MATTHEW 22: 15 – 22 22 Oct 2017
Most days on the TV or Radio news you’ll hear a journalist asking a politician a question to which there is no acceptable answer. They’ve practised the art to perfection.
A couple of weeks ago, Teresa May was asked on an LBC phone in: “If we held another referendum, which way would you vote?” Poor woman; how could she answer that one? Usually if we ask a question we want an answer. Not in this case. The journalist is only interested in setting a clever trap for her.
The Pharisees in our gospel reading have found the perfect question to catch Jesus out – so they think. Whichever way he answers, they are sure he will alienate some of his followers.
The issue of paying tax to the Roman Emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle East in Jesus' day. Imagine how we'd like it, if people from the other end of the world, marched into our country and demanded that we pay them tax, as a reward for having stolen our land. We'd be pretty miffed. That's what the Romans had done to Palestine.
They required 10% of the grain they grew, 20% of their oil and wine harvest, 1% of any income they earned by any other means. And on top of all that the Romans imposed a poll tax, requiring a denarius, a day’s wage of every man, woman and child between the ages of 12 and 65.
Maggie Thatcher discovered how nasty things can get when you impose a Poll Tax back in 1990. In Jesus day there were riots too, but the Romans were a tad more brutal. They left crosses around the countryside with dead and dying revolutionaries on them, as a warning that paying tax was compulsory, not optional.
So you can see what all his hearers knew lay in store if Jesus advocated withholding the tax. Actually at his trial a short time later, it was this very accusation that the Pharisees threw at Jesus: “He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar” (Luke 23: 2). That’s what they had wanted him to say.
On the other hand, if he said it was OK to pay the poll tax he would offend the majority of his fellow countrymen who hated everything about the Roman occupation.
Their aim is to make Jesus discredit himself in his own words. Whichever way Jesus answers he's in trouble. “Got him” the Pharisees think!
They could acknowledge reluctantly v 16 that he was ‘sincere’; that his ‘teaching’ rang true; that he showed no ‘partiality’ to anyone; but it rankled that he showed no deference to their authority. However, if they think that starting with flattery will lull Jesus into a false sense of security they are mistaken.
Within seconds they are the ones scrabbling for an answer, with their carefully worked out strategy destroyed. What’s more, Jesus manages to throw a spanner between two arch enemies.
The ultra orthodox Pharisees and the party of Herod, puppet of the Romans, King of Galilee, were strange bed-fellows indeed. Their differences were only forgotten in their hatred of Jesus and their desire to eliminate him.
So what's the big deal about the coin?
The reason was all down to the image on the coin. Jesus asked them: “Show me the coin used for paying the tax”.
I have a new pound coin. Whose image is on it? The Queen's of course. And what does it say around the edge? DG Reg FD (Dei Gratia Regina = By the grace of God; “fidei defensor” = 'Defender of the Faith').
In the case of the Jews in Palestine, this denarius coin had the image of Tiberius Caesar on it. According to Jewish law they weren't allowed to put images of human faces on their coins. Around the edge of the coin proclaiming to all the world who he was, Caesar had the words that would send a shudder through any devout Jew: “Son of the Divine, High Priest”.
The Ten Commandments began with: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” They took that seriously. How could any Jew handle money like that? But they did. And someone brought one out of their pocket! The fact that someone possessed the coin was shameful. You can imagine the enigmatic expression on Jesus’ face!
We watch the scene unfold as they hand Jesus the coin like a dead rat: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” He hasn't said anything that will get him into trouble. He's turned the question round and throws it back like a hot potato! Pardon the mixed metaphors!
“It’s Caesar’s” they reply, stating the obvious, ashamed that they carry it themselves. “Well then”, says Jesus, “give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperors” It sounds as though he was saying ‘be responsible citizens’ and that is how it has been taken by most Christians ever since. But the question hangs in the air, what does it mean if that conflicts with our allegiance to God?
Then the punch line: “give to God the things that are God’s”. His critics hadn’t mentioned God at all! Here, standing before them is the real Son of the Divine, asking “and what do you think your duty to God might be?” He has been telling parables (which we were looking at a few weeks ago), all about people who refuse to give God place in their lives and who will not recognise the Son.
Now he’s asking them why they don’t use all their supposed knowledge of God to recognise the Son, and what’s more why they prevent other people from recognising him too. “Give to God the things that are God’s.”
They had been playing games, keeping Caesar happy while only nodding at God. They were so devoted to keeping the commandments, keeping the Temple show on the road that God had been lost in it all. Just like we can be so caught up with keeping the church show on the road that we wonder where God is in it all.
The challenge of Jesus then and now is that he wants the thing that is God’s – us. He wants what belongs to him – our lives. “Give to God the things that are God’s.” Our money, our time, our attention; our futures, our pasts; our worship, our love.
Jesus would very shortly share the fate of the tax rebels but Caesar’s kingdom is long forgotten now. The Kingdom of God continues, shown in the lives of all of us who, by God’s grace have “Given to God everything that belongs to God”.
- Sue Kiernan