The Power of Priorities
August 27, 2017 Pastor: Matt Wilcox
Topic: Priorities Scripture: Matthew 22:15–22:22
Priorities are fascinating things. They reveal a lot about a person. And a really neat aspect of priorities is that they pop up in all the aspects of a person’s life. The big and the really, really tiny. Big deal: relationships. We have certain priorities when it comes to choosing who it is we want to be in a relationship with. It could be a sense of humor, common interests. We could place too much emphasis on little things or not enough emphasis on big things. Being a youth pastor for eight years gave me a front row seat to how backwards dating priorities can truly be. But it’s not just relationships. Other big aspects of who we are, are revealed through how our priorities shake out in ways like how we spend our money, what jobs we do or do not pursue. The church we go to is even impacted by our priorities!
While there are still some folks who are what I’ll call “teamers” – folks who are deadest on finding a Presbyterian church or a Baptist church or a Lutheran church – most people, especially people around my age group, pick a church based on priorities other than what is in the name. Do they like the preaching pastor? Is there good programming for their kids? Is the music the style they like? How big is the church? All of these are questions of priorities. So big things like relationships, finances, and even where we go to church. But priorities are also revealed in the little things.
Like how most of us would rather load ourselves up like pack mules than take multiple trips bringing the groceries in from the car. There’s a priority there. A priority of time management, of displaying strength, of…well, maybe stubbornness. Even little, seemingly insignificant things we do in life reveal the power of priorities. Priorities impact what we say, how we say it, our rhythms and habits, our bank accounts, what show we start on Netflix, and even what state our spiritual life is in. And even though the external things and the details may change, human beings have always displayed the power of priorities, regardless of what century or geographic location we may be in. And even more important, Christ himself was concerned about priorities and the power they have over us. We see that in our text this morning. We’re in Matthew 22:15-22.
Now normally this text comes up around stewardship and giving season. That’s not why I’m bringing it up this morning. I’m bringing it before us this morning because I believe this text holds a message that involves so much more than our wallets. And it’s a message Jesus shared not only with his usual public audience but also one He shared with his enemies.
Not uncommon of their character, the religious leaders in our text are trying to trap Jesus. This is before they’ve decided to kill Jesus and rather still consider him a frustrating but minor annoyance that needs to be silenced. And so they pivot their own wisdom against him in what they think is an iron clad trap. And not uncommon to Jesus and his character, he exposes them for the fools that they are.
But their means for trying to trap Jesus is a compelling and culturally significant one. They use the almighty dollar. The religious leaders are well aware of the constantly looming and ominous presence of the Roman empire. The Roman hand is everywhere and it can squeeze tight. In this case, the people of the time are being pinched hard by taxation. Some historians note that the common people of the time were likely surrendering upwards of 40-50% of their income to the empire. Many had difficult being able to survive. So the people were unhappy with the ruling power but also unable to really change their circumstances. Not exactly an unfamiliar state of affairs for us to consider. And by leveraging something that is both disdained by the people but virtually unable to be challenged, the Pharisee’s think they have Jesus trapped and handled.
Jesus handles this in a most unique way. First, he calls them out in their intentions. Right off the bat, he exposes them in their intention to trap him. Jesus doesn’t play games here and He doesn’t dance around what they are really trying to do. But then He answers them. He asks them for a coin, the same they had mentioned, and asks them whose picture and whose words are on it. They answer that it is Caesar. And then Jesus tells them to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. And we’re told the religious leaders were amazed and went away from Jesus.Now, like I said, this text has been used for a lot of different goals over the years. It’s been used as a means to encourage tithing and giving to the church. It’s been used as a way for us to think about God’s intention for money. It’s even been used to try and bridge the sometimes-wobbly relationship connecting our faith with the government and the actions, decisions that come down from our political leaders. But when I read this text, I was pulled in a different direction, and toward something a little more personal: priorities.
We all have a ranking of priorities. I talked about small things like carrying grocery bags but priorities really end up defining our core convictions and commitments. And even though there is nuance to every life and minute details to every decision, all of us have a hierarchy or list of priorities. We rank things like work, family, faith, health, fun, money, and others. Those priorities and the order in which they fall for each of us speaks something significant. In the smallest of instances, it tells us that many of us are willing to risk the possibility of picking up ripped bags of spilled groceries for the possibility that we only need to take one trip from the car.
I remember during my last big weekend retreat with my youth group back in PA I had a really in-depth conversation with a student of mine about the colleges she had to choose from. One was her mom’s alma mater and offered a good program in what she wanted to do. One offered a really good scholarship package. One was a Christian school where she felt she would definitely thrive in her faith. Two things I want to make clear: First, I had and still have a great deal of respect for this young woman. She weighed every option and circumstance and clearly spent hours in prayer and conversation over this decision. There was no easy way out for her and she wasn’t looking for one. Second, I really don’t think any of the 3-4 schools she had on her list was the absolute right choice and another the absolute wrong. In the end, she measured each school up against the priorities she had for herself as a person, for her future, for her identity as a follower of Christ. And I regularly get to see updates on Facebook of how well she’s doing.
In my own life, this came up about a year and half to two years ago. I was looking to become a pastor at a church. I was ready for God to take my family on the next big step of the journey He had called us to. And that decision had a lot of moving parts and required me to carefully and meticulously measure each potential opportunity up against my priorities. The first and most important priority: Did I feel a sense of calling at the church? Did I truly believe the Spirit of God was calling me to that place for long-term, purposeful ministry? The second, and really it went hand in hand with the first, was - what did Caitlin think? What was she feeling? We both knew the likelihood of me finding the perfect church near all our family and friends was unlikely. Still we had churches that were a lot closer to home who were on the list. I had to make sure, first, that God was calling me to my new church and that meant, second, that he had to be calling my wife and family to that place. And the Lord brought us here and I couldn’t be more thankful.
It’s likely that each and every one of us in this room can think of instances where our priorities were brought to the forefront as we prepared to make an important decision. That goes for our high schoolers in the room as well as our folks who have grandkids who are high schoolers. Each of us forms and becomes transformed by the power of priorities.
The religious leaders tried to trap Jesus by perceivably forcing him to show a lack of balance in his own priorities. Will he value the governing empire and thus put God in clear second place? Will Jesus declare the supremacy of God and cast Caesar and the government out of importance and thus invite punishment from the empire? The religious leaders were testing the power and conviction of Christ’s priorities. As Jesus usually tends to do, he puts his would be trappers on their head with his response.
“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what it God’s.” Some might call this a cop out answer. Some might say Jesus is oversimplifying. In truth, what we witness in this account is Christ’s uncompromising understanding of priorities and how they should be arranged. He doesn’t make a single derogatory comment concerning the government, despite its painfully obvious faults. Instead, Jesus simply places the government, and really, all things, in the hierarchy of priority.
William Edgar, a seminary professor from Philadelphia, wrote a fascinating book called “Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture.” It was actually the center of our study when I was in Seattle in Spring. In it, Edgar shines some light on this text and what Jesus is doing. In one section, Edgar says this: “What Jesus is really affirming [when he says what he does about God and Caesar] is that everything belongs to God. Whose face is on the coin? Caesar’s. His is a legitimate authority. Where, then, is God’s face? On the other side of the coin? The idea is absurd. Rather, God’s face is on his entire creation, and particularly on his image-bearers. Whose face is imprinted everywhere, even on Roman economic life? God’s! If this is so, then all of life, including economic life, calls for the proper recognition of the Creator’s hand wherever it is found.”
The point in this text, the point Jesus is trying to make, is not that God should be at the top of our priorities. No. It’s that God is, or should be, the paper on which that list is written. Everything is God’s. Every beautiful morning that we wake up to. Every precious moment with a loved one. Every instance where we find joy in doing anything. Every dollar, every relationship, every responsibility, every blessing. All of it is God’s and reveals the goodness and presence of God.
For eight years I tried to help not only my students come to accept and grasp this truth but I also tried to reveal it to their parents. I will spend every moment and effort I have as a pastor trying to help us see it and to remind myself of it when I forget: God does not belong on our list of priorities. Because even if we put God on the top at one point any event could give us the impression that God can be demoted, even if only for a little while. A crisis at work. A broken relationship. A devastating health concern. A dwindling bank account. If God is one priority on our list, even the top one, we place God in the same realm and level as everything else on the list. And that is not what Jesus means when He tells us to give to God what is God’s.
Instead it means realizing, remembering, and begrudgingly accepting that God is in and over and present within every single element and moment of our lives. And if we can live with that truth, not only does it draw us closer to our Creator, it also adds a new dimension and intensity to everything else in our lives. Our work in the office becomes more than proposals and assignments and benchmarks. It becomes a participation in God’s faithfulness. Being a parent expands beyond going back and forth between enjoying and enduring the roller-coaster of raising children and becomes an opportunity to embody the love and tenderness of our heavenly Father. A moment of tragedy would now have the potential to transform from a soul-crushing burden into an expanding expectation of faithfulness from the one who commanded the wind and the waves.
I’m not saying this is easy or that it is ever going to become easy. Quite the opposite, in fact. But that’s because I don’t believe Jesus was trying to teach an easy lesson in our text. The religious leaders wanted an easy answer to what they thought was an easy question. God rarely deals in easy answers and obvious questions. Instead, Jesus is compelling both his enemies and all who were listening to think in a new way and to allow their faith to grow beyond the meager borders it had been assigned. One commentator says this: “Giving what is God’s to God implies much more than paying a temple tax. God as Creator has sovereign right over all creation and everything in it. We are to pattern our lives in such a way that we show we are God’s stewards of all He has created, and we are to use what is His in the way He has designed it to be used.”
So, friends, I want to challenge you to rethink your list of priorities. As much as we are able, I want us to stop asking God obvious questions in search of easy answers. Instead of shifting God from #1 to #5 to #3 and then back to #1 on our list of priorities, let’s begin the hard and intentional work of seeing God as the foundation all the things we are and do. If we can work toward that, if we can reach that point, then we can begin giving to God what is God’s and begin to truly understand the power of priorities. Let’s pray.