So, we have a very familiar story as this Sunday’s Gospel reading – the question about paying taxes. The problem with familiar stories like this is that we hear the first few lines and assume we know what it’s all about and have a tendency to jump to the conclusion immediately. In this case, Jesus’ summary: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The reason that jumping to that conclusion is dangerous is because of the way this incident has been interpreted so many times, a way that robs it of its power and really softens what was a completely revolutionary challenge by Jesus to the powers that be. The way I grew up hearing this story interpreted was, “Well, some things in the world are ‘secular’ and some things in this world are ‘religious.’ What Jesus is saying is that we need to figure out which is which and give our allegiance to secular things when that is important and to religious things when they are! The main thing is to know the difference.”
One of the corollaries of that interpretation, however, is that religion and politics are two different things, that separation of church and state means that Christians should stay out of politics, and even that we can live by one set of standards on Sunday morning, and another standard the other six days of the week!
Well, beloved, that could not be farther from what Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s Gospel! Let’s take a little closer look at it. First of all, the context for this is that Jesus is in Jerusalem and nearing his death on the cross because of conflict with the Roman government and the religious leaders of his own faith.
He has already ridden into Jerusalem as a staged protest against the occupying powers during the feast of Passover, he has overthrown the tables of the money changers challenging the complicity of the Temple authorities to the Roman government, and now he’s engaged in a series of conflicts with those who are trying to get him to make a mistake so that they’ll have a legitimate excuse to get rid of him.
Matthew is clear that this is not some idle theological question the Pharisees are asking about taxes.
He writes, “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians…” (Matthew 22:15) Well, from what we know about the political situation at the time, that itself should be a dead giveaway. The Pharisees and the followers of Herod did not get along at all. Specifically, with respect to the “head tax” (read “poll” tax!) of one denarius required by the Romans on all subject people, they were in fundamental disagreement.
The Pharisees were opposed to paying the tax because it suggested capitulation to the authority of the Romans. The Herodians – who were in the pocket of the Roman government anyway — had already sold out so badly that they saw no problem with the tax and, in fact, encouraged it as a way to keep the peace…and their own privileged position as pawns of the family of the Herods who ruled as Rome’s puppets in Jerusalem.
So, you see what’s going on: if Jesus sides with the Herodians and says it’s OK to pay the tax, he will alienate not only the Pharisees, but all those among his followers who were longing for Israel’s freedom. If he sides with the Pharisees, it would leave him open to charges of subversion by defying Roman law…and hasten his death. So, what does he do?
First of all, he asks to see the coin which was to be used for the tax, a denarius. Somebody brought him one. It would be interesting to know whether it was a Pharisee or Herodian who produced the coin because devout Jews weren’t even supposed to carry Roman money. Jesus shows us why: ‘Whose head is this (on the coin) and whose title?’ he asks. ‘Caesar’s (the emperor’s)’ they reply. Well, he’s already nailed them because a coin with a depiction of Caesar on it (and probably, his title “the Son of God!”) was a blasphemous thing for a Jew to have. It was a “graven image” forbidden by the Second Commandment!
So he ends up throwing the answer to the question back on them (as he so often did in his parables) challenging his audience to make a decision, not letting them off the hook by providing an easy answer, but making them think! “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22)
Which, of course, really begs the question, “What do the powers that be in this world really “own” that does not already, and legitimately, belong to God?”
The answer is…NOTHING!
So what Jesus is really saying is, “Give this idolatrous piece of money back to the idolatrous king who made it. And give everything else to God!” That message is consistent with the primary message Jesus Christ came into this world to bring. He came to preach that the Kingdom of God was at hand. And that meant that God and God alone was Sovereign and that the rulers of this world were not!
The message is the same today. God is Sovereign and the rulers of this world (be they in Washington, Chicago, or Ferguson, Missouri) are not!
So go ahead, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…
Just remember to render unto God…the things that are God’s…