Text: Mark 12:13-17
The only sure things in life, they say, are death and taxes. This week we have found that to be true. The Big 12 Tournament and March Madness are not sure things. Spring Break Trips to Disney World are not sure things. Not even toilet paper at Sam’s is a sure thing.
But taxes, we can count on. We are deep into tax season, and just the mention of taxes tends to get people agitated. I may be an outlier, but I am generally happy to pay taxes. It’s not that I like taxes so much as I like public services. I am in favor of police and fire protection and good streets and highways. I like public libraries and I want us to have good schools. I love our National Parks. Many of you served in the military, and I want to support our armed forces and our veterans. I think it is important to have a social safety net, to help care for the poor and vulnerable. And I have to say that the Center for Disease Control is a wise public investment.
But imagine if our taxes did not go to educate our children and protect our communities. What if, instead, our taxes were going to support a foreign power that was occupying our country? What if our taxes went to pay the foreign troops 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.
We have been in Mark since the first of the year, and you may have noticed that we skipped chapter 11. Chapter 11 includes the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. We will come back to that on Palm Sunday. Today we have moved on ahead to chapter 12. In the first reading, Jesus tells a parable about some wicked tenants who abuse, beat up, and in some cases kill representatives of the vineyard owner. Finally, the vineyard owner’s beloved son 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 power brokers. These are the people to whom Jesus is speaking, and at some point, they realize that Jesus is talking about them. Don’t you hate it when that happens? They are just boiling. They want to arrest Jesus, but they can’t do it while Jesus is surrounded by this large crowd of supporters.
Our second reading involves a different set of people. These chief priests and scribes and elders send a group of Pharisees and Herodians to question Jesus. 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. So in one chapter, we have a variety of groups from all over the theological and political map working against Jesus and even working together against Jesus.
The Pharisees are pious religious folks, people who followed the law very closely. The Pharisees don’t have the kind of official power that the scribes and chief priests had, but they are very concerned about righteousness. Jesus actually had more in common 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 – he ruled only with the approval and support of Rome. So the Herodians were Jews who collaborated with the Roman overlords while the Pharisees were pious, strictly religious Jews who resented the Roman occupation and wanted nothing to do with the Romans.
Do you get the picture here? The Pharisees and Herodians are political enemies. But they have made common cause against a common enemy. They are brought together by their 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...” “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?”
They ask Jesus a question about taxes, of all things. It’s a simple enough question. And that’s all his questioners want: a simple answer. 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 the better part of the population, who hated Rome and felt that paying taxes to Rome was intolerable.
But to say “No, taxes should not be paid to Caesar,” would risk being arrested by the Romans for inciting 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. In fact, 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 themselves shown to 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.
But then, Jesus goes on to answer it anyway – 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?
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 weigh 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.
Jeremiah Moore was a Baptist preacher in 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 conscience and no right to regulate religious practice. We 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 and to consider the competing claims of God and Caesar, 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 state has no claims on us. And it is not that we do take those claims seriously. We follow the laws of the land and even if we might grumble a bit, we pay our taxes. (At least I hope you do.) The state has claims on us; it is just that these claims are not ultimate claims. We recognize a higher authority.
Sometimes we want to pigeonhole the various areas of our life. We can be really 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 to the state, 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.
We are in one of the strangest times I can remember. There have been years when there was a worse than usual flu outbreak - there was swine flu and H1N1, and we cut down a bit on hand-shaking in church. But that’s about it. It was before my time, but some of you remember and some in our church personally experienced the polio epidemic in the 1940’s and 50’s. And of course I recall financial meltdowns and panics, most recently in 2008. But I don’t remember anything like this. It is a really strange time and there is a lot of uncertainty. A lot of anxiety.
Cutbacks on travel and social distancing mean that lots of folks who work in the travel and hospitality and service industries have had their hours cut back or they are out of work. Parents are having to figure out child care arrangements while their kids are home from school – or they are trying to figure out how to work from home while their children are also at home. It is a time of anxiety for those working in the medical field. We have a friend whose mother is in hospice care in a nursing home in another state. She had planned to make a trip to see her mom for the last time but no visitors are allowed in the nursing home.
What does it mean in this kind of environment to give to God the things that are God’s?
God calls us to have compassion and care for one another in this moment. Share a word of encouragement and care with those whose lives are being upended a bit just now. Send an email to our students who won’t be back for a while. Look around and notice those who are not here. It’s spring break and some are away, but some folks are staying in and some cannot be here. Give them a call. Send them a card. Check on a friend. Check on a neighbor. Maybe you could get groceries for someone. This would be a good time to make a contribution to the Emergency Residence Project or MICA or another organization that cares for people in need.
God’s claims, and God’s grace, are found throughout all of life – even in the midst of this uncertain time. May we be faithful in giving to God what is God’s. Amen.