Saturday, November 14, 2009
A Taxing Question
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he-said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians; saying, "Teacher, Tell us ... what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?" Jesus said. .. "Show me a coin used for the tax. " And they brought him a denarius. The he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's" Matthew 22: 15-22
Death and taxes. The two proverbial certainties in life. People worry that the deficit and government providing health care will raise our taxes. Our two major political parties perpetually debate tax increases. Republicans do not want taxes raised at any cost. Democrats would rather the rich carry a greater percentage of taxation. But questions about taxes are nothing new. They are as old as the Bible. Read my lips. Taxes will follow us to the grave.
The subject of taxes is a topic for heated debate. Taxes are a powerful symbol of the clash between the interests of the individual and the interests of the society. They are the point where the personal and the political collide head on. So, it is not surprising that the subject of taxes has provoked debate, incited revolutions, and split people along political party lines. Talk of taxes raises a lot of debated questions.
Death and taxes. Jesus had to deal with these two certainties in his last days. Death and taxes are linked together in today's biblical narrative. But the question of taxes seems to have hounded the heels of Jesus from his cradle to his grave. It was a census for taxation that brought his parents to Bethlehem. And the accusation that Jesus taught the people not to pay the poll tax was thrown at him during his trial.
Even the Christ of God could not escape the question of taxes. Death and taxes. In Matthew's gospel they both are headed in a collision course, with Jesus in the middle. The instigators of this collision are a collusion of two major political groups in Jesus' day---the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Herodians were Roman puppets who supported the rule of Herod Antipas. The Pharisees were elite religious leaders who governed within the political sphere allotted to them by Rome. In any question of taxation the Herodians would have supported it. Like most Jews under Roman domination, the Pharisees would have been opposed to taxation. They were primarily out to get the one who was disturbing the peace of their power. But politics always seems to create strange bedfellows. Pharisees and Herodians. Bush and Noriega. And believe it or not, at one time, even the U.S. and Iraq!
The Pharisees and Herodians were working together to trap Jesus into making a political blunder, so as to get him out of their hair. The followers of these two groups came to Jesus one day. They spoke with a forked tongue. There was venom in their sweet words. Beneath their flattery was hidden deceit and trickery. You can almost hear the spring catch on their steel trap as they say to Jesus, "Rabbi, we know that you are a sincere person. You truthfully teach the way of God. Neither do you express personal preference toward people, or show partiality." You see, they were craftily setting up Jesus. They were trying to force him to admit political neutrality, while all along they knew that there was no way he would be able to void taking sides on the issue of Roman taxation.
What they wanted Jesus to tell the crowd was not his personal opinion, but the way of God on the issue of taxation. We might compare it ot a secular scene with Congress asking Sonia Sotomayor, "Judge, we know that you are fair, honest,truthful, unbiased, non-partisan, without pre-judgment or partiality, a wise Latina woman. So, tell us then, does an unborn child have constitutional rights?" Hear the trap go “snap!” But into the sizzling stew that Jesus was placed, add the extra ingredient of God. In other words, they didn't want just his opinion, or the law's. They wanted Jesus to pronounce the word of God on this issue! So, whatever he said to this crowd, Jesus was going to hang himself.
Then the question with teeth was thrown at Jesus: "Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not." They were ready to snag Jesus on the sharp horns of a dilemma. And Jesus was aware of their deadly intent. If he said "no", then he would find himself in hot water not just with the Herodians, but with the whole imperial Roman government. He would have been labeled a revolutionary. If he answered "yes", then Jesus would have cooked his own goose among his people, who opposed the taxation.
You see, taxation was a symbol to the Jewish people of Roman oppression. A resistance movement was even formed and Jewish revolts broke out over Roman taxation. For Jesus to approve of imperial taxation would prove to be volatile. Beneath this question of taxation hid other perplexing questions like; "Can one be a faithful Jew and a loyal subject of Rome? What business have the people of God to do with secular governments? Who is to be obeyed---the Torah or Tiberius? Who is really the Lord---God or Caesar?" The Pharisees and Herodians were hoping for a simple, incriminating answer from Jesus. The trap was ready to spring. But Jesus' drew the hunter's into their own trap. He asked them to show him the coin used in the tax.
The live bomb that they placed in Jesus' hands was about to explode in their own faces. They were being called upon to participate in answering their own question by producing from their own pockets the evidence that would entrap them. They handed Jesus a denarius, a coin equivalent to a day's labor. Jesus then turned the tables on them and asked them a question: "Whose head and title is on this coin?" This coin, used to pay taxes, was a highly controversial symbol in first century Jewish Palestine. It was minted by emperor Tiberius. It bore his image and the blasphemous title, "Tiberius, Caesar, Augustus, the son of the divine Augustus." The image and title were an abomination to the Jew and a sign of sovereignty. The Roman coin was such a slap in the Jewish face that during the period of several rebellions the Jews minted their own coins as symbols of liberty. The question of whose image the coin bore had an obvious answer---Caesar.
You can almost hear the snap of the trap as Jesus' turns their question upon them. But we will have to listen closely to hear it. He says, "Well then, pay back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." On the surface it sounds like a rather straight forward response. His words seem to provide a black and white answer. How simple. Give to Caesar his due and to God his due. The two realms of politics and religion get sorted out and put in their nice, neat compartments. In this drawer are the "things of Caesar." And over there in that drawer are the "things of God." And what are the things of Caesar? Why, they must be things like taxes, politics, economics, the military, government policies, and issues of social welfare. Then, what are the things of God? Well, they must be things like the church, the Bible, worship, prayer, fellowship, and morality. Jesus' answer sounds like a nice, neat formula for putting religion and politics in their right and proper places.
We might hear Jesus' words as a sermon on the separation of church and state. Or we may hear Jesus as an Anabaptist preacher proclaiming a theology of two separate kingdoms; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. This is Caesar's realm and this is God's realm and never the twain shall meet. If we are not careful, Jesus may even begin to sound like a middle-of-the-road politician or a Boy Scout master who tells the loyal troops that they should do their duty to God and their country. As a matter of fact, in the movie of Sergeant York's life, these very words of Jesus are used by the good sergeant to determine the answer a question he had concerning whether, as a Christian, he should allow himself to be drafted into the US Army in 1917. And we know the answer he pulled out of the hat of Jesus' statement. If we are not careful, we can turn this saying of Jesus into something as innocuous and non-threatening as the admonition to be both good Christians and good citizens at the same time. And that is exactly what most Christians have done to this revolutionary saying of Jesus. Scout's honor!
Jesus' answer to the question of taxation is intentionally ambiguous. Those who hear his answer must struggle to answer for themselves what are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God. The two halves of Jesus' answer are not to be taken as referring to two equal but separate realms that deserve our honor. By placing the two realms side by side Jesus forces us to deal with the relationship between the two. We are placed in a position of having to deal with the relationship of the private and the public, religion and politics, faith and society, the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of God. Jesus will not allow us to quietly slip away and hide in our private realm of personal piety. We cannot treat the two realms of God and Caesar separately. Or as someone put it; "We cannot settle questions of political life without considering the claims of God, nor seek to live a religious life oblivious to the problems of society." Jesus throws the "things of Caesar" alongside "the things of God" and causes us to wrestle with them.
This struggle is intensified when we place the emphasis on the second half of Jesus' answer, where it properly deserves to go; upon rendering unto God the things that are God's. If we were to ask the common Jew of Jesus' day, "What are the things of God?", the answer would have been obvious. Everything. What things bear the imprint of God on them? Everything. As the Psalmist says, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. The world and all that is in it." God's things are everything. Politics and prayer. Wealth and worship. Everything. God is Sovereign of everything. So, by placing the statement of what is God's next to what is Caesar's, Jesus is not positing together two co-equal realms that deserve our due. Rather, Jesus has thrown into question not only the things that belong to Caesar, but also the very sovereignty of Caesar.
The claims of Caesar's lordship, become relative alongside the absolute sovereignty of God. The "things of Caesar" are dramatically minimized by the second half of Jesus' answer. Caesar and God, like God and Mammon, are not two lords who stand on equal footing when it comes to our allegiance. God alone is Lord. What we are to render unto Caesar shrinks before the towering question of what we are to render into God. Jesus has given an answer that explodes our narrow and isolated categories. So, in the midst of our own religious and political questions Jesus' answer, we may become as amazed at what Jesus said as those who first heard his answer.
And we may well ask ourselves the question; "What in the world are God's things?" In a world where Caesar rules, that can be a rather taxing question. Jesus' response to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us no simple black and white answer to our own contemporary religious and political questions. How do we sort out the legitimate requirements of loyalty to society, and the absolute demand of loyalty to God? Should we always obey the government? What if Caesar were a Hitler? Should the Christian ever be involved in civil disobedience? What if Caesar's policies send Central Americans back to poverty and death or segregate South African blacks? Should we always pay our taxes? What if they are used to support wars and to stockpile nuclear weapons? If Caesar requires us to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran and defend our country's interests, must we render unto Caesar his due? Do we, as Christians, merely answer these questions along liberal or conservative political party lines? These are indeed taxing questions.
Now, wouldn't you like for me to give all of you a simple answer to each one of these questions? I'm afraid that if I did, I would find myself in the position of Jesus. But I am not Jesus. Your answers must come from him. And I suspect that he will not give you an easy answer, but will hand your questions back to you and say to you words like, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."
The answers to our questions will come to us only as we struggle with Jesus' words and as we place all of our questions alongside the ultimate sovereignty of God. And the one question that will override all other questions will not be "what must I render unto Caesar?", but rather, "what must I render unto God?" And the answer is obvious. Everything.