One Sunday a priest told his congregation that the church needed some extra money and asked the people prayerfully to consider putting a little extra in the offering plate. He said that whoever gave the most would be able to pick out three hymns.
After the offering plates were passed, the priest glanced down and noticed that someone had placed a $1,000 bill in the offering. He was so excited that he immediately shared his joy with the congregation and said he'd like personally to thank the person who placed the money in the plate.
An elderly lady all the way in the back shyly raised her hand. The priest asked her to come to the front. Slowly she made her way to the front. He told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much and in thanksgiving asked her to pick out three hymns.
Her eyes brightened as she looked over the congregation, pointed to the three most handsome men in the building and said, "I'll take him and him and him!"
We’re soon going to start our stewardship drive and I thought that might be a good way to begin!
Today’s Gospel is about money, too. The religious leaders don’t like Jesus. He has been repeatedly critical of them. He chooses to keep the company of sinners while rejecting them. His popularity among the Jewish people is increasing. The Jewish leaders see him as a threat and they are plotting among themselves how best to neutralize his popularity and influence, and if possible, they’d like to get him in trouble with the Roman authorities.
So they ask him a question, calculated to evoke an answer that would be a problem for Jesus, no matter how he answered. The question is: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If he answers, “Yes, it is lawful,” he’ll make his Jewish followers mad, for they hate paying taxes to Caesar, not only because people in every age in every country don’t like to pay taxes, but because it was against their religious sensitivities for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, if he says, “No, it’s not lawful,” then the Herodians and their sympathizers, who like the benefits that came from being a part of the Roman Empire, will be turned against him. Besides, then he could be turned over to the Roman authorities as a troublemaker.
It was a clever question. Some of the best minds in Israel at the time had come up with it. But, in addition to being a very spiritual man, Jesus is also smart and clever himself. He turns the tables on them. He asks for a coin, and they give him one. In doing just that, they are entrapping themselves, for in possessing a Roman coin, which was the property of the Roman government, they could hardly object to giving some of it back. Then he gives his answer: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.”
So Jesus answers the question not by a simple yes or no, but in such a way that they have to come up with the answer themselves. He’s paid due respect to Caesar, but no more than necessary, and he’s kept the faith with Judaism as well. Jesus’ answer is very satisfying to Jewish teaching. Why is that, while at the same time it’s not really an answer at all? Because everything ultimately belongs to God, even taxes paid to Caesar. The religious leaders knew that. In fact, every good Jew knew that, and springing from that tradition, we know that, too. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
We remember the exchange between Jesus and his detractors and we still marvel at his clever answer. But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to take to heart the basic truth which that answer recalls, especially as we approach our stewardship season. We need to remember that all that we have and all that we are comes from God, and that all that we have belongs to God, and we belong to him. We need to remember that God continues to sustain us and that he will provide for us.
That’s why it is important that we remain faithful in giving back to God his due. We continue to be faithful in prayer and in reading of scripture. We continue to be faithful in attending mass. And we continue to share our time, our talent, and our treasure for the work of the Church and to help those who are in need.
Have you ever thought about why we make such a big deal out of the offertory? Every Sunday the choir makes an offering of music, your gifts of money are ceremonially collected in beautiful, brass basins, and then with great solemnity, as the organ swells to the fullest, the gifts of money, bread, and wine are offered and placed on the altar.
It’s not that the money, bread, and wine, are important in and of themselves. These substances represent our lives, and as they are placed upon the altar, they represent the offering of our lives upon that altar. By the time of the offertory, we have heard the word of God read and proclaimed, we’ve confessed our faith, prayed for the needs of others, confessed our sins and received absolution, and offered to one another signs of peace.
All of that has led to the offering of our whole self, just as God transforms ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, so he can, and does, transform our ordinary lives into extraordinary lives, fitted for his service. We give to God from his bounty, but we can never outgive God, for what we give to him, he returns to us, transformed into even greater, more precious gifts.