Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Read the paper almost any day, watch the news almost any evening, and you will find a story about taxes, probably more than one.
Here in Ames, we are gearing up for a bond issue on a library addition and renovation. The yard signs are going up just as they did when we voted on the school construction bond issue just a few weeks ago. There was a story this week about a proposal to increase state gasoline taxes in order to maintain our highways. Herman Cain has gained attention in the race for the Republican presidential nomination with his 9-9-9 tax plan. The president’s jobs bill was voted down in the Senate because it included tax increases. Many politicians have signed a pledge never to raise taxes, no matter what.
Taxes are a four-letter word for a lot of people. But you know, the services provided by our taxes make a huge difference in our lives. Personally, I don’t mind paying my fair share for so many things that benefit me and my family and our community. Our street was repaved this past summer and it is nice to not have to drive over potholes all the time. We have a great public library and I am glad to support it. I am glad we have fire and police protection. We have great schools in Ames and our daughter is receiving an excellent education at a public university. Susan and I flew to Maine for vacation a couple of weeks ago, and I am glad that the Federal Aviation Administration has safety standards for aircraft. That is a good thing. I am glad that there were air traffic controllers and security personnel working at the airport. We went to Acadia National Park and the White Mountain National Forest, and I am glad that we have beautiful places and unspoiled natural spaces in our country that are protected and maintained. Taxes support a lot of important things, things that we need for society to function and things that we need for life to be richer and fuller and more enjoyable.
But imagine if our taxes did not go to support our schools and protect our streets and care for our elderly and maintain our roads and bridges and water systems. What if, instead, our taxes were going to support a foreign government – a foreign power whose army was occupying our country. What if our taxes went to prop up the empire that was oppressing us? What if our taxes went to pay the enemy soldiers who were making our lives miserable?
That was life in Jesus’ day. You think there are anti-tax people around now? You think folks are up in arms about taxes today? Just imagine what it would have been like in first century Israel.
Jesus is asked a question about - taxes. If taxes are a bit of a touchy issue today, they were absolutely explosive in his day. The text says that Jesus was approached by two groups, some Pharisees and Herodians, with this question about taxes.
The Pharisees we know about. Pious religious folks. Leaders. Upstanding citizens, people who followed the law closely. The Herodians we know a lot less about; in fact, this is the only mention of the Herodians in the gospels. But presumably they were supporters of Herod, the Jewish king who was essentially a puppet ruler. Herod ruled only with the approval and support of Rome; he did whatever Rome told him to do. So the Herodians were Jews who collaborated with the Roman overlords while the Pharisees were pious, strictly religious Jews who resented the Roman occupation. The Pharisees wanted nothing to do with the dirty Romans.
Do you get the picture here? The Pharisees and Herodians are not friends. Far from it. But they have made common cause against a common enemy. They are brought together by their common disdain for Jesus, and they have a doozie of a question for him, one of those questions that no matter how you answer it, you get yourself in trouble. It reminds me of the questions we would ask each other in junior high, questions like, “Are you the only ugly one in your family?”
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the word of God in accordance with the truth...” That’s funny; these people didn’t usually speak to Jesus with such respect and admiration and deference. If they think he speaks the truth, why didn’t they act accordingly? What is this all about?
When we are showered with unexpected compliments, we probably need to be a little wary—it might mean that someone wants us to do them a favor, or perhaps our kids have a big request to make, or some news to share that we may not want to hear. Here, Jesus is buttered up by his questioners who were probably hoping to catch him with his defenses down.
We know you always speak the truth, Jesus, we know you always have the right answer, so here’s the question: is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
It seems like a simple enough question. And that’s all the Pharisees and Herodians want: just a simple answer. The simpler, the better. A simple yes or no would be great. Because either way, Jesus would get himself in a mess of trouble.
No matter what Jesus says, he will alienate people. To say “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” would mean alienating Jewish nationalists, who felt that paying taxes to Rome was intolerable. He would lose standing with the people. Who would follow a Jewish leader who was perceived to be in sympathy with Rome? But to say No, taxes should not be paid to Caesar, would mean risking imprisonment by the Romans for insurrection. So it is a perfect question for someone wanting to do damage to Jesus: he either loses credibility with the people, or he goes to jail. You can’t ask for much more than that.
But Jesus sees the trap coming and he is way ahead of the Pharisees. The text says that “he is aware of their malice.” Those nice words probably helped to tip him off.
These were not people sincerely interested in his opinion. In fact, they really didn’t care how he answered the question; they simply wanted to turn up the heat on him.
Jesus dispenses with the niceties. We will see public figures asked hard questions, and they just kind of tiptoe around the answer with a smile on their face and a sweet disposition. Not Jesus. He is not into games. He cuts to the chase. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. Because that is all it was, a test. And to show their hypocrisy, he asks for a coin.
They brought him a denarius, and he asked, “Whose image and title is this?” They answered, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, “the emperor’s.”
The Jews considered a coin bearing the image of someone to be a graven image – an idol, specifically prohibited in the Ten Commandments. A Roman coin bore the image of Caesar and the words “son of the divine Augustus,” a reminder of the emperor-worship of the Roman Empire. The Jews considered this to be blasphemous. It was unclean; it was “dirty money.” This was such an issue that you could not bring this Roman money into the temple. If you wanted to make an offering when you went to the temple, you had to convert your Roman money into temple coinage. When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple, this is what they were doing – converting Roman currency into temple currency, and at a tidy profit.
Some Pharisees and Herodians had asked Jesus a question in order to trap him or at the very least to embarrass him. But now, who was embarrassed? Those questioning whether taxes should be paid to Caesar were shown to themselves be fully involved in the Roman economy, with its blasphemous money and all. Whether it was OK to pay taxes to Rome was not a real question for them, and Jesus points this out in dramatic fashion.
Do you ever wonder why they kept asking Jesus these kinds of questions? Those who try to trip him up with trick questions always come off looking bad, but they just keep asking.
Jesus points out that whether to pay taxes to Caesar is not a real question for them, but then he goes on to answer it – at least, he engages the question. He says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It sounds brilliant, but then upon reflection we realize it really doesn’t answer the question. It is left up to us to decide, what is Caesar’s and what is God’s?
What Jesus does is to reframe the question. What is due Caesar, and what is due God? What claims does Caesar have on us, and what claims does God have on us?
This passage is sometimes taken to be Jesus’ teaching on church and state, and while it no doubt has something to say about that issue, that is not the crux of what he is trying to get across. The state, the government, may have claims on us, but so does God, and we have to weight this and struggle with this for ourselves. We have to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul put it.
The question of the relationship between church and state has always been an important question for Baptists. Our history and heritage is as a persecuted minority who understood all too well the coercive power of the state and who fought for religious freedom for all people, even those with whom we disagree. Roger Williams, the first Baptist in America, was driven out of Massachusetts for his belief that one’s religious conscience was a private matter over which the state had no claim. He established Rhode Island as a place that guaranteed religious freedom for all people, even those whom he generally despised, like the Quakers. He disagreed vehemently with their beliefs, but we would fight for their right to believe and worship as their conscience dictated. This was a remarkable position – Williams was literally a couple centuries or more ahead of his time.
There are a whole host of current issues involving questions of church and state, and Brent Walker will be addressing some of those questions when he is here with us two weeks from now. The way we look at many of these issues comes down to this question that Jesus raises for us: What is due Caesar and what is due God? The early Baptists answered this question by saying that the state had no claim whatsoever on one’s religious conscience and that for the state to impose its own brand of religion, whether emperor worship in Rome or Puritan religion in New England or even Baptist faith in Rhode Island, was to make a claim on individuals that was not the state’s to make.
Jesus’ answer gives us the opportunity to think on such matters, but as I mentioned earlier, this is not really Jesus’ main intent here. The crux of what he is saying goes far deeper than church-state relations. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Jesus doesn’t really answer the question. It is kind of thrown back at us. But it is interesting to go back and consider the original question. Jesus is asked if it is OK to pay Roman taxes. That’s it. There was no mention of God at all.
Caesar’s image was imprinted on the Roman coin. But God’s image is imprinted on us – on every one of us. The very first chapter of Genesis tells us that we are created in God’s image. God is Creator of the whole world, the whole universe, every last atom. Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness therof.” It’s all God’s. When we give to God the things that are God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar.
Next to the Creator of the universe, Caesar becomes small and insignificant. Caesar’s empire and Caesar’s image just don’t stack up against the greatness of God.
This story is not about taxes, not really. It is about what belongs to God and what obedience to God looks like.
It is not that the government has no claims on us. And it is not that we do not give allegiance to the state. It is just that these claims are not ultimate claims on us.
Sometimes we want to neatly pigeonhole the various areas of our life. We can be good at compartmentalizing: school is over here, work is over here, family is over here, church is over here. We divide sacred and secular, public and private. But this doesn’t hold true in God’s economy. This doesn’t work in a world in which everything belongs to God.
What does it mean, in a world in which we pledge allegiance to so many things – not just the state, not just the flag, but work and family and clubs and organizations and friends and school and sports teams – what does it mean that our allegiance to God is ultimate, above all else?
Giving to God that things that are God’s, it seems to me, means remembering that we bear God’s image and acting with God’s love and mercy and compassion and working for God’s justice in all of the various arenas of our lives. The fact that the trick question of the day for Jesus has to do with taxes and government leads us to reflect on how our allegiance to God plays out in the areas of politics and government.
I was moved by Johnie Hammond’s testimony last Sunday. In the best tradition of Roger Williams – and Jesus, I think - Johnie’s work in government had to do with upholding freedom for all people. And in the tradition of Matthew 25, she saw her work as serving Jesus by serving the sick and hungry and naked and the prisoner.
Entanglement between church and state is bad for both; we have known that since the time of Roger Williams and before. But the separation of church and state does not mean the separation of Christians from public life.
Marjorie Thompson wrote,
If the word I hear on Sunday has no bearing on the way I relate to my spouse, child, neighbor, or colleague; no bearing on how I make decisions, spend my resources, cast my vote, or offer my service, then my faith and my life are unrelated. The spiritual life is not one slice in a larger loaf of reality but leaven for the whole loaf.Caesar may be one slice, but God’s claims, and God’s grace, are found throughout the whole loaf. May we be faithful in giving to God what is God’s. Amen.