I HATE to pay taxes. Pastors are considered self-employed, so I don’t have taxes withheld from my paychecks. And four times a year, I have to send my estimated taxes to the IRS as well as the state of North Carolina. If you’ve ever wondered why I seem to be depressed four times and year, there’s your answer. It seems like every time I’m getting ahead and I have a nice sum of money in my bank account, it’s time to pay my quarterly estimated taxes and just like that, I’m wiped out and I have to start over. You better believe it’s depressing!
And yet, as much as I might detest paying taxes, for the people living in Jesus’ world, it was so much worse. Because it wasn’t just a matter of giving up their hard-earned money to the government. For Jews living in first century Palestine, there were several different taxes, such as temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes.
The tax the Herodians and the Pharisees were questioning in their confrontation with Jesus was a particularly controversial one. It was the Imperial tax paid as a tribute to Rome. The money it generated was used to support the Roman occupation of Israel. So, people were required to pay their oppressors to support their own oppression. And that’s a pretty good reason to hate being taxed.
The good religious people in this story, the Pharisees, had good religious reasons for hating the Imperial tax. It was an annual flat tax. Everyone had to pay one denarius, which was a Roman coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity. So, every time they paid it, they were forced to break the first two commandments. But not everyone saw it that way. The ones who had been given power by the Romans, the Herodians, were all for it, of course. So, this made the Imperial Tax a divisive issue in Jesus’ day. As soon as you shared your opinion about it, people knew exactly where you stood. That made it the perfect issue to trap Jesus.
Over the past few Sundays, we’ve been working our way through the days between Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his death on the cross in Matthew’s gospel. Things are getting tense. The Jewish leaders are watching him and they’re not happy. They question his authority. And Jesus counters by telling them three parables in a row, all with the same theme: there are some people who think they are in, and others who appear to be out. But the truth is, it’s the ones who appear to be out who are in and the ones who think they’re in who are out. It was clear to those who prided themselves on their righteousness before God that Jesus was slamming them. So, beginning with today’s passage, they’re on the attack. They set out to trap Jesus so he’ll say something damning and they can be done with him.
But first, before they start hitting Jesus with their gotcha questions, they butter him up telling him what a great guy he is. So wise, and impartial. They’re being all nicey-nice, luring Jesus just far enough into their trap so he’ll bite, the trap will snap shut and they’ll have him.
Well, Jesus sees right through their malarkey. He calmly plays along, confident he can beat them at their own game. Then they drop the bait, “Tell us, Jesus, what do you think? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Oh, yeah. This’ll get him, for sure. He can’t possibly win. Either he’ll disappoint the people by defending the tax or he’ll jeopardize himself with the Roman officials if he argues against it. He’s between the veritable rock and a hard place. And then things get really interesting.
Before answering their question, Jesus reframes it by asking to see the coin used to pay the tax. Apparently, his pockets are empty, or he might have been able to produce a denarius himself. But the pockets of his accusers are not empty. And, as it turns out, they have no problem producing a denarius. Voila! Right there in the Temple, where it would be blasphemous to carry the divine image of Caesar. Interesting, indeed!
Seeing the Roman coin, Jesus asks for some clarity. “‘Whose image is on this?”
“The emperor’s,” they say. And at that, he answers their question. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” Aha! We knew it! He’s a supporter of Rome! But just when they think they have him, he goes on to say, “…and to God the things that are God’s.”
Now, the passage tells us “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” But what I want to know is, exactly what was it that amazed them? Were they amazed at how he had escaped their trap? Were they amazed at how clever he was? Or was it his answer that amazed them?
I would be amazed if it was his answer that amazed them. Because really, what was he talking about? “Give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” What’s that supposed to mean? People have been speculating about it for couple thousand years.
Some will say that Jesus was talking about the separation of church and state, which is a very American concept that would have been totally foreign to people living in first century Palestine.
Pastors often like to use this passage to make a case for why people need to give their money to the church. I’ve done it myself. But really, is that what Jesus was talking about here?
Maybe it’s about who has the greatest power and authority, since that seems to be what has them all in a tizzy. Obviously, God rules over all, even the Caesars of this world. So, our greatest allegiance belongs to God. I would say that it probably has something to do with that. But I honestly don’t know. It could be taken a lot of different ways. And that’s the richness of the text for us as people of faith.
It serves to remind us of how messy the Jesus Way of life can be. We all have ideas about what it looks like ideally. “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.” We forsake the ways of the world and take up our cross and follow him. We give ourselves to him completely. We live into the Reign of God as our new reality…. And then when that’s not the way it seems to be working for us, we feel like miserable failures.
In this passage, Jesus is getting real. He acknowledges that it’s not easy to live in the real world as God’s people. Yes, the image of God has been imprinted on each of us, but the image of Caesar still has power over us. For as long as we our earthly lives last, we never have the option of living for God alone without regard for the ways of the dominant culture around us. We can’t opt out of it. We have to deal with it.
Luther teaches that God is God of all of it in his doctrine of two kingdoms. God rules the world in two ways: in the earthly realm, through temporal means such as civil government, and in the spiritual realm, through the gospel of trust in Christ alone. That’s how it looks ideally. But in reality, how do we negotiate it?
Take the whole issue of taxes for us as Christians. It takes on an entirely different meaning than it did for people in Jesus’ day. We can see that our taxes provide us with all kinds of benefits: care for the elderly, highways, public safety, national defense, education, assistance for the poor. These are all things that most of us would gladly support. But our taxes also go toward frivolous government spending, corrupt politicians, and wars. Unfortunately, when we pay our taxes, there are no boxes on the form we can check off to indicate how we would like our money to be allocated. So, what do we do? We can refuse to pay, but then we would go to jail. And, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just pay the darn tax. It’s messy.
As Christians, we’re called to act on behalf of the poor and the marginalized and to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. So, as someone with a passion for justice, I’ve tried hard to watch where I spend my money. I avoid shopping at Walmart because I believe they’re unjust in the way they treat their employees, and the way they put so many small companies out of business, and the way they exploit workers in other countries, all in the interest of offering the cheapest product possible to consumers and making a ton of money. So, even though it might save me a few dollars, I try not to shop at Walmart. I spend a little more and proudly shop at Target. Then after I get home and look at the label on the shirt I just bought there, I have to wonder when I notice that it was made in Bangladesh.
For a long time, I refused to shop at Hobby Lobby because they withheld birth control from their employees for religious reasons. But then, I learned that Hobby Lobby takes corporate social responsibility seriously and they start their new employees at 90% above the minimum wage. Something not many companies can say.
We like to divide the world up into the good guys and the bad guys. Things that are pure and things that are dirty. The godly and the ungodly. But that’s not reality. Often, even when you think you’re doing what’s good and pure and godly, you learn that it’s anything but. Real life is messy.
Every day, in big and small ways, I am participating in the exploitation of other people. I am part of a system of injustice and violence and power just by virtue of being an American. And yet, I claim to be a follower of one who was all about justice and non-violence and serving others.
Every once in a while, I’ll hear a story about a Christian somewhere in the world who is given a choice, either renounce your faith or be killed. The way the story always goes, the Christian stands firm, and they die for their faith. Of course, we never hear the stories about the ones who say, “Jesus who?” and go on with their lives. But these stories leave me wondering… if I were in a situation like that, what would I do? And I think, surely Christ would understand my predicament and would not want me to be killed, so what would it hurt to say the words with my lips, “I renounce Christ”, knowing full well I hadn’t done that in my heart and surely Christ would know that, too. And I would be forgiven by the God of love for saying what I needed to say to save my life.
After all, isn’t that what Jesus did with Peter who once said, “Jesus who?” to save his own skin?
I take some comfort in the fact I will never be forced to face such a moment. But I also know that real life isn’t about saying a simple yes or no to Jesus. It’s messier than that.
I don’t know what to do about this. I try the best I can to be faithful, knowing that, despite my best intentions, I often fail. I know it all sounds rather hopeless, but actually, I am ever hopeful, partly because of passages like this one where Jesus keeps life real. He knows what it means to be a person of faith living in a world that makes it difficult. He knows that good, religious people carry the image of Caesar in their pockets and into the Temple.
But, more importantly, the God of all has created us in his image. So we carry the image of God into our real lives in all their messiness. Following Jesus isn’t about doing all the right things, making all the right choices, or living pure holy lives. It’s about trusting in the relationship we have with the one whose image is imprinted on our hearts. He is the God of grace who has planted us in the messy reality of our lives, promising to love us through it.