Giving Back What Is Owed

So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor.  They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth.  Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.”  And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:20-26 NASB)

How would you have liked to have been the “spies” sent to pretend to be righteous by the religious leaders, trying to trap the teacher who embarrassed them?  It’s sort of like the SEALS sending out the regular army after an enemy who defeated them.  Good idea…not so much.  They start out with puffing Jesus up, trying to put Him in a bind so that He couldn’t appear to be preferential to any; “…You teach correctly, and You are not partial…”, that no matter what He teaches the truth of God.  As if He’s really impressed by hearing that.  But it does set up the question well.

The question is about paying taxes.  The question is asked in the Temple courts where offerings are collected and sacrifices are offered.  In a very real sense, the people are “double-taxed” and it’s a big deal to them.  These people make up the audience.  But there are a few problems with the question.  First off, the coin used for Temple transactions is a “drachma” not a “denarius” (see Matthew 17).  This isn’t a big deal, they can be exchanged easily enough right there in the Temple courts (at least until Jesus drove out the money changers), or Jesus can find them in the mouths of fish when needed.  Yet one coin is not used for the other purpose.

The question being asked by one in possession of a denarius is somewhat ironic.  Essentially they are asking whether to give to the occupying government the money they require from that which is used to conduct business.  The drachma isn’t used to conduct business much. Since the temple exchange rate never works in the people’s favor, it’s a losing proposition for merchants to take them in trade.  And if the merchant isn’t a Jew, they’ll have trouble exchanging them at all.  Best for all concerned to use Roman coin.  And so our questioner has a denarius in the Temple courts, something he clearly will not be giving to God.

But Jesus’ answer is that we are to “render” or “give what is owed” to both Caesar and to God.  There is a sense of obligation in the word, whether of debt, reward, or retribution.  The person to whom whatever is given has a right to it.  In other words Jesus is saying that Caesar has a right to receive taxes.  But He also says that God has a right to receive from us.  In fact, the right to receive is similar enough in both cases Jesus mentions them together.  The challenge is whether or not to pay one or the other, and Jesus is insisting on paying both. There is something we owe back to God, something which He has a right to receive.

Jesus doesn’t mention what we owe back to God. It’s either obvious or assumed by some sort of context we’ve lost. I think it’s obvious.  There are plenty of “giving” or “stewardship” teachings available, so I don’t think I need to delve into it here.  But I will say that for those to whom it seems like God is “taxing” us, they’re not far off.  Jesus clearly says that God has a right to what He asks us to return to Him.  To withhold from God is often taken less serious than withholding from the government.  But that’s just “money”.

The fat of rams, the first born, these things are not what God requires, says Micah.  But rather He requires me to do justice, to love kindness (chesed), and to walk humbly with my Him.  I think most of us would rather just pay Him off, honestly. This other requirement is a lot more invasive, and requires more of me than money.  This Creator, Savior, and King wants my time, my attention, and my intent.  What’s really left for me at that point?  Nothing.  He wants all of me.  And I am to “render to God the things of God”.  I’d much rather hold back and look for the deductions, credits, and adjustments to income.  Instead my Master asks me to forego the balance sheet, and live entirely off the income statement; to own nothing and be entirely His.  What do I do with that, when I’m one of those who would rather be taxed?

What’s your view through the fence this morning?


Espousing Unrighteousness?

Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions.  And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’  And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’  Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’  And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. (Luke 16:1-8 NASB)

I have made a point of not skipping as I go through Luke, and therefore it has taken over a year to reach chapter 16.  But it also means that some of the things we really wish Jesus had not said we still study.  Yes, there are things that most people wish He had not said.  For instance, using a cheating steward as a positive example is kind of embarrassing for us as we hold up the holiness and deity of the Jesus, the Son of God.  Yet, here it is.  So, now, it’s up to us to wrangle with what we know of Jesus on the one hand, and this parable on the other.  So, here I go…

The meaning of this parable has been debated for centuries, and many even from the Apostolic Fathers found it at least odd.  Commentators can’t decide whether Jesus is praising the steward for cheating his boss as he goes, or whether he had a change of heart (which would need some serious explaining), and Jesus didn’t feel we really needed any explanation.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  Luke follows this parable with three or four quotes of Jesus, one of which is also in the Sermon on the Mount.  The context of the chapter as a whole has to do with wealth in general, so the specifics of this parable are supposed to be understood in that context.

With those things as clues, the meaning Jesus ends with “…for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light” can be examined.  Jesus’ point is clearly some sort of contrast between “sons of light” and “sons of this age”.  I suppose we can assume that “sons of light” refers specifically to “disciples”.  The reference to “sons of this age” would then refer to those who have no share in Jesus and the Kingdom of God.  With those two terms defined this way, then the steward would fit nicely into the category of “sons of this age”.  And such a view would save Jesus some embarrassment I suppose.

But still, this “son of this age” remains a positive example, as if Jesus is saying, “be that guy”.  That is hard to swallow precisely because the guys is clearly a “son of this age”.  So the challenge is to perceive how is this son of this age a positive example.  Jesus’ clue for us in the explanation is “…more shrewd in relation to their own kind…”. This can also be understood as “…are more sensible into their own generation…”, which is, of course, even more difficult to understand.

So, here’s my “spin” on this steward, son of this age:  This steward, when faced with personal defeat, figured out how to ingratiate himself with others using the resources of he had at hand (his master’s) so that his “defeat” would not be total.  Exactly how this “ingratiation” worked in his favor isn’t the point, so the debate around this issue is literally pointless.  That he figured out how to do so is the point.  That he was able to do so is the point.  That is why his boss praised him.  It’s not that in such situations boss praise those who cheat them.  Jesus wanted to point out the shrewdness of the steward, and did so through the house holder, the steward’s boss.

In application, this means that, faced with dire situations, the sons of light should be more able to deal with…whom?  Our own generation?  Our own people?  The sons of this age?  Who?  And in what way are we to demonstrate this shrewdness?  It’s not an easy thing to bring forward into our own life situation, because the solution found by the steward was to cheat.  So what’s the application for us, if not to “cheat our brethren”?

Maybe the answer is in the thought process of the steward.  He says, “What shall I do…I’m not strong enough to dig, and ashamed to beg?”  But then he also states his goal, “…so that people will welcome me into their homes.”  When faced with the certainty of loss (of his position), he saw the situation for what it was, himself for who he was, and the goal he needed to attain.  I think that part of the lesson is this:

  • When faced with loss, the sons of light are surprised by setbacks, “how can this happen to us, the children of God?”  Jesus is saying in a sense, “get over it, and move on” just like sons of this age – deal with it.
  • When faced with loss, the sons of light may doubt who they are, “how can this happen to us, the children of God?”  Jesus is saying in a sense, “this happens to everyone in this world, move on” just like sons of this age – deal with it
  • When faced with loss, the sons of light may doubt the goal, “how can this happen to us, the children of God?”  Jesus is saying in a sense, “show how the ‘children of God’ fare in foul weather better than the sons of this age.”

Basically, as God’s children (children of light) we are called by God our Father to live differently in the same trials and problems of this world.  It’s the result of discipleship, of repentance, of our close proximity with our Master.  It is all too often the opposite, we crumble when trials come because we believe we should receive preferential treatment from God in this world.  Jesus is saying it’s not going to happen, get over it, and move on; and thereby demonstrate to the sons of this age that the sons of light have a better life here, and to come.  It’s our proof of the good news, that we can endure this age as well and hopefully better than those trapped within it.  This is all they have and what a sad circumstance that is.  We have heaven as a destination, the Holy Spirit as our present guide, and Jesus as our Advocate before the Father.  What can we possibly lack?  So, buck up, and get back in there!  Not exactly “Knute Rockne”, but there it is.

Well, anyway, that’s my view through this knothole.  What’s yours?