Today’s lectionary from Matthew 22:15-22 addresses one of the greatest traps ever attempted for snaring Jesus. The lesson covers what people owe heaven and earth, with Jesus making a critical distinction between earthly taxes & government versus peoples’ obligation to serve God.
So, who are the bad guys in today’s tale? They are the usual suspects, the Pharisees who were Jesus’ main critics. Yet there’s also some less mentioned villains, the Herodians, who were an elitist group supporting King Herod, the non-Jewish leader of Israel (duly approved by the occupying Romans). This dastardly duo of Herodian and Pharisaic conspirators unfolded their plot by first trying to soften-up Jesus with insincere praise. Their tactic involved patronizing Jesus with flattering words as if to groom him for the response they wanted.
Then it came. The plotters asked Jesus if it was OK under Jewish law to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. This was one of the most controversial issues cited at any time by Jesus’ critics, who were trying to get Jesus to respond with a “yes” or “no.” If Jesus had said that it wasn’t good to pay taxes then the critics could run to the occupying Romans and get Jesus in trouble for anti-state activities. If Jesus had somehow supported paying taxes then the critics could use this to turn his grass-roots, populist supporters against him. Given all this, Jesus was on the horns of a dilemma.
Taxes. The word conjures images in our minds about the IRS, Form 1040, withholding, and other unpleasantries. Then as now, taxes are a profound issue that won’t disappear. How did Jesus respond? Jesus asked for a coin, like what was used for paying taxes. I’m sure the bad boys were getting a bit nervous wondering what Rabbi Jesus was up to. And then the plot thickened. Looking at the coin, Jesus asked, “Whose head is this?” “The emperor’s” his critics responded, at which point Jesus made his iconic statement: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:19-21).
Do you sense the stunned silence? If we had been there we might have given Jesus a high-five and gloated as we watched the defeated Pharisees and Herodians slither home, heads drooped in shame. Jesus had once again squashed his critics and set a precedent for a decisive, clever response. Jesus’s words echo down through the ages, inviting us to consider how money should return to the government while our most valuable asset—our life—is dedicated to God. Money isn’t eternal, but priceless love certainly is.
Typically, people more-or-less accept the necessity of paying taxes. Yet, many people take a side in the ongoing cultural clashes over how high taxes should be, who gets the money, government spending, and everything to do with money, money, and MONEY. The problem is that there is not widespread agreement about how much taxing is fair, who should pay how much, what the revenue should be used for, and so on. Paul the biblical writer went on to say something profound about all this, and ancient and modern money moguls need to be reminded of how “. . . the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Such words are more than worth their weight in gold.
The part about giving back to God is the hardest aspect of Jesus’ response because it is not as simple as paying taxes. When it comes to serving God, there’s much more to consider beyond coins and bills. Paying taxes to the government is getting off cheap compared with what God wants. Give your money to Caesar and be done with it, and value even you’re your service to God. Now that’s a good deal that we can all bank on—with intense interest!
–Reverend Larry Hoxey