For reasons which I do not fully comprehend, taxes have been a big issue at my house over the last couple of weeks. I strongly suspect that the same is true at Barb’s house. I spent some time this week pondering this, but I didn’t get very far. I don’t comprehend taxes, but Meg does. And recently, they have been important to her. And so my pondering over taxes was necessarily rather rudimentary. And I don’t want us to go too far afield this morning, but in my simplistic ponderings I discovered that there is no small amount of tax-paying opportunity. Most of us pay taxes every day. But when we pay them, do we get the holy shivers, do we get all goose-pimply, do we sing out a song of thanksgiving just for the joy of being able to pay taxes? Do we celebrate all of the things that our pooled taxes can accomplish? Probably not. Its hard to get excited about taxes, at least in a positive way. Most of us gripe and grumble about paying taxes, wish that we didn’t have to pay them, maybe cheat a little bit, but in the end, we pay them. And we pay them because there is a compelling motivation to pay them. Its called prison, that great, earthly repository for miscreants and neer-do-wells.
Well, if there’s any comfort and solace in this, things were really no different in first century Palestine. In fact, it was probably worse. Faithful Jews absolutely despised having to pay taxes. The paying of taxes was considered to be an affront to God. And that’s because their taxes were extracted from them by the Roman government, which also provided them with a compelling motivation to pay. It was called crucifixion. But it was also much more than that. Payment of taxes was a constant reminder to faithful Jews that they were subject to, and paying tribute to, a foreign power that had seized their land and now ruled over them oppressively and even violently. Faithful Jews resented that their taxes supported a regime that had all but enslaved them. For them, it was shades of Egypt and Babylon all over again. No good Jew got the holy shivers when they paid their taxes. There was more dread than joy, because they really believed that they were offending God against their will.
And so the question that comes to Jesus in our passage this morning is as perfect as it possibly can be. It is masterfully crafted. It is stunning in its ingenuity. It is so marvelously created that there is no right answer. No matter how Jesus answers this question, he will be in deep trouble.
But before we get to this extraordinary question, let us take a look at the ones who are asking it. The ones asking it have formed a very strange and very unlikely coalition. It is such an unlikely coalition that the Pharisaical side of this coalition has subtly distanced themselves from it. It is an odius coalition, even for the Pharisees who have taken a part in creating it. The Pharises are so anxious and so nervous about being seen in public with the Herodians that they have sent their disciples instead. They will not appear in person.
So what’s the big problem? It is huge, actually. In first century Palestine, there could not have been two more disparate groups than the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were the most conservative of all of the religious sects in Judaism. If they had not been so opposed to Jesus and his teachings, Jesus would very likely have joined them. More than any other group, they represented the very best of Judaism. And, in their hearts, they despised the Romans and hated the taxes that they had to pay. But, when questioned about taxes, they would counsel their followers to pay the taxes, even though they were offensive to God. They argued that the law should be obeyed, even if it wasn’t God’s law.
The Herodians, on the other hand, were not a Jewish organization at all. They made no claims to faith, and, as the name implies, they were very sympathetic to Herod, and therefore, they were staunch supporters of the Roman government. Under ordinary circumstances, these two groups would have no dealings with each other what-so-ever. The Pharisees were a religious group, and the Herodians were a political organization that was unashamedly pro Roman government. And so now we can see why the Pharisees would be so reluctant to be seen in public with the Herodians, and that’s why they have sent their disciples along with the Herodians to do their dirty work.
This does show though, that when there is a common cause, especially an evil one, that the strangest and most unlikely people can become bedfellows. The relationship between the Pharisees and the Herodians is a relationship of convenience only. Matthew tells us at the outset that the common cause is to try to entrap Jesus, to catch him, to snare him, to get him into trouble.
And so these two groups, after some conversation and plotting of strategy, arrive in the presence of Jesus, and they shovel a cart-load of flattery on top of him. This flattery is so thick that it is still steaming, and it stinks to high heaven. And neither group believes a word of it. It is all made up. The Herodians don’t give a whit about Jesus’ integrity, or his committment to the truth, or his dedication to God, or even about the way he treats people. They couldn’t care less. Their concern is not faith, it is politics.
And the Pharisees’ minions are lying through their teeth. If they believed anything of what they are saying, they would have paid more attention to Jesus. They would have responded to his teachings, instead of constantly criticizing them. The Pharisees certainly did not believe that Jesus taught the way of God in accordance with the truth. They were convinced that he was a dangerous heretic. I suppose that we should all be cautious of someone who begins a conversation with flattery. There’s usually a trap behind it. And there’s certainly a trap here.
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?” There is no good answer to this question, especially in the present company. If Jesus answers in the affirmative, he will be guilty of denying God and his faith in God. He will especially lose favor among the common folk who are starting to believe that he is the Messiah who will rescue them from the tyranny of the Romans. And that is exactly what the Pharisees want. The Pharisees are losing their base. The Pharisees are threatened by Jesus’ popularity among the masses. They are losing control over the crowds. If they can proclaim that Jesus counsels paying taxes to Rome, the common folk just might lose faith in Jesus. The Pharisees are hoping that they can get back some of their authority over the people that is being so quickly eroded by Jesus’ teachings. They believe that they are engaged in a power struggle with Jesus, and they are truly afraid that they are losing that struggle.
If Jesus answers in the negative, he is going to be in big trouble with the Herodians. They will rat him out to the Roman authorities. He will be pegged as an insurrectionist and as a terrorist who advocates the overthrow of the Roman government. And of course, the Roman government will act swiftly, and Jesus will find himself up on a Roman cross, and the problem will be solved for everybody, forever.
But Jesus will not be so easily trapped. He is aware of their malice. He has not been fooled by their flattery, nor is he stymied by their question.
“You hypocrites!” I like that. So much for the flattery about Jesus being an impartial kind of guy! He’s committed to the truth, that’s for sure, and he’s not afraid to speak the truth.
And so Jesus will involve those who would challenge him, with an object lesson. “Show me the coin used for the tax.” I don’t know if Jesus had any money with him or not, but he certainly had no intention of fishing a coin out of his pocket. This responsibility belongs to his challengers. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” That’s certainly an easy question, but it also has some wild implications. It is, of course, the Emperor’s head, and it is the Emperor’s title. And here’s where it gets kinda hairy. Jesus is deliberately drawing attention to the Emperor. And this is going to make the Pharisees itch. The graven image of the Emperor on the coin was offensive enough. But the inscription on it was even more offensive. It said, in Latin, “Divus et pontifex maximus.” Which translated, is, “God, and highest priest.” How friendly is that to the Hebrew faith? The Emperor is God, and highest priest. The Pharisees and all faithful Jews just cringed when they heard those words. The Emperor was no God to them. That thought was completely inconceivable. There was one God and one God only, and his name was “I AM”, and he did not dwell in Rome; he dwelt in the highest heaven.
And so Jesus says, “Give therefore to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Most simply put, Jesus is saying, pay your taxes, but give your heart to God. But there’s more to it than that, and with this I will try to wrap things up and pull things together. What does it mean to give one’s heart to God? Obviously, in this context, it is a greater obligation than the mere payment of taxes. Jesus makes it plain that the Emperor is certainly not God, and can certainly not make a greater claim on us than can God. And our government is certainly not God, and it can certainly not make a greater claim on our lives than can God. So how literally should we take this passage? One misguided Christian heretic has said that we should add up all of the taxes that we pay, missing nothing. And then, when we arrive at that sum, that, and more, of course, should be the amount of money that we give in support of God’s Kingdom. This assures us that we fulfill our greater obligation to God.
And already, I can feel the the temperature in here rising. That’s ridiculous! Who would, who could, do something as stupid as that? It’s foolishness! But I don’t think that’s the point Jesus is making at all. He really isn’t talking about money at all, if we think about it. Money is only the presenting issue here. It is not the topic at all. The topic is much more than money.
We pay our taxes because we have no choice. And we pay them begrudgingly, and that’s fine. No one should get the holy shivers when we pay our taxes. Yeah, its an obligation, and we must fulfill it because there’s those compelling motivations that I talked about at the beginning of the sermon. We’d just as soon avoid the consequences.
But why the begrudging attitude when we fulfill our obligation to God? Where does that come from? Is it because we believe that we have a choice? Is that why God so often gets so little of our lives? Is that why God so often get what’s left over rather than what comes first? Are we angry that the minister is even talking about this, that he has no business prying into our private lives and private motivations? Perhaps.
But this is for pondering. Our response to the government and our response to God should never be the same. There should be joy and thanksgiving when we give our hearts to God. We ought to get the holy shivers when we give of ourselves, whether it is time talent or treasure. We ought to get all goose pimply. And we ought to sing out a song of praise every time we give something of ourselves to God. And the operative word here is “give.” The government taketh away. There is no other way to describe it. The Emperor tooketh away in first century Palestine, and the government taketh away in twenty-first century America.
God has given us our whole lives, and has promised us eternity. He takes nothing from us, he only gives to us. And so in joyful and thankful response, we give our hearts and lives to him. There’s a world and an eternity of difference between our obligation to the state and our obligation to God. But that, we’ve got to ponder for ourselves, and out of our ponderings will come our response to God. To get us started, we might ponder this: the government may have a claim on our money, but God has a claim on our whole lives. The question is not so much whose image is it that is on the coin, but rather whose image is it that is on us?