Matthew 22:21 ŇGive therefore to Caesar
the things that are CaesarŐs and to God the things that are GodŐs.Ó
You can probably
guess from my choice of texts what I have been doing this weekend. This statement, of course, is the one
time in the Gospels that Jesus deals directly with federal income taxes. He deals with religious taxes a little
bit earlier in Matt. 17:24-27, where he explains to Peter that he is
technically exempt from the temple tax but he pays it anyway (courtesy of an
obliging fish) so as not to cause offense. But when it comes to the government, Jesus is not nearly so
He was wise to be
ambiguous. Matthew, Mark, and Luke
all record this story and all three accounts describe the scene as an attempt
by the Pharisees to trap Jesus so that he could be labeled an enemy of the
government and arrested. The
Pharisees and Herodians (a public political party)
come with the question on the lips of many this time of the year. ŇIs it lawful to pay taxes to the
emperor or not?Ó In JesusŐ day
that was an especially loaded question since the Jews were bent under the
weight of corrupt tax collectors and a foreign nation extorting tribute.
leaders and political leaders bring the question, which also complicates the
meaning of the word Ňlawful.Ó Are
they asking whether it is lawful under the law of
Moses or under the law of Rome? Is
it a religious test or a political one or both? As with other traps set for him, Jesus gives an ingenious
answer that sends the questioners away scratching their heads. He has them look at a coin, note that
CaesarŐs head and seal are on the coin, and then gives both the religious and
political answer: Give to Caesar
what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
Which, of course,
clarifies nothing—especially to bureaucrats, both political and
religious, who spend their days in the minutiae of very specific laws and
loopholes. The surface meaning is
clear, but how does one go about determining what belongs
presentation, it is implied that Caesar gets the coin because his image is
printed on it. But the image of
Caesar was on all the coins. Does
all the money belong to Caesar, giving the emperor a right to impose a 100%
tax? Does Caesar not own anything
that doesnŐt have his image on it, even if he bought it, built it, or conquered
it? And how do you go about
determining what God owns? Using
the image example, God owns all human beings, as Genesis says that we are made
in GodŐs image. That would,
ironically, mean that God owns Caesar himself. And what about the cattle on a thousand hills that Psalm 50
claims for the Lord, along with all the beasts of the field? Psalm 24 claims the entire earth and
all that is in it belong to God—including, presumably CaesarŐs flocks and
herds, lands, wives, and children.
ItŐs not really clear that Caesar benefits from accepting JesusŐ
attitude toward taxation.
We live today with
the same paradoxes. We come with
the same question, wondering whether our tax dollars are being used wisely or
well. And we still have the same
conflict between the laws of the land that will put us in jail if we donŐt pay
what we are told to pay and the law of our faith that forbids us to lie, steal,
kill, covet or dishonor our parents—either directly with our own actions
or indirectly with the support of our dollars. What is CaesarŐs and what is GodŐs?
For the record, I
paid my taxes. I even increased my
state tax voluntarily to support a cause in which I
believe, an option given to Massachusetts taxpayers. But, also for the record, I donŐt believe that a single dime
of what I paid belonged to any of the Caesars who receive my dollars. I think it is GodŐs money, just like it
is GodŐs earth, and I donŐt happen to think that our modern-day Caesars are
acting as stewards of GodŐs resources.
Maybe thatŐs why in both Mark and LukeŐs account, this story is preceded
by the parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard, where those who abuse their role
of stewards meet GodŐs wrath for their mismanagement. If the Pharisees and Herodians had
arrived just a couple of minutes earlier, they might have better understood
Make us wise, God, as we seek to be
good stewards of your wealth.
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