1 Thessalonians 1. 1 – 10
Matthew 22. 15 – 22
This little Gospel reading is such a well-known passage, especially in the traditional version, “Render unto Caesar…”
On the face of it, it’s a rather technical question and answer about taxation. But once we start to drill down further into this little passage, we see that it has quite a lot to say about how we live in the world as faithful Christians. You might like to have the text in front of you as we go.
It doesn’t really come across on first reading, but this exchange is fraught with tension, right from the first verse.
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” The Greek word for ‘entrap’ only occurs here in the whole New Testament. It’s a hunting word, used to describe a wild animal that is trapped, and bound fast. They’re not just trying to make Jesus look foolish or discredit him – they want to set a trap that will lead to his capture.
In the next verse, we read that the disciples of the pharisees are sent “along with the Herodians.” Again, this seems like just a bit of eye-witness detail.
But the Pharisees were totally opposed to any compromise with the Romans, who they saw as incompatible with the purity and uniqueness of the Jewish faith. The Herodians were the opposite – collaborators, compromising with authority – the natural enemies of the Pharisees.
So we see here the lengths to which these people are willing to go. Two groups that are as far apart as you can get, theologically and politically, put aside their differences to try to trap Jesus like an animal.
After flattering him, trying to butter him up, they ask him their impossible question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
It seems like a bit of an anticlimax, doesn’t it – is that the best question they can come up with? But the issue of the Roman poll tax was a deadly serious one.
Cast your minds back to the troubles over the poll tax in this country, back in the 90s. It led to one of the biggest protests in recent British history – nearly a quarter of a million people were involved in the poll tax riot in March 1990.
600 years earlier, what’s known as ‘England’s first protest’ erupted over a poll tax in 1381, in the Peasants’ Revolt.
The response to this Roman poll tax was no different. It symbolised all the anger and frustration the Jewish people felt about rule by the Romans – being made to pay for their own occupation. It was partly this tax that led to the Jewish uprising, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in the year 70.
Part of the reason the tax was so appalling was that the coin used to pay it, the denarius, bore the image of the Emperor Tiberius, and an inscription claiming that he was the divine son of Augustus, and the high priest of the Roman Empire.
So the trap is obvious – and serious. If Jesus supports the tax, he compromises in devotion to God: and he loses not just the support of his most devout followers, but also those who long for freedom from the Romans. If he denounces the tax, they can cast him as a dangerous rebel, and let the Romans deal with him.
The question shows two worlds colliding – the kingdom of God verses the kingdom of the earth. Two competing claims to divinity and authority that are irreconcilable.
Jesus’ response to this is disarmingly simple. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
People have often interpreted this to mean that we should separate the life of faith from our experience of life in the world. On the one hand we can live as good Christians, doing pious things like going to church and praying; and on the other, we can be good citizens, and pay our taxes and abide by the law.
It sounds reasonable. But the problem is this separation can turn our faith into purely a private thing, between me and God. It’s also rather a luxury position; it has nothing to say to those who suffer at the hands of bad rulers, or to Christians who live in countries actively hostile to our faith.
I think what Jesus is saying is more subtle, and far more radical. He asks the pharisees, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And in doing so, he exposes their hypocrisy. These pharisees, so concerned with their ritual purity, still use these blasphemous coins for their own gain, and carry them right into the temple itself.
And he shows how little they understand about the kingdom of God. This coin bears the image of Caesar – so what? What is this ruler of earth compared with the ruler of the universe? Earthly rulers come, and they go. Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus is the great High Priest. He dismisses the coin as exactly what it is – a thing made by humans, for the use of humans. Give those things to Caesar, if they belong to him.
But give to God the things that are God’s. And if the coin belongs to Caesar because it bears his image, then to whom do we belong? To whom do we owe the tribute of our whole lives, and all that we have? To God, whose image we bear; in whose image we are created.
Jesus sets the kingdom of the world not apart from the kingdom of God, but within it. No kingdom of the world can possibly compete with the kingdom of God: as we sang in our psalm, “all the gods of the nations are but idols; it is the Lord who made the heavens.” It is the glory of God that is to be declared among all nations and peoples; it is from God that their honour and strength come.
And this has something to say to us about how we live in the world as faithful Christians. We honour the authority under which we live; but we acknowledge that that power comes from God.
And part of our calling is to be alert to the moments when that authority, like Caesar, claims more power than is its due, and seeks to displace the kingdom, and take the role of God in the offer it makes, or the loyalty it demands. [Ian Paul] It is our calling to speak the truth of Jesus to that authority, and remind it that one day, it will have to answer to him. Amen.