PROPER 24, A
The punch line of today’s Gospel story is so familiar to us that we are likely to miss the meaning, partly because it’s often quoted and used in other contexts.
Our translation says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” We may be even more familiar with it as, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
To appreciate the cleverness and the power of Jesus’ response, we have to understand the deviousness of the question. Jesus is in Jerusalem now, the seat of power and intrigue in the province. He has thrown the money-changers out of the temple and is drawing huge crowds wherever he goes.
The Pharisees are worried, and rightly so. Jesus has publicly taken them to task. We’ve heard parables in the last few weeks that were all told in Jerusalem within a much smaller time frame, moments or days rather than weeks – and they all suggest that the Pharisees and temple leaders are not doing their jobs and may be thrown out.
So, it makes sense that, “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” The question they devised is simple. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” The nature of this entrapment is neither simple nor clear without some understanding of the politics of the day.
Many factions existed. On the fringes of society were the Zealots. This group refused to pay taxes at all; they killed Romans whenever they could; they wanted Rome out of their homeland. Pious Jews would not carry Roman money because it had “graven images” on it, and the images were emperors whom the Romans worshipped as gods. They paid taxes, but did so through a third party to avoid handling Roman coins.
The Herodians were part Jew and part Edomite, followers of the family of kings who had been installed and controlled by Rome. They were pretty much considered traitors and toadies by everyone, but the Pharisees sometimes used them for political purposes.
The Romans had conquered Palestine and expected taxes to be paid for the maintenance of the army, roads, judicial systems, etc. So here’s the dilemma: if Jesus says it’s not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he’s in trouble with the Romans and could be arrested for sedition or treason. If he says it is lawful to pay taxes, he will loose popularity with the people, most of whom want to get rid of Rome and Roman taxes, and many of whom are hoping he will do just that. Besides, to pay taxes is one thing, to be oppressed by burdensome taxes is something else.
The Pharisees figured out this no win question. Then, since they were known to Jesus, they sent some of their followers to ask it, along with the king’s men, probably to act as witnesses. Notice how they coat the trap with honey, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one. Tell us, then what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus is not fooled. He calls them hypocrites and then proves it. When he says “Show me the coin used for the tax,” they hold out a denarius, a Roman coin, something no pious Jew would do. Jesus doesn’t take it. Instead he answers their question with a question. “Whose head is this and whose title?”
They answer, “The emperor’s.” Then Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus avoids the trap by turning things around. He doesn’t answer in the terms expected. He doesn’t deal in black and white simple answers. And as is so often the case, what he says raises further questions. What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God? We’re left to try to figure this out just as the Pharisees were.
Let’s start by looking at the example of Jesus himself. He didn’t seem to have money of any kind, nor do we know of him paying any taxes. On the other hand, he did not preach against Roman law nor had he been telling people not to pay their taxes. He did sit down with tax collectors. And what did he give to God? Only his life and his love.
Whose imprint is on the money? Caesar’s. Whose imprint is on Jesus? God’s. Whose imprint is on us?
The contrast seems to be between money and human beings. Money is man-made. Its value is determined by men and their institutions. People are God-made. Their value may be determined by society in one way, but Jesus makes it very clear that they have equal worth in God’s eyes.
Money is inanimate. It passes from hand to hand without choice. People are alive. They move and breathe and think and feel. They may be slaves, but they cannot be totally possessed in the same way that money can.
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. I’d guess that all of you pay your taxes. What do you give to God? Your money or your life?
If you see yourself as belonging to God, then any labels placed on you by Caesar or anyone else in the secular society loses its power to harm you. It doesn’t matter, as Paul so clearly tells us, whether you’re slave or free, black or white, male of female, jock or geek, priest or prisoner, hetero or homo, rich or poor. You belong to God and you are beloved.
God doesn’t need our money. God doesn’t need our service. God doesn’t need our worship. These are actions that we take in response to God’s love for us. We give away money to help others; we do acts of service to imitate Jesus; we worship God with praise and gratitude; we support the church because it supports us in living a Christian life. But the money is not the church; this building is not the church. We, the people, are the church.
If I were to ask you what you give to Caesar, especially in the form of taxes, you could probably tell me the exact amount. I’m sure you know also how much you give the church. But what else do you give to God? If everything else but money belongs to God, what does that imply about our use or abuse of the planet? What does it imply about our accumulation of stuff? What does it say about how we treat the animals who share this fragile earth with us?
Whatsoever else you may do this week, I hope you will think on these things. AMEN