Last week I began by explaining the vocation of the Pharisees who considered themselves
called by God to protect the Law. This weekt we meet another group of people, called the Herodians, who consider themselves to be the political rulers, governing, of course, by proxy under the overarching power and authority of Rome. These two groups are not normally allies, but one day they decide to tag team their efforts in order to win an argument with Jesus.
Pharisees have an understanding with the Roman authorities that as long as they don’t
challenge the authority of the Emperor, they can worship according to their own
traditions. While they might publicly complain about being under the yoke of
Rome, the truth is they have a vested interest in the status quo because their
religious authority has a tacit stamp of approval from the system.
Herodians, like I said, are more concerned about the state of political affairs, but they, too,
have an understanding with the Romans that as long as there aren’t any conflicts or uprisings within the territory governed by Herod’s family, they can have their prominent positions of power. They, too, might hate Rome on the one hand, but they have a vested interest in maintaining the domination system just as it is.
None of us likes to pay taxes. Ask a Republican, Democrat, Tea Party devotee or a member of Occupy Wall Street—the answer is always the same. Even our representatives and congress people rail against taxes, despite the fact that their salaries and benefits derive 100% from taxes. So, when they talk about tax cuts, there is never a simultaneous call for a reduction in congressional salaries.
Anyway, the Herodians and Pharisees ask Jesus a trick question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes?” What kind of a question is that anyway?
Benjamin Franklin said there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Whether we
like them or not, we WILL pay them, and the Pharisees and Herodians know this, too. They want to catch Jesus with a trick question. If he says “no,” he is opposing Rome and they can have him arrested. If he says “yes,” he is complicitous with Rome and will lose public opinion.
Remember, there are two different taxes in Jesus’ time: one for the Temple and one for
the monarchy. The Temple tax was paid by each of the twelve tribes of Israel on a rotating basis, so that each tribe paid the expenses for one month a year. The same system supported the royal House of David.
When Solomon became King, he created the first redistricting for the benefit of the few at
the expense of the many. The people of Judah – Solomon’s people – were left out of the royal tax rotation and everyone else had to pay more. This certainly contributed to the civil war that ensued following Solomon’s death.
In New Testament times, the Romans had their own taxes, which they collected through
mercenary tax collectors that were allowed to set their own profit margins—which is why tax collectors were so unpopular! The Roman tax and the Temple tax were similar
except for one thing: the Roman tax could only be paid with Roman coins, and the Temple tax could only be paid with the Jewish shekel.
It was considered sacrilege to accept Roman coins in the Temple because not only was
there an image of Caesar on the coin, but the coin also said that Caesar was God. This is at the heart of the question they pose to Jesus: no matter how he answers, he will make someone very angry.
We like Jesus’ response: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the
things that are God’s.” In other words, as long as there is civilization, as long as there is government there will be taxes. So, get over it. But this also creates some tension for us today. In a sense we, too, are indicted. If we take out a coin or even a bill, there are images there, and we accept the fact that images are made since the iconoclastic controversy of the 9th century. We no longer see images as idols, but that doesn’t mean the commandment has changed. What has changed is our understanding of what the commandment means.
On our coin or bill we will find a simple phrase, “In God we trust.” It begs the question: Do we really?? Do we trust God or do we trust our financial institutions? What force determines more decisions in our life, God or money?
How many of us have savings accounts and 401Ks? How many of us have pension funds? How many of us worry about how the bills are going to be paid this month? How many of us put our trust in the Fed? Or in the stock market?
Despite what we might want to overlay on this gospel story, Jesus isn’t talking about
“separation of church and state” in his answer. He is providing a rather caustic indictment on civilization as the great system opposed to the Reign of God. And for us, there is no separation: we either belong to the Kingdom of God or we don’t. What belongs to God is our life because we are made in the divine image. If the image of Caesar belongs to
Caesar, then it’s logical that what is made in the image of God—you and me—belong to God.
So, what are we doing with our life? God creates the heavens and earth; how have we used our own creative powers? God has compassion for all the people of the world. How have we expressed that compassion, beyond just our family and friends? When did we eat with sinners and befriend them? When have we cared for strangers in our midst? When was the last time we sat on death watch alongside a person dying of cancer or AIDS?
God has given us many gifts, including the gift of income and wealth. How have we
allowed God to determine how that wealth should be spent? After giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, what have we given to God? What would our life look like if we turned that around, so that we wondered after we have given to God, what is left for Caesar???
After hearing his response to their question, the Herodians and Pharisees walk away
from Jesus in amazement. You and I, on the other hand, if we are disciples, don’t
have the option of walking away in amazement.
Jesus wants us to “man up” to our commitment to God. Not just a couple hours on Sundays, not just our prayer times. God wants all of our lives to be returned to Him in gratitude. Ironically, when we surrender all to God, God’s blessings come pouring back into our lives, and our needs are always met. There is enough in God’s Realm to meet our every need, but we will never know that until we stop clinging to what we think should be ours. Today, right now, God is extending another invitation to submit to His will for our lives. He’s already done all the hard work, all we have to do is accept the gift of new life He lays before us. And if we can do that, we will see that Ben Franklin was only half right:
taxes ARE inevitable. Death is not.