With an election pending in Canada next year, the plotting has already started. Families especially are being promised goodies left and right by the parties – big money spent on national child care, tax relief on hockey registrations, hints of a bigger bonus to parents with young kids. In preparation for the political ads that will come our way, the Conservatives are pursuing a plan to freely use new footage. The grandstanding in the House of Commons can expect to heat up. No doubt, from all sides, there will be many questions posed or planted to trip up the other candidates.
That’s certainly the scenario we see in our gospel this morning, one of the most political texts we will hear all year. The Pharisees, the incumbents in power, have approached Jesus, the Upstart, with the hopes 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, it’s important to 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 the Jews. 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 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, 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, likely to have been used in this instance, 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 answer is remarkably simple, seemingly vague and yet clear at the same time: “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 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? Is this faith as he defined it, tilting 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. Should we blindly support leaders who do not serve others, who do not make the world better? No. Should we challenge tyrants, and bad policy? Yes. It’s complicated, of course, because when we pay our taxes we can’t control where all the money is going – we can’t direct it, say, to support national child care or to help reduce income inequality.
But in a modern context, Jesus’s response should prompt us to take responsibility for our political beliefs, to be diligent about getting the facts, and careful in our conclusions. We should not vote one way because our parents did. We should not be swayed because a bit of extra money in our pockets sounds good. It’s our job to ask, if faith is about all aspects of our lives, and not just this one hour a Sunday, what do we want our taxes used for, and who do we think will spend it best?
Like Jesus, we must be alert to the misleading questions, the misdirecting promise. Like Jesus, 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 be “in mission for others,” is neither political, nor rhetorical. It is our highest responsibility. Amen