“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The Bible is full of what might be called “taxing questions!”
To be part of any community involves paying your dues one way or another – doing your share – and in most societies then and now that means paying levies or taxes. I remember first becoming a cub scout and how good it felt to be a contributing member; it was a sign of belonging and assuming responsibility. I felt much the same when I contributed to the Anglicans in Mission campaign back in the 1980’s. The word “liturgy” originally applied to the way in which citizens of a community were required to contribute to a public cause. The Church co-opted the term to apply to the kind of commitment required of all the members for the good of the community.
Taxes ideally reflect our commonly held values, like universal education, medicare, support for the elderly, maintaining law and order, etc., as we have in our system in Canada. No doubt even Canadians would react if there was suddenly a new 5% levy in order to provide a better wardrobe for Stephen Harper. There are certainly times to question whether a tax is just, and to be a responsible citizen it is important to be informed about what happens with the money that we and others contribute – to make sure it does indeed serve the common good.
Jewish people were used to the practice of paying taxes. It was called a tithe, and is one of the most ancient forms of tax. The tithe was each person’s percentage-based contribution which was aimed at upholding the spiritual and cultural life of Israel.
Taxing people can be a volatile thing – it always has the potential to blow up in your face. When the British started taxing the American colonies in order to pay for war debts, it resulted in another war, the War of Independence, and they ended up losing those colonies entirely.
The Roman tax in First Century Judea was probably along those lines – a huge and unfair tax that did nothing to benefit the people and served only to enrich a foreign and occupying empire (and more specifically the emperor himself).
Jews would not have been happy about this occupation or the taxes that went with it, and this passage from Matthew 22 should not be understood as saying that the Pharisees were promoting support for Caesar. Given that Jews had recently fought wars of resistance against other foreign invaders, they were certainly not big fans of yet another overlord.
“Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or not?”
It was a loaded question. It was certainly “lawful” to pay the tax, according to the laws Rome had imposed on the people of Judea. The real question had to do with the degree to which paying it would compromise one’s integrity and one’s relationship with the law of God.
To resist the occupiers was to endanger not only your own life but also your whole family and maybe even your community. The Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time had a careful balancing act to make sure that things didn’t go right off the rails. They were quite right in that assessment – only 40 years later, Rome completely demolished Jerusalem and the Temple, and slaughtered people by the thousand. And about 50 years after that, they returned with another huge army and levelled everything again. The danger was real.
So a person like Jesus was a huge threat to this delicate balance – the Romans tolerated the Jews and allowed their religious practices, but a key condition in that arrangement was that the taxes would flow unimpeded, and I am sure Jesus would not have been entirely unsympathetic to their problem.
The encounter described in today’s Gospel should be understood in light of that background, and we can imagine a select group of bright young scholars and seminarians coming out, sanctioned by the council, to challenge Jesus, and persuade him to shut up – for the common good. They call him rabbi, a deferential term, but possibly saw him as unsophisticated and naïve – unaware of the subtleties and dangers around religious life in Jerusalem.
There is sarcasm in their approach as they state that he is known to be deferential to no one. “Is it lawful . . .?” is a deeper question about whether it is a moral thing to hand over money to a foreign and ungodly power. Can he, if he is any kind of servant of God, counsel the people to knuckle under, bow down, and remain submissive to this ungodly power? Their challenge was, as the text suggests, a trap, and required a sophisticated response.
There is a possible bit of sarcastic humour on Jesus’ part, because to ask in return what was owed to Caesar or what belongs to Caesar was also a very loaded question in 1st Century Judea. To the Jews, Caesar didn’t belong there at all, and any faithful Jewish person of the First Century, including Jesus, would have answered that everything belongs to God, which really leaves nothing for Caesar.
They knew as well as he did that this tax was unjust and at some level immoral, but who wants to put their own neck on the line? In private they probably would have agreed with Jesus completely — out in public, however, one had to be careful – politically correct.
The Jews from ancient times understood themselves to be a distinct people with a unique calling as God’s covenant people. Yet they had spent a huge chunk of that history in slavery and servitude, obliged to adopt the ways of foreign powers, surely something of an irony.
Jesus portrays them as sell-outs – as people who have compromised too much with the system. As St Paul suggests, all that is needed sometimes is for someone to have the courage to stand up and set a good example, as we heard a couple of weeks ago when we reflected on how St Francis of Assisi almost single-handedly changed the direction of Christian spirituality in medieval Europe.
Coins of the realm were all stamped with the Emperor’s image, along with a statement indicating the Emperor’s divine status. For Jews, even having to use the coins imposed a form of compromise to their faith in that they represented idolatry. The coins themselves carried an implication that Caesar was worthy not just of loyalty and obedience but worship, so they were a daily reminder of their helplessness and failure and even hypocrisy.
Jesus asks them for a coin (which implies that the Pharisees themselves were carrying these offensive coins) and holds it up, perhaps as a symbolic gesture of how little Caesar’s share in things is ultimately worth, perhaps as a symbol of how it really only takes one gesture of resistance to start things moving in a different direction.
Jesus no doubt recognized the difficulty of it – the compromise of values that confronts each and every one of us as we try to stay faithful to the way of Christ, and also try to participate in a meaningful way in the world around us. Even people like Hutterites and Amish compromise to some degree with the world around them – they do not live completely separate from the world. How can we participate in the wider community without losing our soul? – how can we be in the world but not of it? — how can we resist becoming so completely identified with a particular culture that we lose all sense of the way of God?
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That simple comment caused the Pharisees to stop their questions and to withdraw.
Jesus’ answer is subtle and no doubt surprised the clever Pharisees in its sophistication. Unlike some religious figures who don’t even need to be goaded to starting spouting their absolute and extreme opinions on things, Jesus doesn’t give a definitive answer, nor does he merely equivocate.
Therefore this Gospel reminds us that there is always a choice before us – a question — about the degree to which we conform – the degree to which we are prepared to allow others to dictate to us – the degree to which we have the courage to make alternative and discomforting choices – and also the degree to which our efforts and resources can end up being wasted in pointless causes, like paying for (disgraced Senator) Mike Duffy’s travel expenses.
Jesus himself pushed toward resistance of the imperial power – toward a more extreme position than even the zealous Pharisees were prepared to risk. Jesus set himself on a path of confrontation with the authorities – a path that led to his arrest and crucifixion. Few of us are prepared to walk the path of a martyr, but Jesus warns us against the spiritual dangers of being too far down the opposite path – too comfortable, and too cozy with Caesar, whoever or whatever the Caesar of the moment happens to be.
After the Second World War, at war crimes trials, German military and political officers were prosecuted on the principle that they should have known better, even if the laws of the Third Reich required and justified certain behaviours – that there is a higher or universal “law” to which we are all ultimately accountable. German soldiers, convinced that the Reich would last a thousand years, seemed to lose any sense that there would be any real or immediate consequences for them, yet they were to discover all too soon that their atrocities against Jews and other civilians of various countries were punishable by death. It is an extreme example but it shows how people can lose track of what is real and right, and what happens when people stop believing that they are in any real way accountable to God for what they do with their lives.
We live in a culture in which it is prudent to act as if God doesn’t exist, a culture in which it is OK to neglect religious obligations and the practice of our faith, and denies the need to grow spiritually and ethically. It’s OK never to pay any attention to God and instead be obsessively devoted to the superficial goals and comforts of a materialistic culture. As we consider this culture, so addicted to violence and greed, and so damaging to people and the environment alike, we might want to ask “How is that working for you?”
Perhaps it is in times like these that we need once again to get in touch with the radical Jesus who challenged the system, who challenged people to push past their token religious commitments and take a risk and stand up for their faith, like Moses did; like the prophets did.
So we read this Gospel and it holds up for us the same coin, as it were, the same dilemma, the same challenge, the same taxing question, and the same choice: Do we side more with God or with Caesar?
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Exodus 33:12-23 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Matthew 22:15-22 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, 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.