Death and taxes we are told are inevitable. Taxes, always a hot topic, was a white-hot debate among the Jews in Jesus’ time. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees and Herodians whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar, they were trying to back Jesus into a corner by raising an issue of deep division among the Jewish people of the day.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees and supporters of the Herod’s, the puppet-rulers appointed by Rome, seek to entrap Jesus with a question they think will pin him between disloyalty to Jewish tradition or subversion against Rome. They ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Once again, Jesus outwits his adversaries and reveals the truth in a way that continues to evoke controversy even today.
The Jews were burdened by having to pay two types of taxes: a temple tax to the Jewish authorities and taxes to the occupying Romans. The Romans taxed lands, harbors and imports. Agriculture and any goods bought or sold were taxed. Taxes were also laid on property and duties were collected at the gates of cities. This was the primary way Rome profited from its conquered lands.
Roman taxation was onerous not only because it was an economic burden. It also emphasized the Jewish homeland’s lack of sovereignty. It underlined the oppression of the Jews by an alien lord. To add insult to injury, the coins used to pay Roman taxes were imprinted with the image of Caesar on one side and an inscription signifying his divinity on the other. This of course was an insult to the Jews who forbade any graven images, especially images of foreign gods.
The Pharisees and Herodians skillfully set the trap for Jesus. They begin with a fawning prologue, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere…for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” Then they ask him, “Is is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Should we pay them or should we not?”
Either answer would get Jesus in trouble. If Jesus were to answer no, he could be charged with denial of Roman authority – sedition. If he answered yes, he would discredit himself with the crowd, who resented Roman rule and taxation. This was the obvious purpose of the question: to separate Jesus from the crowd by trapping him in an unpopular response.
Jesus’ response is masterful as he turns the situation back on his opponents. He sets a counter trap when he asks to see a denarius. A denarius was a silver coin equal to about a day’s wage. His interrogators produce one. Jesus looks at the coin and asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” We know the answer, “The emperor’s.”
Jesus’ strategy has led his questioners to disclose to the crowd that they have a coin imprinted with Caesar’s image and the title “Son of God” imprinted on it. In this moment, they are discredited. They are exposed as part of the politics of collaboration with Rome. Not only has Jesus evaded their trap, but his counter trap is set and sprung. Even before his famous words about rendering to Caesar, Jesus has won the encounter.
Jesus’ response to their question is twofold: 1) give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and 2) give to God the things that are God’s. So, his first response is, simply, “Its Caesar’s coin – give it back to him.” The second half of his response is provocative. It raises the question, “What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God?”
Jesus’ audience knew full well the biblical teaching that God created human beings in the divine image (Genesis 1:26). Each person was stamped with the likeness of God – a living reminder that God has claim on every person and every aspect of life.
For Jesus, and many of his Jewish contemporaries, everything belongs to God. In the language of the parables, the vineyard belongs to God, not the local collaborators or to Rome. Indeed, the whole earth belongs to God: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). To give back to God that which, by the act of creation itself, belongs to God means to return all that we are and all that we have to God, to whom we owe our total allegiance of heart, mind and soul (Mt. 22:37). What belongs to Caesar? The implication is – nothing.
No one agues with the point that Jesus made. He doesn’t answer the question directly, but throws the question back to the crowd, who will have to decide for themselves where their loyalties reside. The Pharisees and Herodians were caught in their hypocrisy by trying to force a choice between loyalty to God or to Rome. They were amazed by Jesus’ response; “and they left him and went away.”
This scriptural text has often been used in modern times to frame debates over church and state issues. But Matthew’s concern here was to illustrate Jesus’ brilliance and skill in confronting the hypocrisy of his opponents and evading the trap his enemies have set for him by turning the issue back on them.
What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God? Jesus has a fabulous answer don’t you think? Except – what does it mean?
Is Jesus saying that we owe nothing to a false god like Caesar, and should reserve all things for God? Or is he inviting us to recognize that we may owe the powers and rulers of this world some things, like taxes, but we owe God much more, like our whole selves? Is Jesus inviting us to avoid giving our allegiance to the material and passing things of this world that our coins can buy, and demanding our ultimate allegiance and devotion should go to God?
How can we “pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar?” Our participating in the life of our nation certainly means more than paying taxes. We can’t exempt ourselves from the obligations of being citizens, or from civic involvement with fellow members of our community. Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to think regularly about our decisions – what we buy, who we vote for, how and with whom we spend our time.
How are we to “pay to God what belongs to God”? We can start by striving to live up to our baptismal promises: by proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, by seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, by striving for justice and peace among all people, and by respecting the dignity of every human being (BCP, p. 305).
Every person is a “coin” of God with God’s imprint. We belong to God and God has stamped the divine image into each of us. Jesus is saying to his inquisitors and to his listeners, both then and now, “Give Caesar what belongs to him, but remember each of you is a treasure to God and you owe him your primary allegiance, your total devotion and loyalty.” Amen.
Sermon for Proper 23A, October 11, 2020, YR AResources: Synthesis, 2008, 2017; Jude Siciliano, 2011; Borg & Crossan, The Last Week, 2006; David Lose, 2011, 2017.