We all know the challenge that gets flung out every now and then when some armchair critic is talking big but not actually doing much - ‘put your money where your mouth is!’ It’s the challenge to be consistent, but even more than that - the challenge to stop playing it safe, get involved, take a risk. It’s about priorities. Jesus’ version, I think, is a bit sharper. "Lay up treasure for yourself in heaven, not on earth’, he tells us. ‘For where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be also’.[1] Jesus’ version is slightly more psychologically astute - what you are prepared to invest in, that’s what you will come to love. If you want to have faith, then you have to do the things that help your faith to grow. It’s still about consistency, but Jesus knows us too well - he knows that love and faith need to be nurtured by consistent behaviour.

So, today we’re talking about money. One of the words you hear fairly often in Christian circles is tithing. It means giving one tenth of your income, which, if you take the time to work it out, irrespective of whether you calculate it based on your gross or your after-tax income is actually a pretty big whack. In some churches that’s the expected thing – and it takes a serious level of commitment, because it implies a priority to giving so that it’s not just what happens at the end of the week when you see what you’ve got left over after everything else. Tithing is Biblical, and it helps us to put first in practice what we say comes first in our lives. We first hear of it in Genesis when Abraham offers the pagan priest Melchizedek one tenth of everything he has - later in Genesis Jacob offers God a tenth of everything that comes to him - in in the Law of Moses tithing is given to God’s people as a Law - the first one-tenth is consecrated to God, made holy, and the point is not just the amount of the offering but the fact that it is the first fruits.[2] Of everything that God gives to us, we give back to God the first and the best. Disciplined giving, above all, changes us into the sort of people we claim to be - the sort of people God intends us to be. So it is important.

Well actually tithing isn’t the main thing even in the Old Testament, and it’s hardly mentioned at all in the New Testament. The important thing is not tithing but learning to give with the same generosity that God gives to us. Which may be what Jesus is getting at in the story where te tells the Pharisees off for tithing in the small things - the things that don’t cost them much - but neglecting to tithe in the things that matter, like mercy and justice and kindness.[3]
In our gospel reading today, we see the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus on the question of paying taxes. Now, this is the last week of Jesus’ life, and he has arrived in Jerusalem and is spending most of his time teaching in the temple, and the chief priests and Pharisees are getting crankier and crankier at him. So this question is intended to trap him – if Jesus agrees with the zealots and revolutionaries that it’s OK not to pay taxes to the Romans, then that’s going to get him into trouble with Herod, and if he says it is OK to pay taxes, then he’s not going to be very popular with the common folk who hate the Romans. So it is a trick question, a dangerous question. But as he does so often, Jesus gets out of the trap with a very clever one-liner: give the government what belongs to the government - and give God what belongs to God.

Jesus is not giving us a straight answer here! His answer is helpful, for sure, but as is so often the case Jesus is refusing to do our thinking for us. Because it all depends on what exactly Jesus means when he says, ‘just give to God what belongs to God’. Jesus’ answer is a challenge to the Herodians - the religious leaders who owed their positions of authority to their loyalty to the occupation government – and equally a challenge to we who are reading this passage today on a Sunday on which we are thinking about stewardship - what is the coin that properly belongs to God? The Pharisees go away shaking their heads because essentially Jesus is asking them ‘what have you got that doesn’t belong to God? What are you giving to God – and what are you refusing to give?’ And of course he is posing the same question to us.

Remember we were supposed to start our Stewardship Sundays last week? Of course I was off sick - but the reading from Matthew’s Gospel reminded us - when God invites you to a party - turn up! In fact, don’t just turn up, come along prepared to party properly. This has got to be the first message for a stewardship reflection, isn’t it? What have you got to do on a Sunday morning that is more important than worshipping the God who made you? What have you got to do that is more important than encouraging your Christian sisters and brothers by praying with them, listening with them to the Gospel and humbly joining with them to eat the meal that transforms us into the men and women God created us to be? In Sabbath-keeping that weaves God’s time, the perspective of eternity, into our busy calendar; in communal prayer and confession, in hearing the Word broken open for us and in sharing with one another at the table of the Eucharist our lives are reoriented to God and our parish church can become a place where lives are healed and restored. If I am only coming to church once a month or every few weeks - am I being encouraging of others? Am I building up the Church? We can’t complain that our worship is listless or that our parish is lifeless if week by week too many of us are not at the party. That’s the sermon you would have got last week.
And this week Jesus is telling us to give to God what belongs to God. It’s not just about money, of course, it’s about everything in our lives that we have as a gift from God. But given that this is the second of our Stewardship Sundays - yes, it’s about money. You know a parish where there is plenty of money is not necessarily a parish that is OK spiritually - and a parish that is lacking in money is not necessarily a parish that is in trouble spiritually. But a parish that is OK spiritually is a generous parish, for sure. The more we learn to trust God, the more generous we become. And Jesus also cleverly reminds us that if we practise being generous - if we take the risk of stepping out a bit and giving as though we were generous - then we’ll discover that God really is faithful because our cautious hearts will be transformed into generous ones. That’s what he means incidentally when he says, ‘where your treasure is, that’s where your hearts will follow’.

The only way a parish church can function is through the generosity of its members. We don’t have a financial Plan B, if the worshipping community in a parish doesn’t contribute its financial needs then the parish withers and dies. Just enoughness is a sign of a spiritually healthy parish.

I need to be very blunt about this. The income of this parish presently is not enough to sustain full-time ministry. I have raised this now at both of the Annual Meetings I have chaired. I have raised it as a matter of concern with Parish Council and with the bishop. I raised it at the parish finance workshop I called early this year. Ironically, COVID-19 has given a short-term boost to our parish bank account over the last few months because of the government’s JobKeeper subsidy, which has now ended. On present indications between now and the middle of next year without increased giving the balance of the parish account will be used up. Over the longer term the only way ministry here can be sustained is through your generous giving. And that actually is as it should be - because growing in generosity happens hand in hand with growing in trust, which helps us to grow as a spiritually healthy and vital worshipping community.

There’s a certain brand of Christianity we call the prosperity gospel. You hear this message in some churches, that the more you put in the collection plate, the more God will bless you financially. As crude and as false as this perversion of Christianity is, it hides a deeper truth. Because in fact - the more you give to God, the more you will get back. The more you give of yourself – the more your gifts of money and time make a noticeable hole in your weekly budget – the more your participation in the life of the church demands of you – the more you will grow in faith and the more you will recognise the economy of God that reorders and transforms our lives together in the Church. The more of yourself that you invest, the more clearly you will come to discern the image of God in yourself and in those around you. Where you put your treasure, that’s where your heart will also take root.
What you spend yourself on, the real priority of your life, is the image that you grow into. So we just need to ask ourselves – whose image do we want that to be?

[1] Mtt 6.19-21
[2] See for example Gen 14.19-20, 28.20-22; Lev 27. 30-34
[3] Matt 23.23, Luke 11.42