Philippians 4:10-20; Matthew 22:15-22
20th Sunday after Trinity
22.10.2023 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Benjamin Franklin, the 18th century American statesman said famously, “There is nothing inevitable in this world except death and taxes.” Jesus was often quizzed about death – indeed the very next encounter we hear of is the Saducees quizzing him about death and resurrection – so may be we should not be surprised that in today’s gospel, it is the topic of taxation that comes up. But don’t worry. If you, like me, tend to glaze over when the subject of economics comes up, this debate isn’t about the various merits of income tax versus VAT, or about Keynesian versus neo-classical models of economic thought. The debate here is far more basic: it is about who we owe our allegiance to.
Taxes are rarely popular, especially poll taxes. In this country, as far back as 1381, when the government brought in a poll tax it led to a huge Peasant’s Revolt that almost overthrew the king. And you may remember the Poll Tax riots of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher introduced a poll tax. In first-century Israel it was not much different. In 6AD, when Jesus would have been a child, a “Judas the Galilean” led a rebellion against the Roman imposition of the tax, that was brutally crushed. Rebels were crucified on crosses across the countryside as a horrific reminder of the consequences of refusing to acknowledge Roman rule. And just 35 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the people of Israel again rose in revolt against their taxes, leading to the total destruction of Jerusalem.
No one likes paying taxes, especially not to a foreign power, and even less so when it is blasphemous and insulting to one’s faith. For the coins used to pay the taxes were Roman coins with the face of Tiberius Caesar and the words “Caesar, Son of God, High Priest” on it. It went against the Jewish faith to have any statue or portrait of a person, let alone to have it in mass circulation on a coin. And to call Caesar “son of God” was clearly blasphemous. Tax hit upon all the hot political and religious issues of the day.
And so two unlikely bedfellows – the piously devout Phariees and the cynical collaborators, the Herodians – come together with what they see as a foolproof plan to trap Jesus. If you’ve ever watched Prime Minister’s Question Time or a political TV debate, you will be familiar with the tactic. Flatter the opposition, lower their defences, and then ask a question to which there can be no right answer. However they answer, they will end up alienating large numbers of people. Gotcha!
Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, they ask. It is a simple but devious question. Answer yes, and Jesus would end up alienating the whole Jewish population. There was no way he could be a messiah come to liberate Israel, if he was happy to acknowledge Roman right to rule. On the other hand, answer no, and he could be reported to the authorities as a firebrand and a rebel, and be put to death by the Romans like many rebels before him. So how does Jesus respond?
Firstly, he asks for a coin. He and his followers don’t have one. After all, this debate is taking place on holy ground, in the Temple. It wouldn’t be appropriate for them to have such a coin. But somewhat embarrassingly for Jesus’ questioners, they do have such a coin, the implications of which become clearer in a bit.
Then we get to the heart of the matter. Jesus replies: “Render, or give, to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” In recent centuries, these words have had a meaning attached to them that was never intended. Some people have interpreted them as meaning that faith and politics should never mix, that the church has its area of responsibility and influence, and the state has its, and these should remain totally separate. There should be no overlap. There are some things that belong to Caesar. And somethings that belong to God. Simple.
You may remember the furore over the “Faith in the City” report in the 1980s when the Church spoke out about the levels of poverty in UK cities, or more recently, when the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out about loan sharks and about the government’s immigration policy. That argument of keeping politics and faith separate was a stance that I came across frequently during my time in apartheid South Africa – the church should keep out of politics. Faith and politics do not mix. But there is more to Jesus’ words than that.
For one thing, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” may not have been quite so docile and apolitical a statement as it may sound to us. It may read better as, “If you are happy to take their money, their blasphemous, oppressive money, then you should also be happy to give it back. Don’t do moral outrage on the one hand, and yet seek to milk the system and gain from it personally on the other.” After all, the fact that Jesus’ questioners had one of the Roman coins in their possession, when other copper coins without images but which had weaker purchasing power were in circulation, suggests the hypocrisy of Jesus’ questioners. They were quite happy to play along with the system when it suited them. Its an uncomfortable challenge to those of us who may like to pillory our own politicians and public figures from the sidelines, whilst benefitting ourselves from the very policies we criticise.
For another thing, Jesus’ words pick up a popular refrain from 200 years earlier. Back then, a rebellion against Israel’s overlords adopted the slogan, “Pay back to Gentiles what they deserve.” What they meant then was vengeance, an eye for an eye, giving back in violence as good as they got. But Jesus subverts this. Yes, he says, give to Caesar and to those who oppress you what they deserve. But what what is it that they deserve? He has already told his followers what that is, on the Sermon on the Mount: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also… if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, the radical revolutionary approach when faced by an oppressive regime is: “love them into submission”.
As we see the absolute horror unfolding in the middle-east, as violence begets violence in an ever-escalating conflict, those words take on even greater poignancy. And for us too, the primacy of opposing wrong and injustice with love must always apply, whether that is in national politics, local issues, workplace injustices or even in our own homes. I was struck this week by the comments of an African-American pastor who has long been a critic of Israel, likening their treatment of the Palestinians to how the African-American community were treated by the US before they gained the right to vote. He wrote an unequivocal condemnation of Hamas however. Violence can never be justified. The search for true liberation can only ever be successful when pursued through the means of love.
The second half of Jesus answer – “give to God what is God’s” – is even more challenging. The coin may bear Caesar’s image, so give that back to him. But our lives bear God’s image – we are all made in His image – so give those back to Him. Standing in the temple, where thousands of animal sacrifices were offered to God each day, Jesus was saying that what we owe to God is far more than acts of ritual or weekly acts of worship. We owe him every aspect of our lives.
That of course includes how we pay our taxes, and ensuring that the government is held to account for the way it spends them. But it means as well that in our workplaces, we work as much as we can in ways that live out the command to love, that we help towards the building of God’s kingdom, that we proclaim his good news. Whether you work for the Council, the NHS, schools, companies; whether you are fixing water pipes, electricity generators, computer systems, financial accounts, broken bones or damaged relationships, we can offer this all to God. Whether it is in the use of our money – like Paul was commending the church in Philippi for doing – or in the use of our time, our energies, our gifts and skills – all of this belongs to God and can be offered back to Him.
This is our worship – giving to God our lives that belong to him.
It is common and understandable for politicians to dodge a question, particularly one that is set up so obviously as a trap. Jesus does not dodge the question. Instead he elevates it. This is not a question about tax; it about who we owe our allegiance to.
His answer is a challenge to each one of us. Will we give to God our lives – every aspect of who we are and what we do – and that includes our approach to politics and the state. Will we give to God what is His?