Today’s scripture happened in the midst of Jesus’ confirmation hearing. The people loved him because he told the truth about the way religion had gotten all messed up with rules that made no sense—rituals without substance. Religion had also gotten messed up in the way that it was in bed with the state. The Romans were an occupying group of outsiders who were making life miserable for the Hebrew people. But Israel feared them so much that they compromised right and left to placate the Romans. It was a delicate balance and the scales always seemed to be shifted away from the common people and toward the rulers and the rich.
The people trying to keep the illusive and illusionary semblance of peace were the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were the good Jews who were trying desperately to live by the rituals and rules of the ancients. They were the purists and their hearts were in the right place. The problem was that they got a bit too zealous and left people out if they didn’t follow the ritual rules.
The Herodians were those who supported the descendants of Herod. Herod (there were four kings named Herod) were vassal kings who were in league with the Romans. The Herodians believed that appeasing Rome was the only way for people to survive. You remember how Herod had al of the Hebrew children massacred in an attempt to kill Jesus? It’s these Herodians with a history of ethnic cleansing that appear in today’s scripture.
The Pharisees and the Herodians were unlikely allies. But they found a common enemy in Jesus. And you know as well as I do that uniting around a common enemy can be a thrilling thing. It makes you forget your own blindsides. We get to project all of our problems onto our common enemy. Think immigrants. Think terrorists (whoever they are). Think freedom-haters. Think of the LGBT community who are demonized so that we don’t have to deal with the complex issues of sexuality and the church’s history of misogyny and abuse.
Jesus was way too uppity. He needed to be put down and silenced. So they asked him a question, mixed with mock flattery: “teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God, and don’t care what people think about you. So, tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay a poll tax to Caesar?” No one liked the tax—some things never change. This is a gotcha question. If he said yes, his credibility would be ruined. If he said no, the Romans would charge him with treason. Either way, they win and Jesus loses.
Folks love to divide people on taxes. Who likes paying taxes anyway? Nobody. But most of us see it as at least a necessary evil in order to pay for things like schools, police, taking care of the least of these, even health care. We like driving on decent roads and having our bridges stay up. We don’t so much like paying for what we might consider waste or the bad investments—like a costly and unnecessary war for instance. Or for programs to bail out the rich at the expense of the poor. How about government bailouts to the financial industry, the auto industry, the oil industry, all while restricting unemployment benefits?
The stakes were especially high in ancient Judea. Knowing that Rome made themselves rich at the expense of the rest of the people, especially in the rural parts of Judea, was it moral to engage in tax revolt? Should they throw the ancient equivalent of a Tea Party? This was a question that was going around. Remember that the penalty for defying Rome was crucifixion, so watch how you publicly answer this question. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus are you a revolutionary or not? Are you the Messiah who will set us free or not?
If Jesus answered yes, it’s right to do your civic duty and pay the tax, then he could be labeled a hypocrite for seeming to side with the Romans for funding their cruel and brutal dictatorship. If on the other had he said don’t pay taxes, resist, resist, resist, then they could call him an insurrectionist and have good reason to turn him in for crucifixion.
Remember that the Pharisees and the Herodians did not ask him if it was all right to pay taxes. They asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar—the emperor. Of course, it was the law of the land. But law has two meanings here. It is Torah, law, to pay taxes to an outside ruler? Is it Torah, law, to pay if the emperor is not fulfilling the Torah command to defend the widow and the orphan? Is it Torah, lawful, to give your tithes or more to an authority that is the antithesis of your religion? Implied in this is the question of whether or not the emperor was just. The emperor, it was believed, was put there by God. Therefore to deny the emperor was to deny their understanding of the power of God. Do you see how this is a messy question?
In Romans 13, the apostle Paul says that all people should be subject to governing authorities. Revelation 13 and 17 likens rulers to a blasphemous beast and a great harlot. Which do we follow? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
Jesus was suspicious of the power of government over people’s lives, especially when it came to mixing their devotion. If one believes that God had a hand in selecting a governmental ruler, then opposition to such a ruler, or the rules they impose can be seen as opposition to God and therefore blasphemy.
What to do? Well, Jesus was smart. He answered the question by asking a question. He was going to turn the question on its head and test their loyalty. He asked them about the coins in their pockets. They pulled out a Denarius. Remember that there were two kinds of money that people used. When Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, they were exchanging Roman money for Hebrew money. Hebrew money was the only thing allowed on the sacred mount of God, the Temple Mount. A Denarius is a Roman coin. Jesus asked whose head was on it. They said Caesar’s. Jesus asked whose inscription it had, and they said the Emperor’s—easy enough questions and answers. Archeologists have unearthed these coins over the years and sure enough they have the head of Caesar on them and they have an inscription too. The inscription says, “Caesar, the Son of God.” As in, the only Son of God. Jesus didn’t say to them, “pay taxes,” but said, “pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and pay unto God what is God’s.” The media were asking about loyalty to Rome. Jesus responded by testing their loyalty to God.
In our day, we luckily don’t have an emperor. But we do have a responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable for their ideals and their promises for the least of these. We also need to remember that our elected officials are not God. They will need God’s people to help them remember the words of the prophets which take on a new meaning today.
When Mary realized that she held Jesus within her womb, she sang this radical song of liberation. “My soul magnifies YHWH and my Spirit rejoices in God my savior. For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the mighty one has done great things to me. Holy is God’s name whose mercy extends to those who fear God from all generations. God has shown strength with the holy arm, has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, has brought down the mighty from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46-55)
When Jesus preached his first sermon, he unrolled a scroll of Isaiah and said, “The Spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of jubilee—(a land reform and an end to slavery) for all of God’s people.” (Luke 4:18-19) The prophetic focus on empire has always lifted up those left behind by that very imperial power.
The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs has asked Baptist Churches across the country to remember religious liberty on this fourth of July Sunday. We need to remember the rights and responsibilities that we have to preserve the rights of all people, even those with whom we disagree.
After the September 11th tragedies, in order to make more sense of our allegiances, we began singing “God Bless America” at sporting events. When we sing it in a spirit of worship, it can become a beautiful prayer for our country and our leaders. And yet, there is a fine line, that too often gets cross. We start singing it against someone else. We sing it in a spirit of triumph that assumes that God is only on our side. It comes awful close to empire worship, or state as embodiment of God. As Brent Walker from the BJC opines, it ceases then to be a pious prayer but a patriotic boast. That’s the problem I have with Lee Greenwood’s song “I’m Proud to be an American”, which now seems to be as much a staple of the seventh inning stretch as “take me out to the Ballgame.” Walker continues that “Jesus reminds us that what makes us different as children of God is that we love all people and leave it to God to judge good and evil. So when we pray, “God Bless America” we should also pray, “God Bless the whole world: no exceptions.” And when we sing “God Bless America,” we should also sing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow black and white they are precious in his sight Jesus loves the little children of the world.””
Oscar Wilde cynically said, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious”. It’s in Empire’s DNA to pump up the needs and desires of the leadership in power sometimes unwittingly, sometimes intentionally to the exclusion or expense of those at the economic, social and political bottom. Our work is to expose those places where we don’t live up to our ideals and to work to make it better. That takes defending freedom and liberty of all people.
As the campaigns heat up in the coming weeks and months, people will talk about he evils and morals of taxes. They will probably even invoke today’s scripture. But Jesus reminds us that there is even a more important issue at stake. Where is your loyalty when it comes to God’s priorities? Who is your God?
“I don’t care whose picture and insignia are on the coin,” says Jesus. “What I care about is that your loyalty is to God who brings ultimate justice, ultimate peace, ultimate liberty, ultimate freedom, ultimate liberation to a people who need it so much.”
The church’s work is to remember our highest ideals and our greatest vision and work like heaven to implement it.
As the old hymn writer penned:
Let Caesar’s dues be paid
To Caesar and his throne’
But consciences and souls were made
To be the Lord’s alone.
So enjoy some fireworks today. Sing the old patriotic songs. Enjoy family and friends on the holiday. But as you do so, remember where your true allegiance lies. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Render unto God the things that are God’s.