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The story we’ve just heard is one version of the same story told in all three synoptical gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. When the different gospel writers include the same story, it indicates it is an important story from the life of Jesus that we should attend to.
In Mark and Matthew’s account, it is Pharisees and Herodians who want to trap Jesus. Luke tells us spies are sent to trap him. In all cases, his opponents are looking for a gotcha moment. From the start, it is clear they aren’t there for a real conversation. They don’t want to discuss the intricacies of tax law. It’s hard to believe they mean a single word of the flattery they offer Jesus.
Pharisees and Herodians would not have been natural allies. They both were opposed to Roman rule, and both wanted a local king on the throne. But the Pharisees would have wanted to restore the House of David to the throne. The Herodians wanted a member of the Herodian dynasty to rule, either as king, or possibly thinking Herod would be the Messiah.
For the Pharisees and Herodians to work together, requires one of those “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” scenarios. They wanted to trap Jesus. They wanted to pull the attention away from their own political problems and give the Romans someone else to focus on.
Jesus, we all know you’re a great guy. You don’t judge people unfairly. You teach God’s truth. So why do you not want us to pay our taxes? Are you a communist?
If they can lure him in with their nice words about him, can they get him to fall in to the trap and announce that he hates Rome and doesn’t want to support the Empire with his money? That’s their best hope.
Their second-best hope is that if he doesn’t do that, he’ll be forced to say that of course people should pay all their hard-earned money and give it to the tax collectors to support the Roman occupation, which won’t get him in trouble with Rome but certainly wouldn’t make him popular with the common person on the street, struggling under the financial cost of occupation.
The Herodians and Pharisees are the first in a long line of political operatives, trying to trap Jesus for their own benefit. There is no right answer.
And lest you think we could somehow keep political matters out of our faith, let’s remember that the story of the life of Jesus is told, all the way through, in political terms. His family is dislocated at the time of his birth for a census, so Rome could more efficiently tax people. He grows up in an occupied political territory where people face brutality from the occupying forces. He grows up in a world where neighbors are hired as the tax collectors of the occupation, doing the dirty work of a foreign power, dividing and separating neighbor from neighbor.
Any claim of Lordship, or kingship, or messiah-ship is political as well. If God is your Lord, then Caesar can’t be.
So, Jesus’ whole life has played out with politics. When political issues are threatening your very life, keeping faith and politics separate is a luxury you don’t have. Politics will end up killing Jesus.
It is often the people benefitting the most from political systems who try to tell other people their faith doesn’t belong in their politics. And those same people show up to trap Jesus.
In the other gospel accounts, Jesus calls them hypocrites to their faces, which I kind of like. In this one, we’re told he knew they were hypocrites, but that’s not as much fun as picturing him yelling the word at them, is it?
Knowing their hypocrisy, he asks for a coin out of their pocket, which they hand him.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
They answered, “The emperor’s.”
Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
And they were utterly amazed at him.
All the accounts agree the Pharisees and the Herodians were amazed by his answer, and walked away saying, “Fiddlesticks. Foiled again, Jesus!”
I’m not amazed at that answer, in truth. I mean, he avoided angering the Romans, so that’s good. But it doesn’t feel clear to me. And it’s been used plenty in the past 2,000 years to have worldly kings, queens, and presidents justify their budgets and schemes.
I don’t believe for one minute that there could be even some small realm of our world where God isn’t interested in justice, and mercy, and peace. God’s not up in heaven, looking down and saying, “what’s that mess over there? Oh, they paid for that war with money that has Andrew Jackson on the bill, not me, never mind, I don’t care.”
Henry David Thoreau, in Civil Disobedience, wrote this about this passage:
“Christ answered the Herodians according to their condition. “Show me the tribute-money,” said he;—and one took a penny out of his pocket;—If you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar’s government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it; “Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God those things which are God’s”—leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.”
Thoreau is right. The questioners did not wish to know. They weren’t seeking enlightenment from Jesus on his views of the tax code. Jesus’ answer leaves us no wiser when we do not wish to know the truth of the matter.
By asking them to pull a coin out of their pocket and hand it over to him, Jesus does reveal something about his questioners—they are already doing business with Caesar on Caesar’s terms. They are already benefiting from the systems of taxation, of oppression, of exploitation. The evidence was right there in their wallet. If they want to keep on making sure that kind of Caesar is in charge, then nothing has to change. “You want to do Rome’s work for them, and hand me over? You’ve got all the dirty money you need. Keep at it.”
The people benefiting the most from political systems try to tell other people their faith doesn’t belong in their politics, while their own politics reveal what their own faith is built upon.
What is less clear, but more important, is what are we supposed to do if we don’t want to be like the Pharisees and the Herodians?
Tax season is upon us. We will all be rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. And to the extent that the money I pay will fund roads, public transportation, education, health care, affordable housing, etc., I’m all in. Take my money if we can build a better society.
I’m less excited about the ways my taxes participate in unjust systems like racism, war, or programs that benefit those who are well off by harming those who are not.
I do think a portion of this passage calls us to use our politics to try to reflect an image of God, rather than of today’s Caesar, with how we spend Caesar’s money.
But more importantly, even than that, we are called to remember that we are the coins that bear God’s image to the world. The way we spend our lives reflects God’s image to others.
A part of that is how we spend the money with Caesar’s image on it, of course. In our giving, to the church and to other groups who reflect our values. In our advocating for policies and systems that care for the marginalized, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. In our concern and care for the planet. Let’s render unto Caesar some expectations that we build a more just and generous world.
And in the living of our lives, in the spending of our lives, do we see how we are the coins that bear the image of God? I confess it was just this week, while working on this sermon, that I heard the word “spend” in terms of our lives, our time, and realized what it means. I’ve never thought of my life, my money, or my time as commodities that I spend. But they are.
How do we spend our time? How do we spend our life? Notice when you hear that word this week, when you use it.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But your life isn’t his. Your life is a coin that bears the divine image. It has a value far greater, even than the price of a home in this neighborhood.
Do you see yourself as God’ valuable coin, one that God would search the house to find, as we talked about a few weeks ago?
Do you see your life as currency that could feed a hungry world, like the widow’s mite Joann preached about last week?
You are a coin bearing God’s image to the world. And so are the lives of the other people you encounter. Our unhoused neighbors, our transgender and gay friends and neighbors, our neighbors experiencing racism and violence—there is not a person you could meet or hear about on the news who is not also a valuable coin bearing God’s image to the world.
We are the coins bearing God’s image to the world. Let’s spend our lives with intention and hope.
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
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