October 19, 2014 Psalm 99 Matthew 22: 15-22
Rev. Catherine Purves
For the past few years, Barbara A. Gusew (Barb, Sr.) has helped refugee families with their taxes. As you can well imagine, filling in tax forms in a country that is still foreign to you and in a second language is immensely difficult. Barb is extremely patient and very careful and knowledgeable about how those infernal forms have to be filled in. It is actually a rather frightening process for the refugees, I imagine. They have been ‘allowed’ to come here, but they don’t yet have the same rights as citizens. What would happen to them if they made a mistake with their taxes? I don’t know, but I expect that they might worry about that and about what the government would do to them if they somehow failed to pay their taxes properly. So they are, understandably, very grateful to Barb and the other volunteers who help them with their taxes.
Like Washington, D.C., first century Rome took taxes very seriously. And like our refugees, the people of Israel were really in no position to question Rome’s right to tax them. And if they failed to pay their taxes, there was no doubt that they would suffer some pretty dire consequences. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Gospel of Luke tells us that a decree was issued from Rome that everyone in their conquered territories should be registered so that they could be taxed. That is why Joseph and his very pregnant wife, Mary, went to Bethlehem, and why Jesus was born there.
That registration triggered an open rebellion that was led by a man called Judas the Galilean. Rome did not tolerate any kind of resistance to the Roman tax, and the rebellion was brutally crushed. When Jesus was a boy, the hillsides of Galilee were full of crosses where those who dared to resist Rome and the Roman tax were crucified. This only served to inspire more groups of Zealots to take up arms and to plot and plan for the overthrow of Roman domination. Some of Jesus’ own disciples may have sympathized with the Zealots’ cause.
The question, then, that the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians put to Jesus was a very loaded question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Is it lawful? Certainly it was the law in all of the Roman provinces. But when Jews asked that question it was God’s law that they were talking about. So this was both a political and a religious question. Jesus saw that they were trying to trap him. If he said, “Yes, it is lawful,” then the Zealots and all the other Jews who resented being taxed (pretty much everyone) would have been angry with Jesus. If he said, “No, it is against God’s law,” then the Romans who ruled Israel with an iron fist would have labeled Jesus a Zealot who deserved to be crucified. Either way, the ministry and influence of Jesus would come to an abrupt end, which was just what the Pharisees and the Herodians (who supported Roman rule) were hoping for. This appeared to be an airtight scheme. Whether Jesus said yes or no he would lose followers and probably endanger his own life. So they put on their most innocent and inquiring faces and asked their deadly question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This is still a very tricky question. From the perspective of Jesus’ fellow Jews, the problem about paying taxes was not just related to their unwillingness to part with their hard-earned money. It was not because they didn’t want the Romans to build roads or set up their defensive military outposts. The problem was that Caesar had set himself up in the place of Israel’s God. He had put his own graven image on the coin in which the taxes must be paid. And around the edge of that coin were these words: Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus. He was claiming to be Son of God and the high priest of his own religion.
What would it mean for a faithful Jew even to touch such currency? What would it mean to acknowledge that divine claim of the emperor by using the coin to pay him tribute in the form of the hated tax? No wonder the Pharisees and Herodians asked, “Is it lawful?”
For a Jew, like Jesus, there was really only one answer to that question. The law of Moses states, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” And, “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” Older translations said, “graven image,” just like that face on Caesar’s coin. “…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” The Jews were so careful not to break these commandments that they refused to put any faces on their coins. It’s not that they lacked for heroes. Why not put King David’s image on one of their own bronze coins? Because the true King of Israel was never a human being, and their God was a jealous God. As our Psalm for today reminds us, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!… Holy is he!”
Now, why would I have said that this is still a tricky question? It’s because people have always had a dangerous tendency to mix up religion and politics and religion and culture. Our currency, for example, says “In God we trust,” and yet the pictures on our coins and bills are those of our national heroes and monuments. Idols can come in all shapes and sizes and they aren’t all named Caesar. Very few of us are completely consistent in our solitary devotion to God. It is very easy to inch God out of that top spot. In fact, if we consider our own current culture and its values and its idols, God is often nowhere near the top. When you live in the culture, you breath the air, you drink the water, and it’s hard to remain consistently faithful.
Consider the different things that claim your time, your money, your allegiance, your devotion. If we put quotation marks around the word “Taxes,” think of all the different ways in which we automatically pay our dues to this culture. Where does your money go? What values and prejudices have you accepted without thinking? How are your ideas and perspectives and your sense of what is true and possible shaped by institutions and powerful cultural and governmental influences that aren’t godly? We all soak up plenty of assumptions and attitudes that are simply part of our culture. Often we do this unconsciously, and we probably never stop to ask if they are lawful – that is, if they are right according to the law of God and the way of Jesus Christ. “Yes,” you may want to respond, “Yes, but we have to live in the culture.” I agree, and that’s why this is still such a tricky question.
Let’s get back to the tight spot that Jesus found himself in. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The words hung in the air as Jesus surveyed the minefield spread out before him. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” is what he said. If you reach in your pocket or purse you will find a similar coin of the realm. And, sure enough, the Pharisees had no trouble producing one. It was immediately clear that they had fallen into their own trap. They set themselves up as the religious purists, but they now demonstrated that they routinely broke the first and the second commandments themselves by holding and using Caesar’s coins. Can we fault Jesus for rubbing it in a bit by asking whose image was on the coin? I don’t think so. They had to recognize how compromised they were, just as we do. That is always the first step in the process of repentance and a change of life.
Slipping out of their trap, Jesus leaves them, and us, with something to think about. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” We could mull on that saying for a long time. What rightly belongs to the emperor? And what truly belongs to God? Who gets first dibs on the things that are really important to you – your money, your time, your energy, your devotion, your unquestioned allegiance? Like good citizens, we all pay our taxes. But what else do you unthinkingly or automatically give to things, institutions, ideas, and values that are simply cultural? And what do you give to God? “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! …let the earth quake! …Holy is he!” What do you give to God?