Matthew 22:15–22 (NRSV)
The Question about Paying Taxes
(Mk 12:13–17; Lk 20:20–26)
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
There is an interesting phenomenon that happens in religious groups, something that happens with nearly every type of religious group no matter what the religion is. They make images of a god that meets their personal or corporate desires. In the pagan cultures there were gods of war, goddesses of love, gods of death, and gods of the harvest each of these gods represented facets of our human desires for hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. Around each of these gods cults developed with religious rites and activities that one could participate in to gain favor with whatever deity they needed help from. You may say but that is pagan, in our Judeo-Christian culture we do not have a pantheon of gods like that, we worship one God. There is a problem with that statement because often we focus on an aspect of God more heavily than other aspect and even in our monotheistic faith we have set up images of God that often resemble personal ideologies.
I bring this up because faith and culture seems to be highlighted in the media constantly. For many of us we find this to be a great comfort, for others we find it discouraging. Our response has a lot to do with the image of God that we have idolized. But guess what this is not new in the history of religion. Similar situations like the ones we find ourselves in today have cycled throughout history. It was a cycle such as this that brought about the emergence of the Religious Society of Friends from which our church is rooted, it was a cycle like this that brought about the reformation of the church in the days of Calvin and Luther, it was a cycle such as this that separated the east from the west, it was a cycle like this that the first century Jewish culture in which Jesus lived and ministered to found themselves. These cycles are uncomfortable, they make us question everything about our society and the future of the world as we know it, but it is during these cycles that God brings about a new era and revival.
God is about to do and is doing great things around us. The kingdom of God is about to expand in a way that will lead us into a new era of the Church. But as time cycles on those of us caught in the whirlwind of history are left wondering what He is about to do. We look at the world around us questioning if this is the end or a new beginning. The answer can be found in the image of God that you have based your faith.
The first century, in which Jesus lived, was a social and political hot spot, war was always electrifying the very air that the people breathed, thunder bolts striking at any random moment as the energy ignited. There were groups of people drawn together by common goals and ideas, each of these groups would argue and fight over which was right and if for a moment you did not toe the line you would become a threat and an enemy to the common good as seen in their eyes. In today’s passage we meet two of those groups, the Pharisees and the Herodians, but they are not the only two groups by any stretch of the imagination.
It is important to note these two groups because they are not often seen in the same circles. The Herodians were a faction of people within Israel that supported the royalty of the Herod family. This is important because we often see rule of Herod as being a puppet of Rome, so we often think of the Herodians as being those that supported the rule of Rome. But that is not exactly the full truth. This royal family can trace back to the rebellion of the Maccabees which brought the nation of Israel to independence for the first time since their exile in Babylon. Herod the Great gained this kingdom and title by marrying the last heir of the Hasmonean Dynasty. So although he was a king under the rule of Rome, those that supported his rule and the rule of his heirs were not exactly happy with their overlords, but sought an earthly kingdom of Israel.
The Pharisees are a group we are more aware of, but often our view of them is skewed. The Pharisees wanted to bring about a spiritual and pure nation devoted to the books of the Law and teachings of the prophets. They were missionaries that actually converted gentiles into the Jewish faith. The Herod family was one of those gentile families that converted. The Pharisees set up schools, built synagogues, and took the faith out of the temple and into the communities where people spent their daily lives. But they were strict in their teachings. If you were a member of their synagogues you had to follow strict rules or face consequences.
The Pharisees promoted a theocracy and the Herodians promoted a monarchy. The Pharisees promoted a kingdom based on their teachings, while the Herodians promoted a kingdom based on cultural heritage. Both opposed outside influences from the polytheistic empire that ruled over them.
These two groups usually at odds with each other found common ground in their opposition of Jesus, because Jesus did not meet either groups’ ideologies. So they decided to put Him to the test. Notice how they approach, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” They acknowledge that there is truth in what Jesus has to say, yet they reject his teaching. This speak to the image of God that each of the groups hold. They say that He speaks truth because Jesus taught straight out of scripture, but he did not put the same twist on the words that they did. They did not know how to handle his indifference to their idolized images of God. Because He refused to judge people in the same way the Pharisees did He was seen as an enemy of God, and because he did not show partiality to position as the Herodians did again he was seen as an enemy of God. Each group had an image of what God regarded as important and what the anointed messiah would be. The problem with Jesus is that he did not fit in their image.
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Remember this is a question from the first century not today. Although we can see parallels due to the cyclical nature of history. Is it lawful to pay taxes to a government that you oppose? The conversation continues, “’Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax. ‘And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
I want each of us to really contemplate this discourse, let it soak down into marrow of your being. This exchange speaks deeply to our image of God and His relationship with mankind. It leads us to question where we draw the line between what is holy and what is common. It speaks to our understanding of sacred and secular, spiritual and material. It asks, “Who is the lord of our lives.”
This was not an answer that they expected. Both groups wanted Jesus to take a political stance supporting an independent Israel, but Jesus stepped around the question and made them face the reality that their image of God was nothing more than an idol. Jesus looked them in the eyes and told them that their view of God was in error, that they were chasing after the things of man and totally missing what was important in the eyes of God.
So often we equate success and wealth with God’s favor, but it is what we do with what God has given us that matters. These two groups opposed the government that ruled over them, and justified their rebellion in their religious fervor, but what they were actually supporting was not Godliness but greed. That is why Jesus asked to see the coin, and that is why Jesus asked whose image was on the coin. They wanted to keep their worldly wealth to themselves maybe throwing some out into some charitable cause but ultimately they were living in rebellious greed. They wanted the benefits of living in a system that provided their wealth but rebelled against the demands that system required. We could sit on this for some time debating, but we need to move on.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What is the emperor’s and what is God’s? Our image of God, the image that so often times is skewed to justify our own actions, will dictate our answer to this question. But there is an inference In Jesus’ statement that is shocking, “You own nothing!” There can be only one ruler over mankind, man or God, and all that we are and all that we have belongs to one those rulers.
I know we do not like to hear that, especially in America. To speak those words makes me sound like a communist, but it is the truth. How can I say such a thing? I say this because where does all the fruit of our labors go in the end, we ourselves do not take anything with us when we go beyond the veil. All we have will be left to others.
We own nothing but are stewards. A steward in ancient cultures did not own the property they managed but was given the authority to make investments for their lord. So when Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He is asking, “Who is lord?” Are we ruled by the ways of man or are we ruled by God? Do we invest the wealth that has been entrusted to us in the things of man or do we invest in the things of God? Are we building empires of man or expanding the kingdom of God?
How are we answering those questions? Be careful because it may reveal something about our image of God. I hope that it has made us a bit uncomfortable. I hope that these words have caused us to consider, even for a moment, that we might be wrong. I hope that in that discomfort we will be driven to seek an answer.
These were the questions that those of first century faced, and they are questions that we face today. This is the very reason why Jesus came at that moment, because it is in moments like these that the answers shape the future for the next generations. Jesus came to reveal God to us. He came to show us what is important to God and how to live a holy rhythm with Him. He not only show us by the example He has given but provides for us the way to live that life, through Himself. And He is calling each of us to join Him in that life of worship, prayer, and service. Through that holy rhythm we discern how to invest in the kingdom though investing in the lives of the people He has called us to minister to. If we choose to neglect that rhythm we are then ruled by the empires of man.
We own nothing, but are stewards. Are we stewards of man’s empire or of the Kingdom of God? As we enter into a time of Holy Expectancy let us consider this, struggle with the discomfort that it gives us, and consider who our Lord really is. And as we answer that question, ask your lord for wisdom as you invest in the kingdom you choose to live.