In Jesus time, politics were sometimes a malicious conversation topic, especially when mixed with religion. Our gospel text for today brings us right into the middle of one of these tense, seemingly lose-lose standoffs. It’s the kind of conversation where as soon as someone asks that question, or brings up that topic, whatever it is, you can feel everyone’s eyebrows rise and everyone’s chest tighten just a little bit as they think about how thankful they are not to be the one having to answer this. In this standoff between Jesus and the Pharisees, you can feel the room holding their breaths in anticipation of what Jesus is going to answer.
Tell us what you think, Jesus. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? The question asked to Jesus is not simply a political question. It’s a moral and theological one as well. Jesus knew that the question was meant to entrap him. If he were to have answered the question the way the religious and political leaders expected – with a yes or a no, he would have fallen prey to their manipulation and their plan to turn the people against him.
If Jesus would have answered “no”, saying it is not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor he would have made himself an easy target. The Romans were in charge and taxes were their way of both collecting revenue to keep funding their control, and making sure their subjects had no question about who was in charge. Answering no would have meant taking a stance against the people who killed dissidents without a second thought. It would have given the Herodians and Pharisees exactly what they wanted- any easy way to silence Jesus and his followers easily and quickly. It would have meant the immediate end of Jesus life on earth.
On the other hand, if Jesus would have answered “yes”, saying it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he would have alienated all those who were oppressed by Roman rule, namely a majority of the occupied Jewish people. The very people who were so attracted to the message and teachings of Jesus. The people whose own tax dollars were funding the crucifixions and oppression of their own people. Siding uncritically with the Roman government would have isolated Jesus from all the people he was trying to reach.
Instead of complying with the Pharisees set up to answer their yes or no trap, Jesus offers a new possibility. After drawing attention to the face of the emperor on a Roman coin, he says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” His answer is neither a yes or a no. Instead, Jesus calls attention to what is at stake- ultimate allegiance. Give money to Caesar because he made it and it bears his likeness. Give your life to God because he made you and we all bear his image. Jesus answers the question with an invitation to see things differently.
We are both citizens of the state and citizens of God’s kingdom. Our ultimate allegiance however is towards God because unlike the governments of Rome or today, God is eternal and perfect. We are to remember that when push comes to shove, there is a choice- we can only choose one master, one thing to center the whole of our lives around. We either choose to develop eyes towards God or eyes towards the material things.
The sort of eyes we develop makes more sense with a story.
There once was a prosperous, young investment banker who was driving his new BMW on a mountain road during a snowstorm. As he veered around one sharp turn, he lost control and began sliding off the road toward a steep cliff. At the last moment he unbuckled his seat belt, flung open his door, and leaped from the car, which then plummeted to the bottom of the ravine and burst into a ball of flames. Although he had escaped with his life, the man suffered a ghastly injury. Somehow his arm had been caught near the hinge of the door as he jumped and had been torn off at the shoulder.
A passing trucker saw the accident in his rearview mirror, pulled his rig to a halt and ran back to see if he could help. When he arrived at the scene, he found the banker standing at the roadside, looking down at the BMW burning in the ravine below. Incredibly the banker was oblivious to his injury and moaned, “My BMW! My new BMW!” The trucker pointed at the banker’s shoulder and said, “You’ve got bigger problems than that car. We’ve got to find your arm. Maybe the surgeons can sew it back on!”` The banker looked where his arm had been, paused a moment, and groaned, “Oh no! My Rolex! My new Rolex!”
The banker in the story had eyes toward earthy things- to wealth and possessions. Since his life was centered around physical things and because those things were most important to him, that was all he could see. If the banker had instead had eyes towards life, something more important and more eternal, his situation would have been much different. The way he reacted and lived his life would have been much different. Like the truck driver, today’s text should reorient us to something bigger, something more important. It should call our attention to something right in front of us we might not be able to see. In our case, to God.
We are created in God’s image and called to live in full allegiance to God alone. If we are oriented around God and God’s kingdom, everything changes. In the kingdom of the world we must earn our righteousness. We must follow laws, pay taxes and play by the rules of “yes” or “no” questions. In the kingdom of heaven, however, we do not earn our own righteousness, we accept it and live in gracious response to it. We find ourselves in a kingdom where there are not only answers of “yes” or “no”, there is also the third way of Jesus. An alternative kind of life where we do not pay money out of debt but pay spiritually out of our commitment to the kingdom of God.
The currency of God’s kingdom is measured not in coins that bear the images of humanity but in acts of love that bear the image of God. We respond to our salvation and entry into the kingdom of God with currencies of humble service, of compassion, of understanding and of peace. When our lens is God this is what we see. We don’t get caught up with BMWs and Rolexes, but with God and God’s kingdom. We become concerned with things that bear the image of God- the world, all of creation, one another.
So give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Pay the taxes you have to pay, do what the law of the land requires of you, but remember that your very life belongs to the God who created you, not the human authorities you live within on earth. As consuming as the world around us can feel, there are much bigger, much more important things that define who you are. You are God’s beloved children, and no one can take that away from you, not even the Pharisees or any so called leaders who are trying to manipulate you, not even Caesar or the empire. You are God’s, first and foremost. You always have been, always will be, undeniably, unchangeably. You. Are. God’s. No questions asked.
Please pray with me.
You have created us in your image
You have knit us together with love and purpose
Though we live earthly lives, let us not have eyes only for material things
Let us have kingdom eyes, and a concern for that which matters to you
Where there is competition for our allegiance, hold us firm to you
Where there is division on earth, let us see our unity in your body
Where there is choice, let us choose you.
Hold us close in your kingdom.
Be with us as we pray.