What does Jesus mean when he says that we should ‘give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’?
Has he just answered a difficult question in a way that gets him out of trouble, but doesn’t actually say anything.
It is a very clever answer to a difficult question that is designed to stitch Jesus up.
They asked him, ‘Should we pay taxes to the emperor?’
The tax that they were speaking about was a poll tax, a charge that was levied by the Roman authorities on every individual. When you paid your poll tax, it was usually when there were Roman soldiers around, and you knew that you lived in an occupied land.
So, if Jesus says, ‘yes, we should pay taxes’, then he is spiritually hopelessly compromised.
For a Jew there were so many reasons why they should not pay the tax.
There was national pride. Quite a significant number of people had chosen armed rebellion. They read in their history, from the book of Maccabees, how Judas Maccabaeus had led a revolt against a foreign ruler, who was bringing in ungodly laws, and how he had been blessed by God.
There was the law of Moses which assumes that the people of Israel will be a theocracy ruled not by Gentiles, but by a Davidic king and priests of the line of Aaron.
And there was the actual coin itself, the denarius. It had the image of the emperor on it – and Jews were prohibited from depicting the image of anything – and even worse, the coin claimed that Augustus, the emperor, was the Son of God.
|Tiberius' Denarius bearing: "Tiberius Caesar, |
Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus
So if Jesus said ‘yes, we should pay taxes’, the Pharisees would be able to say of him, ‘He has no authority. He rejects the law of Moses and he is in league with the Roman occupying force’.
But if Jesus says, ‘no’. Well the Pharisees have been clever. They have brought along the Herodians. The Herodians were the supporters of Herod, the king who represented the emperor to the Jews. So if Jesus says, ‘no’, he could stand accused of treason.
But Jesus’ answer is clever.
First, he asks them for a coin.
Then he asks them to look at the coin and he draws attention to both the image and the head.
That is clever. In other words he is saying, ‘I don’t carry on me a coin which has on it an image and a title that dishonours God. But you do’.
And then he answers by saying, ‘Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s’.
His answer would not satisfy the real zealots who had chosen armed rebellion against the Romans. They would have wanted him to say ‘No’ clearly and unequivocally. Many of his followers, who believed that he was the Messiah – God’s ruler come to deliver his people – would have expected him to say ‘No’
But Jesus had not come to deliver Israel from Roman authority. He had not come to lead a revolution or an armed rebellion. He had come to set people free from a far worse tyranny: from slavery to sin and death.
And his answer would not really satisfy those who wished to be unconditionally loyal to Rome, because Jesus has left himself wriggle room.
What is it that we should give to the emperor?
What is it that we should give to God.
Obviously it seems we should pay his taxes.
But clearly, we are not to give to the emperor, the ruler, everything.
What is it, then, that we should give to God?
1. The people who have called Jesus Christ Lord, Christians, have always recognised the legitimacy and authority of the civic authorities.
Paul urges us, in 1 Timothy 2, to pray for rulers, that under them we may be peacefully and godly governed.
· In our 8.30 service, when we use the 1662 prayer book, every week we pray for our President here and, because we are part of a Diocese which comes under the jurisdiction of the Church of England, we pray for the British head of state, the Queen.
· In our prayers in this service, often we pray for President Putin and for other world leaders.
· The litany in the Orthodox church includes prayers for the leaders of the land.
Of course, that is actually a double-edged sword.
It means that we pledge loyalty to them. But it also means that we recognise that there is a higher authority over them. There is one, as we saw from our reading from Isaiah 45, who directs them, and to whom they will one day be accountable themselves.
There is a story told about Queen Victoria.
It is customary, when people attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah, for people to stand when the choir sing the Alleluia chorus, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’.
She was attending a performance and when it got to that point, she made to stand. But an attendant said to her, ‘Your Majesty, you do not need to stand’.
‘Young man’, she replied, ‘When men come into my presence, I who am Queen of Great Britain and empress of half the world, they stand. When I come into the presence of the King of kings and the Lord of lords, I stand’.
And in Romans 13:1-7, Paul writes that we are to be subject to the governing authorities, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’. He says that we need civic authorities so that there will be stability and law and order. And please remember that Paul was writing to a people, many of whom were subject to an occupying authority, and the vast majority of whom were never given the chance to vote for or against their rulers.
And Paul continues, and he says what Jesus said, ‘This is also why you are to pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour then honour’.
So I’m afraid I’ve got bad news! Paying your taxes, whether you are poor or whether you are rich and are able to work out legal or non-legal ways of not paying them, is part of your commitment as a Christian.
And Peter in 1 Peter 2.13-17 echoes that teaching. ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority’. And later he says, ‘Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honour the emperor’.
2. But if Christians have always recognised the authority of the civic authorities, Christians have also always recognised that there is a higher authority.
That is why there were martyrs here when this country was the Soviet Union. The authorities demanded everything of people, and priests and pastors and people faithfully stood up and said, ‘No. We will be loyal citizens. But we will always put worship of God and obedience to his laws first’. And the communist state could not cope with that.
You may have heard the story of Daniel and the lions den. Well, the book of Daniel is written to Jews who have been taken prisoners into exile in Babylon. The king makes a decree that people must pray to him, and only to him. It meant that people were to recognise that the king is the highest power that there can possibly be – in both earth and heaven. And if people refuse to pray to him, then they will be thrown into the lions den. It was a very silly decree. Daniel, one of his chief ministers, is a Jew and knows that he cannot obey. He is loyal to the king, but he has a higher loyalty: to his God. He doesn’t begin a rebellion. He doesn’t rubbish the king. He simply continues to pray to his God, openly, knowing that he will face the consequences.
And as Christians who stand under the word of God, then it does seem that Jesus is saying that there may be times when we need to be like Daniel, we need to disobey. We are to pray that that is not the case, but that in everything we do we need to be controlled by love. Love for God and love for people. And if that is the case, we need to be prepared to face the consequences. Again, we simply look at the faithful martyrs of this land, and of many others more recently – we think of Christians under Daesh - persecuted, because of their love for God and people. They paid the price: persecution, isolation, being sacked from their jobs, imprisonment and execution, because they felt that they had to be faithful to God.
The thing about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is that it means that there are no easy answers to this.
And how are we to make those decisions?
There is nothing easy about this.
Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, right to be involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler?
Or you believe, as a Christian, that the place for sexual intimacy is in the context of the marriage relationship between a man and woman? You believe that not just because it is in the bible, but because you think it is right for society, and for the best welfare of individuals. How do you respond to the increasing and at times vitriolic intolerance to that view in the West?
Or what should you do if your boss asks you to do something that you know is clearly wrong at work?
At the very beginning of our passage, the Pharisees try to flatter and butter up Jesus. They say, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.’
I’m not completely sure that it is true that Jesus showed deference to no one, for in fact he showed deference to everyone. He treated each person as someone who had been made in the image of God. This is the man who knelt down and washed his disciples feet, and who stood before Pilate and recognised that God had put Pilate in that position
But it struck me those three qualities: sincerity or integrity, a commitment to the way of God in accordance with the truth and a willingness to see the image of God not on coins, but in other people – and to kneel before anyone, whoever they are, whether rich or poor, is actually the way that we are going to navigate this whole issue. It is the way to wisdom.
One ancient anonymous commentator wrote this:
“So let us always reflect the image of God in these ways:
I do not swell up with the arrogance of pride;
nor do I droop with the blush of anger;
nor do I succumb to the passion of avarice;
nor do I surrender myself to the ravishes of gluttony;
nor do I infect myself with the duplicity of hypocrisy;
nor do I contaminate myself with the filth of rioting;
nor do I grow flippant with the pretension of conceit;
nor do I grow enamored of the burden of heavy drinking;
nor do I alienate by the dissension of mutual admiration;
nor do I infect others with the biting of detraction;
nor do I grow conceited with the vanity of gossip.
Rather, instead, I will reflect the image of God in that I feed on love;
grow certain on faith and hope;
strengthen myself on the virtue of patience;
grow tranquil by humility;
grow beautiful by chastity;
am sober by abstention;
am made happy by tranquility;
and am ready for death by practicing hospitality.
It is with such inscriptions that God imprints his coins with an impression made neither by hammer nor by chisel but has formed them with his primary divine intention. For Caesar required his image on every coin, but God has chosen man, whom he has created, to reflect his glory.”
And of course, we’re not going to get it right. We’ll make many mistakes along the way. There will be times when we are controlled by fear, other times when we are controlled by money, wealth and power, and yet other times when we are controlled by ego. We will forget that as Christians we do not struggle against earthly principalities and powers, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. We’ll be complicit in things that we should never be complicit in, and we’ll take stands on things that we should never take stands on. And all I can say is that I am immensely grateful that I worship a God of mercy who is daily changing me.