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 clear.
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.
Both religious 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 to whom?
In JesusŐ 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 JesusŐ answer.
Make us wise, God, as we seek to be good stewards of your wealth. Amen.
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