Our gospel story has those sneaky Pharisees trying to trick Jesus once again by posing a question that could get him in trouble with the religious leadership or the Roman government, depending how he answers. As I hear the story, I think of a boxer trying to best an opponent who is in a higher weight class. The odds that the heavier boxer will overcome the lighter one are strong. The wisdom in the sweet science is that you don’t do that. You don’t box in a higher weight class. You’re going to lose.
The Pharisees are lightweights going after a heavyweight, like Oscar de la Hoya against Mike Tyson. The Pharisees have done it before and have failed, and yet here they are once again, trying the same tactic.
So when they ask their question: should good Jews pay their taxes, it’s no surprise that Jesus deftly sidesteps their right hook altogether and takes them down not with a left cross but with just a brief question: whose picture is on the coin?
Caesar’s, they say. “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.” And down they go, at least for the moment. They will return, of course, but for the moment they are silenced.
Of course, their attempt is a bit of a sucker punch. Let’s take a closer look at the story. Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, after his triumphal ride into the city on a donkey. He has been harsh on the religious leadership already, which didn’t win him any friends in that quarter. So they think they’ll get him in trouble. No one likes to pay taxes to the hated Roman emperor, but it is the law. They ask their question. But Jesus doesn’t seem to have any coins on him and asks who has one. Sure enough, one of the Pharisees produces one, despite the fact that there should be no Roman coinage in God’s holy temple – that’s what the moneychangers who angered Jesus actually did, trading Roman for temple currency. Why would the Pharisees, who are supposed to be so holy, carry one of these coins into the temple? Did they know they’d need to answer this trick question? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but it certainly begs the question of why they were even carrying such currency.
Now if Jesus says that they shouldn’t pay taxes, the Roman imperial powers will come down on Him like Evander Holyfield. If Jesus says they should pay taxes, all the ordinary poor people will dislike him. What should he say?
It’s pretty simple. You live here, as part of this community. You also are a part of this religious body. Pay the taxes with the Roman coinage to the Roman government, and donate temple coinage for the support of this religious institution. Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.
TKO for the Christ.
We read this story today, and we think, “well, that was Rome and this is Henrico. It’s a different world.” But is it, really?
We are, after all, also citizens of two worlds: what St Augustine would call the City of Man, in our case Henrico in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States of America, and the City of God. And it is clear in what Jesus teaches that we have responsibilities in both worlds.
Some would say that government is too much involved in things that shouldn’t be government’s purview. Taxes, TSA screenings at airports, speed limits. Others would echo Abraham Lincoln’s opinion: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities.”
Helping others who cannot care for themselves. Hmmm. And that raises an interesting question: can our work in the City of Man also serve the City of God? Can we pay Caesar what is due him and still do what our Lord requires of us?
Lincoln spoke of government having a role to provide that which an individual could not do, or could not do so well, as one person. Perhaps taxes that we pay do help people in such a way – we could argue about government’s efficiency in doing so, but that’s not my point today. Perhaps government, in carrying out laws, can serve God’s requirements, without explicitly endorsing a particular view of who God is.
However, if the government does some of this work – caring for those in need – that does not absolve us of our individual responsibilities. We are still expected to care for the sick, help the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in prison. Both the City of God and the City of Man can do things to help.
One way is through our generous giving to ministries that help those in need. And the other way is in recognizing that there is a role for government in helping those in need. For all the grousing about FEMA, it provides a useful service for those who suffer after a natural disaster. For all the questions about property taxes and fairness, public education is what helps people better themselves, especially those people who have the least, and taxes pay for public education. No private militia could protect our nation the way that our military does. There would be no way for goods to come to market, or for our children to go away to college, without federally funded highways. And those things are all paid for by what we render to Caesar.
We do this not only for our own good, so we have roads and schools and firefighters and such, but also for the next generation, so they can have roads and schools and a safe nation in which to live. It is a kind of “paying it forward.”
This is the challenge of giving to the government and giving to God: sometimes, if we are very careful, we can actually help the government carry out a part of what is our responsibility as Christians, by supporting things that help others. Even when we give to Caesar, it will occasionally also give to God by helping others.
Sounds pretty Christian, doesn’t it? But I am not advocating for the government to turn into the City of God.
I love my Lord Jesus and want us all to behave like good Christians. But this is not the same as saying our policies should be driven by people who tout their Christian credentials and say that they are better than other candidates because of their self-proclaimed religious fervor. They sound a bit Pharisaic to me, especially when what they propose isn’t particularly like what Jesus asked us to do for the least of those among us.
It is also not the same as saying that only Christian values should define our policies: there are many values that we share with others who do not profess to Christianity. All our moral strength, from whatever source it comes, must be brought to bear. The Holy Spirit has the power to move the hearts of those who do not profess Christianity to do acts that we would describe as Christian – let’s not deny that goodness.
And it is good to remember that the Founding Fathers specifically did not want to define an official religion when they helped to create this nation – they recalled only too well how an official church working in partnership with the government no longer belonged to God or the people…it belonged to the government.
To whom do we belong? We belong to God. We have no doubt of that. We are created in God’s image, much like that denarius was created with Caesar’s image imprinted upon it. Can we be good citizens and still be good followers of Jesus Christ? We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, in the hope that whatever Caesar does is also congruent with what Jesus taught. We give to God what is God’s, that God who doesn’t try to get reelected every few years, that God is who always there, because there are always some of God’s children in need.
And we remember that our job in the City of Man and the City of God is not to be like Pharisees, who demand a litmus test that keeps them comfortable and in power, but to be like Jesus, who never forgot to whom He belonged and who belonged to Him. Being a good American and being a good Christian – you can do both. Just remember what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Amen.