There’s nothing more certain in life than death and taxes one time President of the US Benjamin Franklin was reputed to have said. And in many ways he’s right. Death comes to us all and tax has been a reality for citizens of a nation for millennia.
Jews in first century Palestine, you see, paid numerous taxes: Temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes, just to name three. The tax in question was a particular – and particularly onerous – one. It was the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. That’s right: first-century Jews were required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression.
Not that everyone saw it this way, however. Those put in power by the Romans, represented in this passage by the Herodians, advocated supporting Roman “governance” of Israel. Nationalists opposed to Rome found the tax offensive as it was a constant reminder of their humiliation. And the religiously devout, represented by the disciples of the Pharisees, had to pay the tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity, forcing them to break the first two Commandments.
All of which made the topic of the Imperial Tax tremendously divisive and one’s opinion on it immediately revealing. And herein lies the cunning demonstrated by two normally fractious parties united only by their shared opposition to this young Rabbi Jesus who the day before had entered Jerusalem to great acclaim and had been stirring things up at the Temple ever since. With their question about the Imperial tax, Jesus’ foes thought they had him trapped, as he would either disappoint the people by advocating for the tax or put himself in jeopardy with Roman officials by arguing against it.
But Jesus not only evades their trap, he entangles them in their own one too. “Who’s face is on the coin,” he asks. Perhaps over-eager to trap Jesus they forget that by producing a coin from their 1st century trouser pocket they betray their own allegiance to the Romans. For those not paying attention, Jesus makes it clear whose side they are really on by asking whose image and title are on the coin. “The Emperor’s,” they answer, assuring those in the crowd that they know full well the face and blasphemous confession of divinity they carry.
All this sharpens the bite of Jesus’ response: “give, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And suddenly the tables are turned, as all in the crowd will recite the Shema regularly - “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” - they confess that everything belongs ultimately to God. With just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously calls them to account before the God they worship.
Might Jesus also be doing the same to us, inviting each of us to declare our allegiance? In that sense, perhaps the key to understanding Jesus isn’t ‘whose image is on the coin’, but rather ‘whose image is on or in us’. It would be hard for Jesus’ audience to listen to his words and not hear echoes of Genesis 1, where God declares His intention to make us in His own image. And that’s what always seems to get lost in conversations about money or politics. For while we may feel strongly about our political loyalties, but before we are Conservative, Labour, Liberal or anything else, we are Christian. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business and no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the sum total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.
Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians. His statement just raises some questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?
Friends, a holy god, who is one, demands the service of whole human beings. The God of Jesus has a claim on all of our life. So if God demands all of our life, what is left to render unto Caesar?
“The things that are Caesar’s.” What are they? Caesar, the State, seems to have a claim on much of our lives, but in fact, nothing belongs to him. Everything belongs to God; the things that Caesar claims are merely on loan.
“The things that are God’s.” The way most of us behave suggests that we believe that God has a claim on about one hour per week and a small percentage of our income. But God’s mark is upon every particle of our being.
One Sunday, a minister put a number of marker pens in the pews and after reminding the congregation that all they had and were is God’s – and that all God has and is is also theirs! – she invited them to mark one of their bank cards with the sign of the cross. The idea was that for the next several months it was nearly impossible to buy something and not reflect on whether or not this purchase aligned with their own sense of values and God-given identity. It wasn’t an answer, of course, each person had to think for themselves about how their faith impacted their decisions about spending. In an empowering way everyone that day and over many weeks was reminded of their identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. What it did was root faith and life together and invite some active reflection on how to live that out especially in relation to who had first place in their life and first call on their time and money - them and their desires, or God.
God wants more from us, in the end, than polite conversation. God wants for us abundant life. Because while Benjamin Franklin may have once said that death and taxes are the only two certainties of this life, each week we have the opportunity to declare that the one who was raised from death shows us that God’s love is more certain than anything else.