Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] 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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
It was a trap, a brilliant political move actually. Temple leaders from the Pharisees and Herodians have already gotten on Jesus’ last nerve, the result being a series of three increasingly apocalyptic and violent teachings. Now they’re back, this time sending a delegation with false flattery and a question they feel certain will stymie this radical rabbi who is causing them so much trouble. Oh, they should have known better—just as we should know better today.
What a timely lesson we have before us this week, just 16 days before our country experiences a highly polarized and important election day (November 3). Just what do we give to the powers of this world and what do we give to God? Where does our primary allegiance lie? Why does this even matter?
Maybe a better question is how did Christians in this country become so polarized when it comes to the role of government and political affiliation? Don’t we follow the same Christ? I often wonder.
Jesus is pretty clear about what’s really important for those who want to follow him: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Some people find it easier than others to align their faith and discipleship to the rest of their life decisions, be it social, political, or consumer-oriented. Others find it more difficult. Or they choose to segment their faith and public lives. Some folks straddle the middle quite comfortably. Still others spend considerable effort telling their pastors and other congregational leaders to keep politics out of the church. We can’t even agree on what it means to disagre
There are some intriguing things in this text. First, the combination of people approaching Jesus. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees come together with the Herodians. The Pharisees did not want to give money to their pagan oppressors and so were opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod’s position of power came courtesy of the Romans, so even though the taxes were widely considered to be oppressive, the Herodians had a vested interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid. Therefore, the Pharisees and the Herodians each reflected one of the horns of the dilemma.
Then came the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” This reference is obviously to Jewish Law, also called the Law of Moses. Clearly, it was lawful to pay the tax by Rome’s standards; the question was whether it was proper for a Jew to do so.
It would seem that they have presented Jesus with no way out. He can’t speak against the tax, for that would anger the Herodians and lead to a charge of treason against Rome. He could not speak in favor of the tax without alienating most of the crowds that followed him.
Jesus asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax. This is Jesus’ own trap, for it proves at least one among the questioners to be a hypocrite. For the coin used for the tax was a silver Denarius with the image of Caesar on one side, and on the reverse, the image of a woman named Pax or personified peace. The coins were against Jewish Law, which prohibited graven images.
You will recall the incident when Jesus chased moneychangers from the outer courts of the Temple. These moneychangers had a business because one was required to exchange pagan currency for Temple coins before going to do business in the Temple. Carrying the image of Caesar into the Temple was considered sinful. But note that when Jesus asks for a Denarius, one is quickly located and handed to Jesus.
Then Jesus gives the most amazing line of the short encounter when he continues by saying that we are to “give back to God the things that are God’s.” It leaves everyone calculating what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back.
Jesus’ answer came from Genesis 1:26-27, which says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’” and goes on to state “God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
The principle is this: Just as the coin has Caesar’s icon on it, so it is Caesar’s, we were made in the image and likeness of God, so we are God’s. Jesus affirmed the tax while making it all but irrelevant. Jesus implies that, though we do owe the state, there are limits to what we owe. Yet, Jesus places no limits regarding what we owe to God.
This text is often used to talk about stewardship in terms of what you give to the church. But this is not a passage on the tithe. For if giving 10 percent of our income is all we do, we would fall 90 percent shy of the mark. Jesus says that everything you have and everything you are is God’s already.
While this would certainly apply to the money you make, the formula is not that you give 100 percent of your income to God, for God knows you need the money for the necessities of life. The teaching is that once you have given God some of the money you earn, don’t feel that you have bought off an obligation. God wants to share in some of your time and energy, so the 100 percent formula relates to your calendar as well as your wallet.
What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart. The point is that you have been made in the image and likeness of God. God loves you. God keeps your picture in the divine wallet and on the heavenly refrigerator.
Jesus did not care about the tax, for his real concern was that you live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created you.
You begin to live into the image and likeness of God by conforming your life to be more like Jesus’ life. Giving back to God through the church does matter, but merely giving money to the government, to this church or anywhere else is only part of the picture.
As I deliver this message, we are heading into certainly the most controversial election season of most of our lifetimes. We are struggling as a country with the most faithful response to a pandemic. I get it. As a pastor and a justice advocate, I’m in the thick of it too. The temptation may be anger or frustration. It may be disengaging and shutting down. As hard as it is my siblings in Christ, I am asking you to remain focused in this season.
As you can read on the ELCA World Hunger website, 821 million people around the world—that’s more than 1 in 10—can’t access the food they need to live active, healthy lives. We have important work to do my friends. Alongside Jesus, we are called to talk to those willing to listen, to sidestep those who are not, and above all to remain focused on finding creative and dynamic ways to teach and serve the most vulnerable among us. So let’s give to God what is God’s…all of ourselves…to make a positive difference in the world.