Copy of God gives us powerful tools in order to be active workers for Love, Peace and Hope in the wo
Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Sunday October 22, 2023
So this morning, we have one of the most political stories in the gospel. The Pharisees, the incumbents in power, have approached Jesus, the Upstart in the hope of tripping him up. They try to butter him up with false flattery about his wisdom and then they gently spring their trap and ask…about taxes, of all things.
First, let’s put this in context. At this period in Jesus’s ministry, taxes were very controversial. There was, in fact, a revolt underway against a head tax that the Emperor Caesar had leveled against Jewish citizens. There were riots, and even executions for some of the ring-leaders. When the Pharisees pose the question of the “lawfulness” of paying taxes, they are assuming that Jesus falls into the anti-tax camp.
So, right away, they think they have him: if he supports the tax, he risks losing supporters - both the powerful ones, who objected to it, and the poor, who could barely afford it. Plus, he would appear to be contradicting scripture, which warns against worshipping false gods.
If he says no to paying the tax, he could be arrested by the Romans and possibly executed.
Either way, as the Pharisees see it, they win.
Ah, but Jesus was wily - and in this passage we see how clever he was. He does not answer right away. He responds to the question from the Pharisees with another question - a savvy rhetorical trick. Instead he asks to see the coin, likely the denarius that would be used to pay the tax. These coins were relatively rare - used in higher circles and by the emperor to pay his soldiers. When the Pharisees readily produce one, Jesus has already linked them to Caesar.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks, an answer he surely knows already. The Pharisees are forced to reply: “The emperor’s.” On the denarius was a picture of the emperor, with the included inscription: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Jesus gets the upper ground: the coin includes a “graven image” and describes Caesar as God-like. And the Pharisees haven’t just produced such a coin; they have done so in a temple.
Jesus’s answer is remarkably simple, seemingly vague, and yet at the same time clear: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” he says, “and to God the things that are God’s.”
Amazed, we are told, the Pharisees went away. More likely, they were stunned at being so cleverly outmatched.
So what was Jesus saying with his answer and what does it mean for us? This text has been interpreted, throughout history, as a case for paying our taxes - but many scholars have questioned whether Jesus intended his response to be about support for taxes, or even taxes at all. For one thing, as we learn later, when Jesus is arrested, one of the charges against him was that he opposed the head tax - rather than supported it. This was essentially a tax targeted at a particular group of people, and the money would be used, not to improve the lot of the poor, but as a war chest for Rome; it’s hard to imagine Jesus’s rallying in favour of it. He was hardly one to go along with authority for the sake of authority.
Given that context, it’s more likely that Jesus’s answer was rhetorical. After all, what would Jesus say were “God’s things?” Were his followers to be so divided in their allegiance - between Caesar and God? Should faith in the gospel, as he defined it, tilt back and forth between earthly authority - and indeed, a questionable one at that - and God’s grace? If the answer to “What is God’s” is “everything,” then what is left for Caesar? The answer: nothing.
But does this mean we should all stop paying our taxes? Let’s consider that question more thoughtfully, from another angle. In his skirmish with the Pharisees and his dodge with Caesar, Jesus raises the question of leadership. The Pharisees, preaching one thing, have used Caesar as their ally, when it was convenient – doing what they needed to hold on to power. Jesus has cast a spotlight on their true motivations;- power for the sake of power. And he has virtually dismissed them: his answer, on the surface, is barely more than a shrug. You worry about what matters to you, he is saying. I will be over here doing the important work.
But to the wide audience – and to us – his question lands differently. What is God’s? And what is Caesar’s? And how do we, living in a complex world, manage that distinction.? We can say that everything is God’s, but we still have to live, and eat, and pay our bills. And what’s more, in a functioning democracy, paying taxes is our collective contribution to a larger, common good. We may not decide where every dollar goes, but we do have a say in who spends it; and we accept that with appropriate checks and balances. It is imperfect. But we aren’t perfect.
But take the taxes away: Pharisees made this the subject, not Jesus. Without the prop of the coin, then Jesus’s question broadens. Caesar becomes our stand-in for flawed human leadership. How do we balance what is God’s against what is Caesar’s? How do we give to both God and Caesar?
In that context, Jesus is posing a larger ethical challenge: how do we follow the gospel in a flawed world? Jesus is lobbing that question to us. Because it is complicated. We want to see an end to poverty, but how do we make that happen in a free-market system? We want to save the planet, but we are accustomed to an ever-expanding consumer economy. We want leaders who do only what is just and fair, but they exist in a system that requires them to please enough of the “right” people to get re-elected. So it becomes our job to ask how faith filters through the complexity of the world.
Jesus doesn’t answer that question for us in our gospel this morning: he leaves us to wrestle with it. So where might we start? We must ask the right questions. Questions like: why have we always done it this way, and is there a new and better way? Questions like: where did this information come from, and what is the truth? If the truth is not yet knowable, should we not wait to learn more? If we think some people are being left out, how do we include them?
For a large portion of his ministry, Jesus works within the “rules” of society, pushing at them, but not snapping them so hard that he falls outside of it. In the end, as we know, he takes the hardest stand of all. But his ministry also shows us how we can exist in a human world, while aspiring to a divine life.
Like Jesus, we must not only be alert to the misleading questions. We must ask the right questions. For chief among “God’s things,” as Jesus says, are God’s people - that is, us. And God’s call to serve others is neither political, nor rhetorical. It is our highest responsibility. Amen
workers for love, peace, and hope in our lives and in the world. Amen.