What Belongs to God?
Updated: Dec 13, 2018
Burned by all their previous encounters with Jesus, the Pharisees send others to do their bidding in this week’s gospel passage. They send “their disciples to him, along with the Herodians” (v. 15). You’ve got to love the subtle irony of the relationship this verse implies.
By rights, Pharisees and Herodians should not have been having anything to do with each other. The Herodians, Herod’s people, indicates the rich and powerful centrist group in Jerusalem holding on to the reigns of power from the palace by cooperating fully with the pax Romana, the rule of the Roman Emperor enforced through heavy taxes, soldiers, and other compromising forms of homage. The Pharisees, by contrast, were a conservative, religious, very Jewish, “back to God” resistance movement that had been formed in opposition to the kind of compromise with Rome that the Herodians represented. Politically, they were sworn enemies. But, in this passage, they are willing to “reach across the aisle” in order to deal with what they perceived as a common threat: Jesus of Nazareth, the people’s Messiah.
Like smug reporters, hiding their real agenda behind a veil of objectivity, they ask Jesus a question that they suppose is their ace-in-the-hole: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” And, the question we might need to ask as contemporary readers at this point is: Why would this question trap anyone? What’s really at stake in the question?If any contemporary politician were asked this question, they would surely answer quickly: Of course it’s lawful to pay taxes. Why would you even ask? The only question we ask is how much the government should ask of individuals and households versus corporations.
So why didn’t Jesus just say that? For one, it is a different political and religious climate than our own. Ancient Judaism tended to take idolatry a lot more seriously than we do. Furthermore, Jesus is not a politician (they know this about him). In their eyes, he has already demonstrated sympathy towards the Pharisees’ philosophical/religious concern about Roman idolatry and the oppression of Jewish “values” that Roman taxes represent. He might even be in Jerusalem to incite a rebellion against Roman rule, for all they know, which could play right into their hands when (not if) the rebellion was squashed by Rome’s ample forces. They are definitely laying their cards on the table.
But, to their surprise, Jesus knows just what to do with their question. As we have come to expect, he answers their question with a question. He asks to see a “coin used for the tax” (v. 19). In context, this is a very important moment in the narrative, pregnant with significance. It is safe to assume that Jesus didn’t have such a coin in his “pocket.” Not just because he was poor, from a certain point of view, but because of the imagery stamped all over the coin that was flagrantly offensive to Jewish sensibilities. Not just the face of the Emperor on one side, and a high priestess on the other, but the inscription on the coin which read: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Jesus’ request seems to imply a silent critique, as if he were saying: You tell me. Have you seen what’s on your coins that you are using in your idolatrous “lawful” exchange with Rome?
You know the rest of the story. “Whose image and inscription are on this?” he asks them. “Caesar’s,” they must respond. Then comes Jesus’ enigmatic saying that confounds them all: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (v. 21). Jesus’ answer is not just a fancy way of saying, “Pay your taxes.” Jesus’ answer begs another question that the Pharisees and Herodians are way too scared and cautious to answer: What really belongs to Caesar, and what really belongs to God? Now Jesus has hinted at a question that has the power to explode the fragile alliance between the Herodians and the Pharisees.
So, what does all that mean for us? I suppose that depends on our interpretation of history and who we identify with in this story. Obviously, the social and political dynamics in this story come from an ancient world different from our own. But just how different? And, are these kinds of power relationships and dynamics not evident in nearly every epoch of our history?
There is no Roman Empire left today, but are there no global superpowers that require taxes, homage, or compromise of our values? No Pharisees, but are there no conservative religious parties with powerful, if mostly secret, political affiliations? We seem to tell ourselves that idolatry is no longer a problem for us. It’s a thing of the past like animal sacrifice or theocracy. But, it is also possible to read world history in exactly the opposite way. It’s possible to see the emergence of the stock market and the global marketplace, a universal currency and economy based on inflation, as the greatest and most widespread system of idolatry ever conceived of by the human race. As money plays more of a role in human history, not less, it may be possible to see Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question as more relevant today than ever.
What belongs to God? Well, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), but more specifically, just as Caesar had preemptively stamped his own image on tribute penny, God has stamped his image on the earth in us. We humans are uniquely privileged to be made in “the image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:27). And Jesus shows us, par excellence, what we are supposed to be, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). The most important tribute that we ought to be worried about paying is, like Jesus, to God. Jesus paid that tribute for us, but also as an example: not with coins, but with the entirety of his life and death on the cross. We are likewise called to make a living and spiritual sacrifice of ourselves to God our first obligation in life, above and beyond, in and through whatever other responsibilities we feel led to take on for love’s sake (i.e. tithes and taxes). After all, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” (St. Irenaeus).
1. Who could we identify with in this story? Jesus and his disciples, the Pharisees/Herodians, or both?
2. What belongs to us, the church, or the state? What belongs to God? How do we practice faithful stewardship in our world today?
3. Can a Christian live in the “real world” today without their faith or life being compromised? How?