you should have an idea what you are looking at for a bill, it is more, and there are the other bills that always shock me like vet visits. Yes, it is reasonable to begin to sweat a little when we have to ask: So how much do I owe you?
The question is much bigger, however, that the goods and services we purchase. I am not convinced that we as a people are very good at figuring out what we owe each other, in general. What do we owe our neighbors, our friends, strangers, our enemies or those who do us wrong, new people, old people, people who are like us and people who are not. How on earth do we know how we should treat others? Treat others as you want to be treated is a great guide, but I don’t think we heed our guardian angels on that point. We treat people differently because we think we owe them different. In case you think I’m making this up, if someone who looks like us shows up at the door in the evening looking for help, will we treat them the same as someone who does not look like us? Here’s another: do we treat people who have been convicted as we would like to be treated? Look at the prisons; look at the lists; look at how hard it is for felons to get jobs and lead normal lives after doing their time. I don’t think anyone in there is being treated as we ourselves would like to be treated whether justly convicted or not.
Jumping ahead, we are a bit foggy on what we owe God, even, but that is a little later. For right now, I want to talk about how think about our obligation to one another.
Alex Jones, known for InfoWars and other things, was recently ordered to pay the families of the Sandy Hook massacre $965 million for his insistent and public denials that the shooting at their school that killed 20 of their children and six of their staff ever happened. He maintained on his television broadcasts and elsewhere that it was all a staged hoax with actors. Not only did those families all loose young children or other loved ones, but because of Jones’ conspiracy hoax work, the families were subject to all kinds of cruelty from the public, even death threats for being part of a faked, staged incident. It is mindboggling how those families endured the horrific deaths and the public humiliation and accusations on top of that. That is, of course, why the amount of the fine is so large. Jones made millions off this work. He made money off of their pain and torment.
Now, some might say that particular fine is way too much. It is almost a billion dollars, but we are also a nation of free speech. On the other hand, if the speech is so cruel and vile and threatens life, and one life is priceless, let alone the lives connected to the 26 people who died at the school. I know that is a sad, difficult situation to consider, but it really expresses the significance of this question. What do we owe one another for the situations of life?
This is a crucial question when we start to consider the folk in Ukraine. Some might say we owe them nothing – no help, no support, no trouble on our part. That war is putting a strain on our economy and our lives and partly why our things cost more. Nevertheless, we have taken on a small part of their suffering and helped their cause because we feel they are owed a fighting chance. We have felt a responsibility to assist them even though it makes our lives and the lives of others harder. The is America, after all, the land of the free and home of the brave. Closer to home, our children are owed a good shot at better lives, and we must give them as much of that opportunity to succeed. Our elders are owed dignity and respect in their times of greater need. They have contributed to the world that we appreciate and paved the way for us. The least we can do is provide for their welfare. Sometimes these questions can be even more challenging to negotiate.
In Jesus’ day, this question of what we owe became a life or death issue for Jesus himself. Actually, the way it was set up, it was not “life or death” but maybe “public shame and ridicule or death.” Luke gives us this story from Mark’s Gospel. In fact, this story shows up in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Take that to mean that it is pretty significant. All three evangelists wanted to include it. Jesus’ enemies were trying to trick Jesus into embarrassing himself in front of his followers by saying we should pay taxes to Caesar, since that was VERY unpopular with the people. Or if Jesus said we should NOT pay taxes to Caesar, then they could charge Jesus with treason and hand him over to the authorities for death. His enemies saw this as a no-win situation for Jesus. Either way, his ministry was over. Or so they thought.
The Roman coin that the Jews were carrying was literally evil to the Jews. You see, there was a problem with the very coin itself. It had a picture of Tiberius Caesar on the coin with an inscription calling him a god and the son of a god (by Augustus Caesar). Just by having a Roman coin, a Jew was breaking commandment #’s 1 AND 2. They were carrying around another god on their person, and it had a graven image on it. Spiritually, it was like an idol. Jesus embarrasses these tricksters royally when he exposes that they are even carrying the coins. Then, in good Jewish rabbi form, he turns their question back around on them. He answers their question with a question. His final answer to them is brilliant and absolutely true: give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God. In this sense, people are owed what belongs to them. If you have something that belongs to someone else, the right thing to do is to give it to them.
If it were only that simple, however.
As a nation, we have said that all have at least three basic rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have done a pretty lousy job actually following through with that, however, throughout our history. We nearly exterminated the native Americans, created an economic empire dependent on racial slavery, kept women unempowered politically until the right to vote was given to them just a little more than 100 years ago. It may be hard to imagine that for a number of you, if you had been born a few years earlier, you would not have been able to vote. And, yes, I hope ALL of you who are able to vote do so by Tuesday. The one thing we can say is that America has been the most prosperous nation in the world, but I cannot say that equates to being the most concerned with life, liberty, or happiness. We seem pretty bent on death, abuse our freedom in all kinds of selfish ways, and are nationally full of mental anguish. We certainly do see examples of all of these basic human rights today, but we easily lose sight of what is truly owed to everyone in our personal quest for more.
One beautiful expression of what God is owed that can also translate into our own lives is the passage from Micah 6. The people seemed so concerned and fixed on giving God what they thought God wanted or giving God the bare minimum. Back in the ancient days, there was a lot of energy going to keeping the gods happy. How can we appease the gods? That is what sacrifices are all about, and the God of the Israelites invited sacrifices like the others from the beginning. But the sacrificial system became a monstrous industry that did not make the world a better place. Covering your own sins did not make you a better person. Showing up for God with livestock to kill did not change your heart to more loving. Walking through the motions will never lead anyone to being a godlier person. We even messed up the sacrificial system as you heard in that passage from Micah. “Shall I give my first born to cover my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Why would Micah even bring that up? That was nowhere asked for in Scripture. Nowhere did it say in God’s word to engage in child sacrifice, but it did happen. It happened a lot more than we might want to admit. A sacrificial system bent on having us giving up things of value to appease an angry god will eventually mean we sacrifice things we should never sacrifice in that way.
The kind of sacrifice God really wants is for us to do right, to be wonderfully kind, and to walk with God in humility. This is so beautiful and so profound and so simple. As much as it is in our power, be just and loving and humble. Seeking to be a genuinely better person in the Spirit of God is the best sacrifice we can make. We can give ourselves.
In fact, Jesus still confounded those who were listening to him when he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caeser’s and to God what is God’s.” Did you catch the issue there? It sounds simple and a clean way to delineate who is owed what, except for the small fact that EVERYTHING belongs to God. This is why we can treat everything and everyone in this world as what God is owed. This is God’s requirement. This is why we go out of our way to value all life and to treat everyone how we want to be treated. We owe everyone the love we enjoy from God and treat everyone by doing what is right, being lovingly kind, and sharing in a spirit of humility.
The next time I go to Uptown for a cup of coffee and ask “what do I owe you?” I may not be able to pay the tab with kindness, but I can express what God requires from you and from me and from us all. God needs what is right, what is lovingly kind, and our humbleness, not only to God but to all of God’s children. To God be the glory. Amen.