by Ian Leitch
Sunday, 6th November 2016
Readings: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-end; Luke 20:19-26

It is one of the best known of all Jesus’ sayings – well known outside the Church as well as inside it. I once had a friend who was convinced that this text told Christians to divide reality neatly in to two parts: on the one side was the private world in which Christians lived their “spiritual life” of personal devotion to God and trying to live by “religious values”; and on the other side was the public world of work and business, of politics and economics, of school and shopping – in fact, of everyday life. Well, I’m glad that you and I know that any thought of splitting our lives into two parts in that way is complete bunk.
Nor do I intend to deliver a follow-up address to the Vicar’s sermon on Stewardship Sunday. You all know about our substantial financial deficit. We have each had a letter explaining the situation and inviting each of us to re-assess, and if appropriate, increase our annual giving to the church. You may want to summarise it as “Think what you are giving back to God”. That is a necessary stewardship message, but it does not convey the main meaning of this text.

This morning’s gospel reading is often held to be one of the most widely misunderstood passages in the whole of the New Testament. And it may repay us to look at it in detail.

It was the Wednesday of the first Holy Week. Jesus was in the Temple and had told a series of parables revealing how God was reaching out to His people and how their spiritual leaders were ignoring it. The chief priests and scribes and had heard Jesus teach and had seen Him work miracles. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a sign of His growing popularity with the people. Some were asking, “Is he our Messiah?” The more the chief priests and scribes heard and saw of Jesus, the more they became convinced that they needed to be rid of Him. These groups of Jewish leaders were not natural allies; the only thing they had in common was a strong distaste of Jesus’ growing influence. They knew that their attempt to ensnare Jesus must not alienate the people. And so, they sent spies to set a trap for Him.

{“Teacher”, they began, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.” (Luke 20:21)} It sounds like plain flattery, but it’s much more subtle than that. By appealing to Jesus’ authority to interpret God’s law, they have two aims. First, they hope to force Jesus into answering their questions; if He refuses, He will lose credibility as a Rabbi with the very people who have just proclaimed Him as King. Second, they want Jesus to base his answer in Scripture. It is a direct challenge to Jesus’ rabbinic authority; ostensibly these groups are asking Jesus to instruct them on a point of religious law, even though, they claim to be the only authoritative interpreters of the Mosaic law.

Then they pose their brilliantly malevolent question: {“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Luke 20:22)}. Taxes were a matter of simmering discontent among the population. There had been a series of tax revolts over the previous 25 years. Only two years previously a minor tax revolt led by the Zealots had been brutally crushed. The Romans extracted three main taxes from the Jews: a land tax of 10-20%, based on the capacity of the land to produce food and wine; an income tax of 1%; and a poll tax of one denarius per person – one day’s pay for the ordinary chap. This poll tax was the most hated of all the taxes, because whereas the other taxes were used to meet the costs of governing the country, the poll tax went directly to the emperor as a tribute to his “wise and just imperial rule”. No leader could support it and maintain their popularity with the people; but none could oppose it openly without being charged with treason by their Roman rulers.

But Jesus is well aware of their craftiness and asks them, {“Show me a denarius.” (Luke 20:24a)}. No good looking to any devout Jews for one; they knew all Roman coinage must be left outside the Temple. But (“oh dear!”) they are able to produce a denarius. {“Whose head and title does it bear?” (Luke 22:24b)} asks Jesus. (Shock-horror!) Staring them in the face was the image of the emperor Tiberius. They knew the Second Commandment forbade graven images – and in the Temple, as well! Then they looked at the inscription which read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus”, while the other side of the coin honoured Tiberius as “Pontifex Maximus” or chief priest of the Roman pagan gods. They must have recalled the First Commandment, which reads, {“The Lord your God is the only Lord. …. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3)}. Tiberius was very sensitive about his coinage and he was particularly proud of the denarius. Unlike the other coins issued by the Senate, the denarius was issued by Tiberius’ personal mint. He regarded the denarius as a representation of his own power and authority, his wealth and religion and, as such, it was to be honoured and respected by all subject peoples. Usage of the coinage implies not merely recognition of Tiberius Caesar as the civil authority with a right to levy taxes, but implies an acceptance of Roman paganism. In unpacking the question that he has been asked, Jesus has thoroughly discredited his interrogators.

Now, Jesus can draw his conclusion. {“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” (Luke 20:25a)} And he adds the important corollary: {“Give back to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25b)}.

The Chief Priests would have been delighted with Jesus’ answer. It was not what they expected – nor what they had intended – it was better than either. In their hearing Jesus appeared to have taught that the law commands payment of both the Roman taxes and the temple tax. One would never get to be a Chief Priest without the approval of the Romans, and, as the Chief Priests were the aristocrats of the nation, they approved of stable Roman government. They regarded payment by the people of both the Temple tax and Roman taxes as a double-whammy. They could not have asked for more.

The Pharisees heard Jesus with quite different ears. They would recall the opening verse of Psalm 24 {“The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the round world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1)} They had no doubt – everything belonged to God, nothing belonged to Caesar, and the sooner that the Romans got out of Israel the better. In their minds Jesus had implied that the people should refuse to pay the poll tax. It was just as they suspected, and now they had the evidence. But their dislike of the Romans was exceeded only by their distaste for Jesus teaching. Luke records that less than two days later they were accusing Jesus before Pilate by testifying, {“We found this man perverting our nation and forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor” (Luke 23:2)}.

The people who heard Jesus went away with diametrically opposite views of what Jesus had meant. From the beginning this saying of Jesus was being misunderstood. So how should Christians understand Jesus? If we want to ask, “What belongs to God?”, we should first ask, “What bears God’s image?”. And the answer is that we all do; you and I were created in God’s image. That image may have become a little smudged or defaced in each of us, and so the work of restoring and renewing that image is a daily task.
Each one of us belongs to God – our lives and all that we are. When Jesus says, {“Give to God the things that are God’s”}, we should have no doubt that he means, “Give your life to God”. In other words, “Live your life for God. Live your life with faith in God and His Son Jesus Christ”. And that must be a commitment that permeates every part of our lives.
We have to ask ourselves whether we really use the abundance of gifts that God has showered on us to show that we belong to Him. Do we set limits on our stewardship, giving God the last fruits rather than the first, pleading poverty of time, talents and money.?

Jesus models the life of giving everything to God. He makes it possible for us to do the same. Because of his trust in God’s love and care, he willingly gave up all that he had and all that he was. By the dwelling of the Spirit within us, we have the power to live as Jesus did, to walk in God’s way. Like Jesus, we can trust in God’s love and care and give freely to God ourselves, our time, our skills and our possessions for use in this world that God loves and cares for.

To give ourselves to God is to live for God. It is well expressed the prayer whose words form a much-loved hymn:

Fill Thou my life, O Lord my God, in every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim thy being and Thy ways.
Praise in the common things of life, its goings out and in;
Praise in each duty and each deed, however small and mean.
So shall no part of day or night, unblest or common be,
But all my life, in every step, be fellowship with Thee.