Matthew 22:15-22

Put God First

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Have you ever had one of those days when you needed to be in two places at one time?

Let me rephrase that: Have you ever had one of those days when you didn’t need to be in two places at one time?  Say, you’ve got a big meeting to get ready for at work, you’ve got a sick child at home, and your best friend is on the phone saying she really needs to talk, and can you have lunch today?

We’ve all been there, haven’t we?  More often than we care to admit.

We’re committed to a lot of different people and a lot of different entities – family, friends, vocation, community, civic clubs, fraternal organizations, the church … not to mention taking care of ourselves.  It’s a juggling act.  And when two or more demand our attention at one time, we’re torn.

That’s the essence of stress: Being pulled in two or more directions at the same time.  Like a rubber band, being stretched to the limit.

And that’s the topic of the sermon this morning – the way in which competing forces lay claim to our time, talent, money and energy.  And what I hope you’ll get out of it is this: When you place God at the center of your life and commit yourself, first and foremost, to doing God’s will, everything else will fall into place.  It’s a matter of putting God first.  Let’s begin with the text.

On the surface, the gospel lesson seems to address a legitimate question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17)  But then, we all know it’s a ruse.  Those who asked the question weren’t seeking Jesus’ counsel; they were trying to catch him off guard.  Matthew writes:

“Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how they might entrap him in his talk. They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians.” (Matthew 22:15-16)

Just so you know: The Herodians and the Pharisees were odd bedfellows at best.  The Herodians were pro-Roman, the Pharisees were anti-Roman.  No matter how Jesus answered the question, he was sure to offend one or the other.  To side with the Herodians was to commit heresy in the eyes of the Pharisees, for to pay tribute to Caesar was, in effect, to bow down before other gods; but to side with the Pharisees was to commit treason in the eyes of the Herodians, for to refuse to pay tribute to Caesar was an act of sedition.  And so, they flattered Jesus in an attempt to entrap him.  They said,

“Teacher, we know that you are honest, and teach the way of God in truth, no matter whom you teach, for you aren’t partial to anyone. Tell us therefore, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:16-17)

If they thought they were going to pull the wool over Jesus’ eyes, they had another think coming.  He turned the question back on them and said, “Why are you putting me to the test?  Show me the coin used for the tax.”

They handed him a denarius, the equivalent of a day’s wages.  He looked at it and asked, “Whose is this image and inscription?” They said, “Caesar’s.”  And he said, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)  Matthew doesn’t say whether or not he kept the coin.

“Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  If only if it were that simple.  In a sermon based on this text, Charles Hoffacker says,

“We are not called upon simply to give the emperor what belongs to the emperor. We are called upon as well to give to relatives, friends, strangers, co-workers, employees, and all other people whatever it is of us they can rightly claim. We are charged with the creative and challenging task of transforming our diverse and divided loyalties into a unified life governed and directed by our supreme and absolute loyalty, which is to God and God alone … Once we give ourselves absolutely to God, then remarkably we are free to give to others in ways that are gracious and life-giving, rather than distorted and destructive … No longer are these loyalties divided; instead we recognize how, deep down, they are in concord, for each is an invitation from God.” (, Volume 12, Number 102, ISSN 1071-9962)

Let’s apply that to everyday life.  I’ve been asked to conduct a wedding next Saturday in Prescott.  As scripture for the service, the couple selected a passage from Ecclesiastes, which says,

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. 4:10. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow… Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth… If a man prevails against one who is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

To illustrate the text, I found a “three-fold cord” off the Internet.  It has three short lengths of rope connected to a brass ring.  One of the strands is white, symbolizing the wife; another is purple symbolizing the husband; the third is gold, symbolizing God.  You get the point: A healthy marriage is one that weaves together all three in perfect unity.

But we all know what happens in real time – you get busy and preoccupied paying the bills and doing a good job at work and raising kids and going out with friends and serving on committees and keeping up with the Razorbacks until your lucky if you have any time left over for each other.

Well, guess what gets left out … your relationship with God.  And it’s God’s grace and love – and the peace and presence of God’s Spirit in the home – that makes all the difference.

So, what I intend to say to the couple – and what I’d like for you to hear this morning – is simply this: Put God first.  Cultivate and nurture your relationship with God and your relationship with your spouse, your children, your friends, and all the others you’re committed to will fall into their proper place.  You’ll find the time and energy to do what needs to be done.

Marva Dawn makes this point with regard to keeping the Sabbath holy.  First, she states the obvious: It’s one of the Ten Commandments.  Duh!  Then she elaborates on how hard it is to keep the Sabbath holy in this 24/7, world.  Then she shares what she’s learned out of her own experience, and that is when you set apart one day a week to worship and honor God, you’re more productive with the other six.  Here’s the way she puts it:

“In the earliest days of my efforts to keep the Sabbath, I used Sundays to prepare a big pot of stew or soup to last all week so that I wouldn’t have to cook while I was busy with my graduate studies.  I soon learned, however, that such a practice was spoiling the value of the Sabbath because that activity itself was another attempt to secure my own future.  Furthermore, the attitudes engendered while I was cooking were contrary to the purpose of the Sabbath – to free me from all the work that I have to do to provide for myself.  Strangely enough, I discovered that when I stopped making the week’s pot of stew on Sunday, there was always extra time to do that on another day.” (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, p. 30)

Susan Atchison applies this to the other days of the week in a delightful way.  In her book, Spirit Walk, she tells about getting up early in the morning in order to enjoy a time of peace and quiet before the chaos of the day begins.  She writes,

“Birds chirping at 6:00 a.m. used to sound like squawks to me.  And sunshine pouring in my window much before 9:00 a.m. would give me an instant headache … I can say all those things in the past tense today.”

She says a couple of women in her Bible study group encouraged her to follow Jesus’ example and get up early in the morning to spend quiet time with God.  She resisted.  She writes, “I argued with the others in the group that I just wasn’t a morning person, and I didn’t think God would ask me to go against my nature by getting up early to pray.”

The others persisted until finally, she saw the light.  She said it took about two weeks to establish her new routine.  She writes, “… before long, I truly believe God himself began tapping me gently on the shoulder, waking me while it was still dark to enjoy time alone with Him … I feel Him working fervently in my life to mold my sleepy self into someone He can use.  And there’s always time for a quick nap in the afternoon.”  (Spirit Walk, pp. 33-34)

As Susan learned, putting God first gives you the peace and poise not to be rattled by all the competing claims on your life the rest of the day.

Then there’s the question of money.  You knew I’d get around to this, didn’t you?  There never seems to be enough to go around.  In addition to paying the bills, there are things we’d like to have, and places we’d like to go, and things we’d like to see and do.

And did I mention that we’re in the midst of our yearly Stewardship Drive?  You got a mailing from the Finance Committee last week with a copy of the budget for next year and a letter asking for your support.  Next week, I’ll invite you to place your pledge cards in our little Stewardship Chest and dedicate them to God.

Question: Will you be giving off the top or will you be giving from whatever is left over?

The Old Testament speaks of offering God the first fruits of the harvest – giving to God the very best of the crop, a lamb or goat without blemish.  The people of Israel found when they gave their first fruits to God they prospered all the more and, when they didn’t, they weren’t satisfied with what they had, even when they’d had a good year.  The Book of Proverbs puts it this way:

“Honor Yahweh with your substance, with the first fruits of all your increase: so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine.” (Proverbs 3:9-10)

I’ve said this before: I believe in tithing – giving ten-percent of your disposable income to God off the top and trusting God to provide for your needs with what’s left over.  I invite you to try it.  It’ll make all the difference in your attitude toward money and your ability to enjoy what you have, however much or little you happen to have.

Here’s the bottom line: Whether it’s paying taxes to Caesar, or spending enough time with your loved ones, or doing a good job at work, or fulfilling all of your various commitments in and around the community, there are lots of competing claims on your life, and some days – if not most – you probably wonder whether there’ll enough of you to go around.

The secret is to put God first.  Make your relationship to God the first and most important part of each day, and God will give you to capacity to do the rest.

The keynote speaker filled a vase with rice.  Then she took three large walnuts and tried to squeeze them in.  Rice went everywhere.  There wasn’t room.  Then she poured the rice into a bowl and put the walnuts in the vase first.  Then she poured the rice back into the vase, and – voila! – there was plenty of room for both the rice and the walnuts.  Not a grain was spilled.

Put God first and everything else will fall into place.  This is what Jesus told his disciples so long ago:

“But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2008 Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.