It’s been in the news lately and creating quite a bit of debate over the status of churches. It was a simple request. A request from Caesar.
So, now then … how does the church respond? How do individuals respond? Are and should those responses be the same? Or, should they be different?
First, though, the request. It came from Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican senator, on the Finance Committee. He wanted to know just how the untaxed money was being spent at six rather large and opulent ministries in the country. It seems like a reasonable question. It’s a question I’ve asked myself. Just what are those ministries doing with all of that money, anyway? And how much money do they have in the first place?
It seems that some of them have purchased some rather lavish toilets ($23,000 a piece). Ministry funds have been used to purchase Rolls Royces and private jets. Sometimes they have all combined funds to give each other lavish gifts on special occasions (a fellow minister’s 40th anniversary, for example). With our faces pressed up against the crystal cathedral, it looks an awful lot like a millionaires club for Christians.
Churches enjoy a special status in this country. They pay no taxes. They are not under many of the obligations to their employees in terms of retirement plans and Social Security taxes that most companies are. They are not obligated in terms of the Employees with Disabilities Act either. In fact, because of the First Amendment, our government has adopted a largely hands off approach to churches. Now, this was, in fact, a calculated risk. It was not done because the framers were so smitten by the concept of religious liberty. Not by a long shot. They and succeeding generations took a very clear-eyed view of the good done in society by the church and considered it part of the social contract to leave churches alone; give them as much room and financial leverage as could be gained to do the work that churches did.
So, what work is it that churches are to do? What are we supposed to be doing in the world? To answer that question, we go to the red words; the words of Jesus. Arguably, our first priority is the first two commandments … love God and love our neighbors. Our second priority is the Great Commission. Everything else comes under these two or three things.
Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry giving us instructions about what loving our neighbor, the other, looks like. It takes some doing, but if we look at his parables and his stories and his sermons and his announcement of his ministry, and put them all together we find a beautiful mosaic of depicting how we are to love our neighbors, the others in our lives.
The short answer is that we are to care for those who have less than we do, for those who are imprisoned and those who are ill. We are to use all of our resources on those things. Jesus said it most succinctly and pithily in this account:
The Sheep and the Goats
31-33“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.34-36“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
37-40“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was meâ€”you did it to me.’
41-43“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Becauseâ€”
I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’
44“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’
45“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was meâ€”you failed to do it to me.’
46“Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”
So when I read the following in this article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about one of those six ministers who is being held to account about the excesses of his church:
Eating too much and having a nice car are neither secular sins nor spiritual crimes. But what if people around us have nothing to eat and no mobility beyond their two legs? A 2006 census of the homeless in Atlanta showed almost 5,400 people with no place to lay their heads (a situation the Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus struggled with) â€” and that’s just within the city limits.
I began to wonder about the separating of the sheep from the goats. I wonder about that in my own life and worry often that I am a goat. I have my own wealth to be concerned with and I am all too aware of that. I don’t lead a multi-million dollar ministry and do what I can to give food to the hungry … so I have no idea how those scales will balance out. That is probably good and keeps me striving to be better. But it all gives me a much better understanding of this formerly obscure teaching of Jesus’:
23Jesus said to his disciples, “It’s terribly hard for rich people to get into the kingdom of heaven! 24In fact, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s kingdom.”
25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly surprised and asked, “How can anyone ever be saved?”
When push comes to shove it may be that most of us in this rich country of ours will be walking with the camels in God’s kingdom. Some of us may be spending a long time with the goats. I don’t know. But I do know that these large ministries are breaking faith with the social contract that is implied in not having to pay taxes and render unto Caesar that which is his. That alone will make it far more difficult for all of us bring water to the thirsty, food to the hungry and set the captives free. I think I will let those folks wander in the desert with their camels, searching for needles. I want to stick close to Jesus and follow his mosaic. It makes more sense to me.
What happens when you put two taboo subjects together and discuss their relationship with each other? Find out by following the links to this month’s SynchroBlog. Money and Church is the topic. Do you think they belong together? or is it a problem when they meet? Follow the links, and watch the fur fly!
Here’s who’s in so far: