Render tax to Caesar, your life to God
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
We should not be surprised by a Bible passage from Matthew today in which we read that the Pharisees want to trap Jesus into saying something which will either discredit him or place him in danger. Remember in Matthew Chapter 12 and Verse 14 we read
‘The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.’
There is a desire by the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus. His enemies are so intent on his destruction that they join forces across political and religious divides. The Pharisees were nationalistic, they were against the Roman occupation, and today they are seen collaborating with the Herodians who were royalists who supported Herod the puppet king of Rome, they wanted the status quo to remain.
They try to ensnare Jesus and ask him a trick question
Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
The questioners start by calling Jesus 'Teacher', perhaps to put him off his guard by appearing to flatter him by showing respect. Nevertheless the sole intent is to cause Jesus to say something which might incriminate himself.
The questioners also make the point that Jesus has no respect for wealth, position, or power. Such words encourage Jesus to fearlessley speak his mind, so to draw him into an answer which was either
- Critical of the emperors taxation of the Jews - so he would be an enemy of Rome
- Supportive of the tax - so he would be an enemy of the people
It is a brilliant question because it seemingly has no correct answer !
Let’s look at what this tax was
The tax concerned was a poll tax, it was an annual payment to the Roman occupying forces which was a painful reminder of the subjugation of the Jewish people. Hence it was always unpopular with the people. Roman taxation had sparked off a revolt two decades earlier in AD6 by Judas of Galilee which had been violently crushed by Rome.
The popular opposition to Rome was expressed by those we call Zealots, revolutionaries who believed there was no king but God. If Jesus says that it is right to give taxes to Caesar then he discredits himself with the people.
If Jesus says that tax should not be paid then his opponents are in a powerful position to present Jesus to the Romans as a dangerous revolutionary.
So in answering Jesus asks to see a coin used to pay the tax.
Most likely the coin in question bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during those years (AD 14–37). One side of the coin would have deified Tiberius as a "son of the divine Augustus." The other side would have honoured him as the "Pontifex Maximus" or "chief priest" of Roman polytheism — which is to say that the two sides of the coin celebrated absolute religious and civil authority for Tiberius.
To a nationalistic Jew who confessed a radical monotheism, such a graven image was religiously offensive, contrary to the ten commandments and politically humiliating. Certainly much of the crowd would have been repulsed at the political, religious, and economic implications of honouring a pagan "god" by paying a tax to him. Why should poor peasants in Israel send their hard-earned money all the way back to Rome and its emperor?
For normal commercial use special copper coins were used without these features, so no Jew need handle the silver denarius, (probably minted in Lyon) except to pay his tax.
From the previous chapter Matt 21:23 it appears that Jesus is teaching in the temple when this takes place. Remember no Roman coinage was supposed to be in the temple, ever. All of that was to have been exchanged in the "court of the Gentiles." The Pharisees strongly endorsed this policy, quite publicly. Yet possibly here, in the sacred space of the temple, it appears the Pharisees possess the idolatrous image. Even if it is not in the Temple the Pharisees should not carry Roman coins, for they bear this blasphemous image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription proclaiming him divine.
He asks for the image to be identified. The fact that the questioners are able to produce the coin so quickly cut the ground from beneath their feet. They were using Caesar’s money. It is the picture and name of Caesar.
So picture the scene: here is the true divine Son of God standing in the street beholding a graven image that represented all that was idolatrous about the cult of the Caesar. So then Jesus comes out with this famous phrase -
Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's
Or in the phrase of the King James
Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's;
and unto God the things that are God's.
Now there are different opinions as to what this might mean. Arguments take place about Jesus attitude to paying taxes, the theory of two separate kingdoms of God and the world. Let me give you my thoughts
Jesus is saying, let Caesar can have his paltry coin. The image of Caesar is on the coin, it surely must belong to him. Yet more importantly, we know from the verse with which we started our service this morning that in Genesis we are told that God created us in his image. If the image of Caesar on a coin meant that it was his, then surely the image of God on humanity means that we must render to God our whole being.
I think that Jesus is calling us to recognise that his followers should not have double standards, we must not divid eour lives into our God bit and our secular bit. It means that the things we think and pray about in church on Sunday must work themselves out during the week in the rest of our lives.
Now it is for each of us before God to sort that out and try to consider what it means. Somehow as we read the teachings of Jesus about how we should live, we have to take it to heart and make it real.
I don’t think that Jesus wants us to compartmentalise our lives so this means that we have to think carefully how to live out his teachings, things like
- Love your enemies
- Pray for those who mistreat you
- Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.
- Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
I was reading about the Roman Catholic priest Father Zabelka. He was an Army chaplain in 1945 in the Pacific Tinian Island in the South Pacific, the largest airfield in the world . He was assigned to serve the Catholics of the 509th Composite Group. The 509th Composite Group was the Atomic Bomb Group. He served as a priest for those who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the Enola Gay and Boxcar.
He blessed the pilot, crew, and plane that flew off to drop the second atomic bomb on Japan. The plane flew to Nagasaki, which was the largest and first Catholic city in Japan. Their aiming point to drop the bomb was the steeple of the Roman Catholic cathedral and school in the city. The bomb destroyed three orders of Catholic nuns, and wiped out the Catholic cathedral and school and all of the children.
In later life he became a pacificst, now you may agree or disagree with his position, that is not really the point I am making. I do however think that his is an interesting story because he reflects on his earlier military life and looking back in 1980 Father Zabelka said that he had chosen ‘Caesar over Christ.’
He said that he had been brainwashed,
‘It never entered my mind to publicly protest the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary; told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership. To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters, especially by a public body like the American bishops, is a stamp of approval.
“One would have thought that I, as a Catholic priest, would have spoken out against the atomic bombing of nuns. One would have thought that I would have suggested that as a minimal standard of Catholic morality, Catholics shouldn’t bomb Catholic children. I didn’t. . . . I was told it was necessary.”
‘I was the last possible official spokesman for the Church before the fire of hell was let loose on Hiroshima on the Feast of the Transfiguration 1945 – and I said nothing. I was the officially designated Catholic priest who by silence did his priestly patriotic duty and chose nationalism over Catholicism, Caesar over Christ, as the "Boxcar," manned by Christians in my care, took off to evaporate the oldest and largest Christian community in Japan – Nagasaki. No, the fact that I was not physically on the planes is morally irrelevant. I played an important and necessary role in this sacrilege – and I played it meticulously. I am as responsible as the soldier who stuck the spear in the side of Christ on Calvary.
Now as I say you might agree with his reflection you might not, that is not the point. What I suggest is challenging is that he as a Christian was able to critically reflect after the event and he believed that he had allowed Caesar to dominate in the choices he made in his life.
The trick for us is to prayerfully consider our positions and contradictions now, so that we do not one day look back and see our own blindness.
There is much that we cannot do anything about because we live in a very complex world. As an example, we pray for peace but pay for war.Every one of us here today might pray for peace across the world but the fact is that through our taxes we pay for wars across the world which we might chose not to support.
However there is much that we can do to make changes, to challenge ourselves. We have to strive not to have double standards like those Pharisees who said how much they served God, how much they believed in the importance of freedom from Rome, yet when questioned had pockets full of Roman coins which caused Jesus to condemn them as hypocrites.
In our busy lives we are challenged today not to forget God and his claims on our lives. We belong to God, because we are fashioned in his image, all of us. We belong to God in all our being, with all our talents, interests, time, and wealth. Each one of us is a ‘coin of God’ he has stamped his divine image onto each of us. So we render our tax to Caesar but our whole lives to God. Amen