The only sure things in life, they say, are death and taxes. Neither is anything to look forward to, and to be real honest about it, it appears that some of us may have a bigger issue with taxes than we do with death.
Taxes are in the news constantly. Most of the presidential candidates have something to say about taxes, mostly with plans for lowering taxes, which is no surprise. It is hard to find people who are real excited about taxation, and all things being equal, we would just as soon keep our own tax bill low.
But you know, the services provided by our taxes can make a big difference in our lives. Personally, I don’t mind paying my fair share for things that benefit me and my family and build up the common good. 24th Street was reconstructed last summer, and while it was a pain to deal with at the time, it is really 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 received an excellent education at a public university.
When I fly somewhere, I am glad that the Federal Aviation Administration has safety standards for aircraft. I am glad that pilots have to be qualified and licensed and that we have air traffic controllers and security personnel working at the airport. Last summer we visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and I think it is important that we have beautiful and unspoiled natural places in our country that are protected and maintained. Many of you have served in the military, and is important that we support our armed forces to have a safe and strong nation. It is important that we have a social safety net - having compassion and care for those in need is a part of our faith. Taxes support a lot of important things, things that we need for society to function well and things that we need for life to be richer and fuller and more enjoyable for everyone.
But imagine if our taxes did not go to educate our children and protect our communities and maintain our roads and bridges and water systems. What if, instead, our taxes were going to support 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? Just imagine what it would have been like in first century Israel. If taxes are a bit of a touchy issue today, they were absolutely explosive in Jesus’ day.
We have been following along in Mark, reading sequentially. You may have noticed that we skipped chapter 11. Chapter 11 includes the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, what we remember on Palm Sunday. So we will come back to that in a few weeks. Today we have moved on ahead to chapter 12. In the first reading, Jesus tells a parable of wicked tenants who abuse, hit upside the head, and in some cases outright kill the representatives of the vineyard owner, including servants, slaves, and finally the vineyard owner’s beloved son, who was killed as well.
It is a parable of judgment, and if you go back to chapter 11, you find that this parable is told against the chief priests, scribes, and elders – the religious elite, the power brokers of society. These are the people to whom Jesus is speaking. And they want to arrest Jesus, but they can’t do it while Jesus is in a large crowd of supporters.
Our second reading involves a different set of people. We read, “They sent to him some Pharisees and Herodians.” These are two entirely different groups from the chief priests and scribes. And then in the passage that follows ours, we have some Saducees, yet another political and religious movement, coming to Jesus with a controversial question intended stir up trouble. Basically, in one chapter, we have a variety of groups from all over the board, all working against Jesus and in some cases working together against Jesus.
The Pharisees are often mentioned in scripture. They are pious religious folks, people who followed the law very closely and believed that everyone should do so. The Pharisees don’t have the kind of power or official positions that the scribes and chief priests have, but they are very concerned about righteousness. Jesus would actually have more in common and more natural affinity with the Pharisees than most of the groups who opposed him.
The Herodians we know a lot less about; in fact, this is the only mention of the Herodians in the gospels. 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 Romans.
Do you get the picture here? The Pharisees and Herodians are not friends. Far from it. But they have made common cause against an even greater 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 admiration and deference. If they think he speaks the truth, why didn’t they act accordingly? What is this all about?
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 leader 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 is way ahead of his questioners. Maybe those nice words helped to tip him off. Jesus dispenses with the niceties. He is not into games. “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.
As you read through the gospels, have you ever wondered 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.
A clergy group that Susan and I are a part of is watching and discussing the PBS series “God in America.” The episode we watched this week told the story of Jeremiah Moore, a Baptist from Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1773, the 27-year-old Moore found himself arrested and thrown in jail. His crime: preaching without a license. Soon after, numerous Baptist ministers in Virginia were thrown in jail. The ironic thing was that being willing to go to jail proved the commitment and sincerity of these Baptists and rather than hurting the Baptist movement, it only served to make it grow.
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 no right to regulate religious practice. In 1644 Baptist Roger Williams argued for “soul liberty” for all people, “paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian.” Williams was centuries ahead of his time and maybe even ahead of our time. The Baptists argued that for the state to impose its own brand of religion, whether emperor worship in Rome or Puritan religion in New England or the Anglican Church in Virginia or even Baptist faith in Rhode Island, was to make a claim on individuals that was not the state’s to make.
Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us the opportunity to think on such matters, but as I said, 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 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 the 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.
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 all of life. May we be faithful in giving to God what is God’s. Amen.