Money and the Church
Mathew 17: 24-27.
Some subjects are just touchy subjects.
I am sure that every parent has had the awkward ‘sex talk’.
The awkward ‘sex talk’ is not the talk that they have with their children about sex. The sex talk is the awkward discussion they have with their spouse or partner about who is going to have the awkward talk with the children about sex.
Another touchy subject is church and money.
I know I have mentioned this before but when some of this church went over to America to see how churches worked over there the church I was visiting was having a stewardship day and they were plugging tithing. They were having a huge debate about tithing, that is giving ten percent of all you earn to the church. Now their huge debate wasn’t about whether we should tithe or not tithe, their huge debate was whether the tithe should be of everything you earned before tax or after tax.
The other thing that was being discussed was that the tithing was just the basic minimum that the members should pay. That tithing wouldn't include the church offering which allowed the church to do extras in outreach. With that kind of financing coming into the church most American churches of this kind of size would expect to have four or five full time paid staff.
Are we getting touchy yet?
Well the good news, if you are feeling a bit uncomfortable, is that money and church have always been a touchy subject. As we read today, even in Jesus’ time there was conflict when it came to money and church.
Running the Temple was expensive.
You had the daily morning sacrifice and the daily evening sacrifice and the upkeep of the priest’s robes and the feeding of the priests and the repair of the building. All this stuff cost.
So there was an annual Temple Tax that every Jewish male over 20 had to pay.
At the start of March there would be an announcement that the tax was due, and then on the 15th of March booths would be set up in the villages and towns where Jews stayed and each male would pay his tax. This was in addition to any offerings that he was to give.
So here we have the situation where the announcement has been made, the booths are set up, and a few days later one of the officers of the booths has seen Peter wandering the streets and commented that Jesus and the disciples haven’t paid their taxes yet.
And then comes this weird saying and even weirder response with the fish.
So what are we to make of it all?
‘Who pays duties or taxes to the kings of this world? The citizens of the countries or the foreigners?’
I found this confusing. Because as far as I was aware Romans paid taxes as well and that levels of taxes was a big complaint in Roman history the same as it is in ours.
So I did some digging.
Seems that, what Jesus may have been think of, was when a country was invaded by another country. So when the Romans invaded a country they didn’t go in and say, ‘Sorry for all the damage we have caused, we will sort this out.’
Instead they demanded that the vanquished nation paid for the soldiers that had invaded them. The defeated nation paid a tribute for the honour of being invaded and loosing the invasion. Now the Romans didn't need to pay that tribute.
But I’m thinking that Jesus was getting to a more basic point.
And when Jesus got to a more basic point it was always about our relationship with God.
So here is the reasoning.
This is a Temple Tax, or a God tax.
When it came to the ways of the world, who never paid taxes? Well the family of the king and queen.
The taxes of a country were set up so that the king and queen could live in a style that they thought they deserved.
The taxes paid for the armies that protected the king and queen.
The taxes paid for the palaces and summer homes and clothes and jewellery and official robes that the king and queen and their family felt they needed.
The king and queen, and the family of the king and queen, never paid taxes.
What Jesus was saying was that no matter what else we needed to remember, we needed to remember that we are children of God.
So technically if they were children of God then they were exempt from the Temple Taxes as that was a God tax and children of God didn't need to pay.
I suspect that Jesus had a smile on his face when he said it to Peter.
But maybe not.
Maybe Jesus was annoyed that Peter was taking this all so seriously. And Jesus was trying to get the point over to the disciples that it wasn't enough just to pay their dues and think that made them all right with God.
To think that God would be all right with whatever we did as long as we pay in our collection. Or if we pay in a bit more to the collection than that can help us be forgiven for something we feel guilty about.
It could be that Jesus was just annoyed that for a second his disciples felt that faith and money were related in any way. And that the officials collecting the money for the Temple believed that there was a relation between faith and money. That as long as the temple Tax was paid and the Temple was doing well then the faith was doing well.
The truth is that the wellbeing of our faith is always judged on the strength of our relationships, with God and with others. And that will show in all kinds of ways, in our generosity of time and talents and even finances. We don’t do caring things to become caring people, we don't hand out money to become generous people. We do caring things because we are becoming caring people, we do generous things because we are becoming generous people.
It’s about the heart we are trying to create and the motivation of the heart, it is that motivation that inspires the heart to do what it does.
If we do something loving without a loving heart then all we are trying to do is deceive someone, but because the heart is deceptive and no good comes from it.
That is what Jesus is getting at here.
Forget about the money, the money is not important, our heart is what is important.
But then Jesus goes and tells Peter to go and fish and the fish will have the taxes in it.
Here I think context is everything.
Let’s imagine the scene.
Peter has been accosted by one of those officials who has challenged Peter on whether Jesus and the disciples have paid their taxes.
Peter has instantly reacted and said that they have. And they haven’t. They obviously haven’t because Jesus goes and tells him to go fishing to pay for them.
This is not a tax thing, this is an image thing, an ego thing, as it often was with Peter.
So Peter stomps into the house raging.
‘Do you know that that pompous official said I was the type of person that didn't pay the Temple Tax. How dare he question me?’
And the rest of the disciples are slagging him off. ‘But Peter you haven’t paid your taxes yet.’
‘That s not the point. How dare he suggest that I wasn't going to.’
I have been in conversations like this.
I was playing this game called Scruples that challenges how we would cope with difficult situations.
And the question was given to one of my mates. ‘You go to buy a TV and you notice the price tag on the TV is for the wrong TV, that if you buy that TV you will be getting a TV for less than a £1000 of its true value. Do you buy the TV without saying anything to the salesman?’
And my mate said that he would tell the salesman that the wrong price tag was on the TV. And his mate then challenged him on that, saying that not two weeks earlier he had boasted to him that he had got some clothing cheaper because the wrong sales tag was on it.
And the guy accused was furious at his mate. Because now it made him look like he was a greedy person when in his eyes he wasn’t. It had become a pride thing. In his eyes, just because he had done something deceitful didn't make him a deceitful person, that was a one off, an opportunity that anyone would have taken.
Here was Peter furious at an official for suggestion he wasn’t a good Jew.
And Jesus is having a bit of fun with him.
Reminding Peter that the truth is that if our heart is heading in the right direction then we are heading in the right direction.
Now he was to go fishing for a couple of days and that would pay the taxes.
The reading doesn't say that Peter then fished and found coins in the mouth. It was just a saying of Jesus. In the same way that if my daughter asked me for money to buy expensive furniture I would tell her to go back to school for a month and surprise surprise, she would find the money to pay for it herself.
That doesn’t mean she will find the money in the school. Or that I am suggesting that she rob all her pupils of their dinner money for a month. Just that if she is willing to wait a month for her next wage then she will be able to pay for it herself.
So what are we saying?
What is our connection between money and the church?
Well like Jesus I don't want to get too serious about it.
What I do want us to get serious about is our heart. How is it doing?
Are we seeking through God’s guidance to have a heart that is more loving and patient and generous and kind.
If we are truly seeking that then all kinds of things in our life will reflect that; how we spend time with of friends and family, how we look after our finances, how we prioritise our time; what organisations we support with our time and our talents and our money.
God may inspire us to give to the food bank for the poor in this area, or to give to the survivors of an earthquake overseas, or to help pets that have been abused, or any of millions of things that are worthwhile.
For different people different inspirations will be given by God.
As for this church and what we give to it.
The role of this church community is not to keep the building up.
The role of this church community is to help the community, and those outside the community to find a heart that is growing closer to God.
If people find it easier to do that through organisations that meet in nice warm halls, or find it easier to listen to the guidance of the scriptures through better cushions,
or have faith that we are more likely to care for the state of one’s soul if they see that we care for the state of the garden outside or the sound system inside, then so be it.
I have every faith that as long as we are reaching out to the people of Alva with God's love then we will have a vision that people want to support in all kinds of ways.
I truly believe that God has never been bothered about what we give to the church.
I believe that God has always been truly bothered about what our hearts are like.
If we are concerned about the same priorities then I suspect we will be moving in the right direction.