God and Caesar -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20A (Matthew 22)
Matthew 22:15-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
We hear this reading from Matthew 22 as the nation in 2020 faces a major election, in which there are concerns about the future of the nation. Some wonder whether democracy can survive here in the United States, but elsewhere around the world as well. I wrote this reflection in 2014. It would have arrived during a mid-term election season, but the level of anxiety experienced now wasn't present then. Now there is concern about our government and whether it serves the people. That leads to questions of allegiance to a government. Ultimately, as Christians, our allegiance is to God and God's realm. If that is true, then how might we live in this realm? What are our responsibilities? While I wrote this in 2014, before the current racial reckoning broke out in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, might you, the reader, see the parallels, even if more subtly stated?
There are two things that are certain in life – death and taxes. I would assume that most every American knows the meaning of April 15th. It is the dreaded day that one’s taxes are due (unless you’ve made other arrangements). The IRS, of course, is one of the most despised agencies of government – in large part due to the fact that its only job is to take our “hard-earned money” in the form of taxes. It doesn’t matter that these revenues help fund important services that we benefit from – it still hurts to pay taxes. In recent months the reputation of the IRS has taken a bigger hit, whether founded or not, due to its investigations of certain groups who might be overstepping the boundaries placed around tax-exempt organizations. Whatever your view of this latest situation, we must admit that tax collectors have never been popular. Not in biblical times. Not in the medieval world. Not today! And if IRS agents knock on the church office door, as happened to me, you have reason to be concerned! (Don’t worry we took care of everything – it’s a long story).
Now we could debate the pros and cons of the American tax system, but I’m not sure that’s the point here. The bigger issue is one of allegiance, which is symbolized by this particular tax – the Imperial Tax. There were a variety of taxes levied on the people of the empire, but this was the most despised of all taxes. In essence, Rome levied a tax on the people to pay for the Roman legions that controlled the region. As you might expect, occupied people never like paying the salaries of their occupiers.
In Matthew’s narrative, we are nearing the end of the journey to the cross. Jesus has already entered the city. The contest between him and his opponents in the religious and political elite is ratcheting up. He is seen as a radical who threatens the status quo. Because the elite then and now fear an uprising by those living on the margins – remember Luther’s vocal opposition to the Peasant’s Revolt, calling for swift suppression – Jesus’ appeal to this group made him a threat. What better way to get him into trouble than to put him in a no-win situation.
A group representing the Pharisees (we’re told that these were students) and the Herodians (a party that supported the client royal family, and therefore would have supported the tax system) raises the issue of paying taxes with Jesus. Note how they approach Jesus – offering him a degree of “respect” that they in reality didn’t accord him. It is assumed, I suppose, that flattery will get a favorable response. They obviously knew that if he said that they should pay taxes then he would alienate his base, which included many nationalists and people just fed up with Roman occupation in general. If he responds by saying they shouldn’t pay taxes he would put himself in hot water with the Romans (thus the reason for the presence of the Herodians). It’s a good tactic, but Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. He simply offers an enigmatic statement about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to God what belongs to God. In other words, he puts it back in their lap. He’s not going to say one way or the other.
There is, of course, something subversive about his answer. Paying taxes to the Romans wasn’t something people enjoyed, but the people had little hope of overturning Roman rule. Jesus understood this fact, which is why he didn’t follow the messianic predilections of at least some of his followers. Jesus may have had Zealots among his followers, but nothing in the biblical record suggests that he was one himself. Instead, he took a very different path. It wasn’t necessarily a “spiritual” one as opposed to a “political” one, but it was one that was realistic. He pursued his path of bringing wholeness to the neighborhood, inaugurating the kingdom through his preaching and through his healing actions even if he knew that the forces gathering against him would not stop until he was dead.
What Jesus did here was asked for a coin. Then he asked the inquirers whose image lay upon the coin (a denarius). Of course, they said – Caesar’s. Coins of the realm were all stamped with the Emperor’s image, along with a statement hailing the Emperor as a son of God. Of course, coins have always born the images of those who rule. Our own coinage bears the images of dead Presidents and important leaders, but even these hold a certain sacredness. They are produced by the government and made available to us so that we can buy and sell what we need to survive. Since the government produces the money, they have the right to ask for something back so they can provide the services we desire.
Now, not everyone is exactly happy about the way the government spends its money. There are those who resent having to spend money to pay for food stamps and health care for the indigent. There are others who are outraged that they have to pay for a military that they believe is illegitimate and unnecessary. The fact is – we don’t get to choose which programs our taxes pay for. Congress and the executive branch make those kinds of decisions. Now, in our case, we can vote for or against these representatives (something that Jesus’ hearers couldn’t do), but still, we don’t get to decide individually which programs we will fund with our taxes.
More important for us then is the second half of the response – giving to God what belongs to God. To whom does our allegiance ultimately belong? Even if you believe, as I do, that secular governments have a legitimate purpose and therefore one should expect to pay taxes to support such a government, the government doesn’t have our ultimate allegiance. Long before Constantine Christians insisted that they were good citizens, they just couldn’t worship Caesar. Paul affirmed the legitimacy of government (Romans 13) as did the Second Century Fathers. But they also understood that they stood under a higher law. As Peter said to the Sanhedrin, we have to obey God rather than human authority when the two come into conflict (Acts 4:19-20). When, where, and how we do this, however, must be carefully considered.
So what belongs to God? Well, of course, everything belongs to God. The question is how do we use what God has provided us with? The key to the answer is the issue of image. The coin bears Caesar’s image. That which bear’s image is the human creation (Genesis 1:28). Humanity has been created in the image of God, and therefore humanity belongs to God. And God has given humanity a responsibility – to be stewards of creation. In other words, humanity as a whole has a higher place than Caesar.
If our ultimate allegiance belongs to God – as I believe is true – then what does that mean for the way we live our daily lives. How do we live in this world and yet not be defined by its rule? In the Constantinian system, there has long been an assumption that membership in the church is equivalent to citizenship in the state. The United States doesn’t have an official state church/religion, but we have had a Civil Religion that has favored Protestant Christianity. Thus, we hear claims that the United States is a Christian nation. Additionally, there are certain symbolic gestures such as the printing of “In God we Trust” on our money, swearing oaths on the Bible, inserting the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance that expresses this vision.
With regard to Jesus’ response to his inquisitors, in his “failure” to give an answer, he offers us a way of navigating our present realities. As David Lose puts it:
Whatever alliances we may make with the powers of this world – or with those who oppose them – these alliances are always temporary, dictated perhaps by the demands of the circumstances, but ultimately directed by our relationship with the One who created us and whose image we bear. This means that following Jesus’ counsel is always a matter of discernment, prayer, and confession, as we will frequently fail and always struggle to discern what God-fearing participation with government requires. [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, p. 193].
In the end, the powers that be will decide that even if they can’t truly trap him, he is too dangerous to allow to live. Death is inevitable – it would seem. But as the Gospels declare, Death is not the final verdict.
As we consider this passage, it would be good to ponder what it means to live as a Christian and as a citizen of a nation-state. What “compromises” are required of us? Where do we draw the line regarding our engagement in the public square? Do we separate ourselves from worldly affairs, or do we (even as the church) engage in pursuing the common good?