This morning the subject of our gospel is taxes. Everybody’s favourite topic. And yet, we all understand why they figure so heavily in our election discussion, why the debate about who should pay and how much is so central to our democracy. Taxes are a key way in how we participate in the common good; and because they are required of us – and not optional like donations – we care about what we pay and where the money goes, we become invested in how the government spends it and whether the burden is shared and the benefits worthwhile.
None of this is new: in Jesus’s day, taxes were also a source of contention. In particular, the Romans had levied a poll tax on its citizens, including the Jewish people in Jerusalem – one that had to be paid by every man and woman, once they were teenagers until age 65. It was a way for Rome to reinforce rule over its conquered lands and the people who lived on them. It was paid reluctantly by many, but it had also sparked tax riots in Judea by those who refused to pay it. Taxes were a very volatile topic, a dangerous one.
The scene of our gospel is set around Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. He has already raised the hackles of the Pharisees. So, in a public place, they lay a trap for him, sending some of their own disciples to lead it. First, they flatter Jesus, calling him an honest man who teaches the truth of God, who stands up to power, gives no one person preference above another. This sounds like the Jesus we know. So, they say, with cunning, “Tell us what you think: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
How clever they are! If Jesus says, yes, pay the tax, then he has sided with Caesar against the common people. If he says no, don’t pay, then he has made himself a target certain to be quickly dispatched by Rome. Either way for the Pharisees, the problem of Jesus would be handled.
But Jesus is cleverer still. He uses the old rhetorical trick of responding to a question with a question. After requesting a coin, he asks: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” The spies for the Pharisees can only answer: “The emperor’s.” Then, Jesus says, as if it is all made clear; “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And the disciples go away amazed; for Jesus had outsmarted them, but they were not sure exactly how.
Days later, the suggestion that Jesus had been urging people not to pay taxes to Rome would become one of the charges laid before Pontius Pilate, the chief tax collector. This was also clever strategy, since Pilate had to make sure the taxes were paid and would be alarmed by someone like Jesus’s leading an anti-tax movement.
But is this indeed what Jesus is saying? This story appears in three gospels, so it is important for us to ponder it. Indeed, Jesus’s famous line “render unto Caesar, what is Caesar’s and unto God’s what is God’s,” had been used to defend the paying of taxes, or as evidence that Jesus was anti-tax. You could convincingly argue both sides; but is this really about a coin with a man’s face on it? Is it really about taxes, after all? Or was Jesus perhaps speaking more broadly to his followers a message that resides in the gospel: consider carefully what you do, and how you live, and the difference you make.
Jesus, in other words, leaves his answer for us to clarify: what parts of ourselves do we give to the secular world, and what parts of ourselves belong to God? And that’s where it gets tricky, because one always gets in the way of the other. It is the very challenge of life, the balancing act we all have to manage.
But let’s consider taxes – even if we assume that Jesus is saying “Yes, pay your taxes,” we have on the other side what belongs to God – surely values, morals, justice. Really, everything that truly matters. And that forces us to ask where those taxes are going – are they used to enslave people, or to free them, to improve a health care system or increase inequity, to improve the common good or to serve a select few? Our answer – which we may offer by voting, or protest, or by giving in a different way – is one expression of God’s belongings on earth. Because if you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense to imagine that Jesus was opposed to taxes in principle – indeed, there are other pretty clear references to paying taxes in the gospel. But the gospel is about balancing society’s injustices and righting wrongs – and Jesus often mentioned that some people might have to pay more to balance out those who had little to pay. What Jesus objected to was action that didn’t serve the common good. What Jesus urged his followers to do was correct a society that chose to go in a self-serving direction.
Of course, we may also say: everything belongs to God. But we travel with our faith through a secular world; that is reality. Some parts of life inevitably go to the emperor. This is the cost of living in the world. If we are lucky, we find communities and build countries that – whether they express it or not – debate and ponder how to give to God what is God’s. For what does belong to God? Surely on that list would be integrity, honesty, empathy, kindness.
This is why we do a disservice to this gospel when we make it about taxes. Because Jesus is posing a deeper question: what part of ourselves will we give up to the world, and what part of ourselves will we give to God? In a conversation about money, Jesus got everyone’s attention. And then posed the most important question we will ever have to answer.