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October 22, 2017

“A Taxing Situation”

Matthew 22:15-22

 

We all know the old adage from Benjamin Franklin: “Only two things are certain in life: death and taxes.” Although I like Wil Rogers take on this adage a bit more. “The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time congress meets.” Taxation of the masses has been a sore point for a long time. Today’s story from nearly 2000 years ago shows that even in Jesus’ time, taxation was a hot button topic. That certainly has not changed in our modern era. There is much debate right now about our current tax system, and how best to reform it, if that is even possible. The president is promising to give Americans a tax break and make the whole tax code simpler. How to pay for that tax break without placing it on the backs of the poor, neglecting the shrinking middles class, providing huge benefits to the wealthy or drilling in the protected Alaska wilderness remains to be seen.

 

The government spends a lot of time talking about taxes, but they aren’t the only ones spending time on this issue. The Internal Revenue Service calculates that the American population as a whole consumes about 6.6 billion hours every year calculating their taxes and maintaining the proper paperwork to go with it. The president of the National Taxpayers Union, David Keating, suggests that “if anything, those numbers are probably understated.” The IRS figures that it takes the average American tax payer about 26 hours and 48 minutes to prepare the 1040 form and the most common supporting schedules. That amount of time includes “keeping records, learning the law, preparing forms, copying and mailing.”

 

My guess is that people in Jerusalem in the first century spent a lot of time worrying about taxes too. But there were no 1040 forms in those days, and the system was also in need of reform. The people had been taxed since at least 1000 B.C.. Temple taxes were used for the upkeep of the temple, and maintaining the priesthood. Early Israelites were assessed taxes for government services such as the army, or public works. They also were taxed to pay the costs for government and foreign tribute. In Jesus’ time, The Romans provided local government offices, markets, public baths, and many other public services. They provided these things all through taxation: property tax, purchase tax, custom duties, and even duties on food. The Roman Censor in each area hired tax collectors to bring money in, but the system was corrupt. People were often forced to pay far more than the legal amount, as tax collectors made quite a bit on the side in addition to their regular wages.

 

The payment of taxes was a painful reminder of being occupied by a foreign power that worshiped false gods. These taxes could only be paid with a Roman denarius, which bore the image of the emperor Tiberius along with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus,” that is, “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of the majestic god, and high priest.”

 

 

The image upon our money in this country is interesting to consider in the midst of this passage. The words, “In God we trust” appear all over our currency. Some say this is a clear message that we are a godly nation, and therefore we pay homage to God with our money. Some say that considering what many of us buy with our money, we are hardly paying tribute to God. Others are now campaigning for the removal of this phrase from any of our American currency. It was difficult for the people of God to deal with Caesar’s image on their coinage, and it is still difficult for us today in how we honor the image of God, or do not, with these words, “In God we trust.” 

 

Now, do you know the original reason for why we have, “In God we trust” on our currency? This came about during the Civil War, when in 1864 someone suggested to Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, that amidst a divided nation, this affirmation be made. In a nation and world that appeared to be coming apart, this phrase re-oriented the people with a message of hope. It reminded a divided nation of their common source of strength. It was a point of connection, not contention. If only the divided nation we currently live in could see that phrase as a point of connection.  For the Jews of the first century, however, having Caesar’s image on their coinage was a contentious issue- every time they used one of these coins, they felt they were paying tribute to this pagan religion, and offending God.

 

And so the Pharisees decided to use this sore spot among the people- money and taxes- to entangle Jesus. The Greek word for “entangle” is pagideuein. This is the only place in the New Testament this word is used; it is a term used for hunting. Accompanying the disciples of the Pharisees on this hunting trip are some strange partners-the Herodians. It is an odd partnership as they represent two different perspectives.

The Herodians were a secular political party that supported the right of Herod the Great and his successors to rule. They were pro Roman, because Rome gave them some power in appointing the sons of Herod as puppet kings throughout the region.

The Pharisees, on the other hand resented Roman occupation, but accepted it as a necessary evil, and they counseled submission to Rome as long as Rome did not interfere with the practice of their religion.

 

And so these two groups went hunting, and thought that with this question, Jesus’ ministry and his following would all come crashing down around him. And so they asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” The response of Jesus would be enlightening. If Jesus claimed it was not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he would incite the ire of the Herodians, supporters or adherents of King Herod and his dynasty who collaborated with the Romans. He would be guilty of speaking out against Rome, and could be thrown into prison. If Jesus claimed it was lawful to pay taxes, he would then incite the ire of the Pharisees, who were opposed to the payment of taxes, but saw it as a necessary evil. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, he would not have given a popular answer to the crowds who had been over taxed, and who had gathered to hear him speak. 

 

From a religious perspective, faithful Jews would not want to hear Jesus uphold this idea of paying tribute to a human being, especially one who claimed divine power. Nor would they have wanted to hear Jesus support a corrupt system, giving it his seal of approval.  The Herodians and Pharisees painted Jesus into a corner, and wanted to see him try to squirm his way out.

 

Jesus was not naive about their intentions and said to them: “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” Jesus knew Exodus 20:4, one of the commandments which reminded the faithful to permit no graven images of any kind. Yet the Pharisees used a graven image to support the temple. The Pharisees depended upon Roman coins that violated the dictates of their religion. They did business with Caesar’s coins. How then could they dare raise a question about giving God what was due?

 

Jesus’ response is hard to pin down. First he asked them, “Whose image is on the coin?” “Caesar’s” was their reply. He said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God.”

 

There are at least two possible options for the meaning behind his response-

At first glance, it is possible that Jesus was being cleverly evasive- He did not answer the question directly, but threw the issue back upon the crowds. They would have to decide for themselves where to draw the line between the emperor’s jurisdiction and God’s jurisdiction. For the Herodians, it didn’t matter what belonged to God, and perhaps with this answer, Jesus may’ve been saying it was ok to give money to the Roman system which helped keep them in power. This answer also allowed the Pharisees to keep within their system, of putting up with Rome and keeping their freedom of worship intact.

 

In looking a bit deeper into Jesus’ response, however, I think there is more than a tacit approval of the prevailing system. He asked “Whose image is this, and whose title”- The coin bears Caesar’s image, and belongs to Caesar. Jesus knew his Hebrew scriptures. Genesis 9:6 tells us, “for in the image of God has God made all human beings.” We humans bear the image of God, and therefore belong to God. Ultimate belonging is to God.

 

In Jesus’ response, if we humans bear God’s image, that means that wherever we live and operate, whether in the social, economic, political realm- we belong to God. Our primary loyalties are not supposed to switch when we move from the religious realm to another. This means we have our allegiances with God before all other things. When I lived and went to school in San Francisco, I often passed a church in the Sunset district that for me had a really disturbing display over their church building.  On the top of their sanctuary was a flag pole, and at the top of their flag pole was a huge American flag. Underneath the flag was a very small version of the Christian flag. Every time I passed that building, I thought to myself, “They’ve got it all wrong. The flags should be just the opposite. The Christian flag should be the one on the top.” These words of Jesus powerfully remind us that our highest allegiance belongs to God, not to the particular national government in which we reside. This is, by the way why 2 players from the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers knelt during the national anthem last year. Both Eric Reid and Colin Kapernick felt led by their Christian faith and a call for God’s justice for African American males being shot or stopped for no reason by law enforcement. Their original action has created quite a firestorm as they were led by their faith in God first.

 

Jesus also knew Psalm 24, which begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” This was a centerpiece of Jewish theology in Jesus’ time, just as it is today- that all things belong to God. That puts a rather ironic twist on Jesus’ words about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s. In his theological tradition, nothing is Caesar’s. So, in reality, Jesus was telling the Herodians and Pharisees that nothing belonged to Caesar, and that all things belonged to God. I think even the crowds understood this to be Jesus’ answer, as they did not get angry with his response.

 

 

How important is our allegiance to country, our devotion to government? How important are our homes, our possessions, our careers, our families? Today’s passage reminds us that we have been created in the image of God, and that all that we have, and all that we are belongs to God. God is to be placed above all other allegiances in this world. As we begin a time of focus on stewardship, we are reminded that we too need to give to God the things that are God’s- through the giving of our time, and talents, and financial treasure.  As we spend our time at church volunteering our time- to do global mission work, to be a lay reader on Sunday morning,  to provide a great spread of snacks for our fellowship time, to pull weeds for a cleanup day or fix the building,  to cook for a community dinner, organize the winter homeless shelter, serve on session or as a deacon, to serve on a committee or planning team; to give financial offerings,  to pay our per capita, in all of these offerings, we are giving back to God what already belongs to God-EVERYTHING.  And by doing so we are honoring God. God has shown us abundant generosity in grace and blessing. Let us go from this place today returning that generosity by sharing what we have, extending grace, blessing others, and giving back to God the things that are God’s.

 

 

Questions:

  1. Issues of taxes have been in the news lately: the taxation of clergy housing allowance, tax reform, etc. Does this passage shape your thinking about these current taxation questions? Should it?
  2. Do you think of your money as your own? Your possessions as things you have earned? What does it look like to live the truth that everything belongs to God?
  3. Look closely at a coin or a dollar bill. What is on it? Why do you think those images and words were chosen? What are their theological implications?
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