The Question about Paying Taxes
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.
The more I read the gospels the more I love Jesus. The teachings he gives through his parables continue to enlighten my thinking. It seems that each time I read them they hit me with something new. Maybe it is because I understand a bit more, maybe it is because the events surrounding me at that moment are such that it garners a unique perspective, or maybe I am just easily amused. No matter what it is, I love Jesus more today than I did a year ago.
The past few weeks we have encountered parables that Jesus spoke at the temple the last week of his ministry. He came into to Jerusalem and the crowds surrounding him began to shout and cheer, they grabbed palm branches and removed their coats and laid them on the ground before Jesus who was riding into town on a donkey. They shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The crowds were jubilant and uncontainable, causing the religious leaders to beg Jesus to quiet them down.
Jesus did not quiet them down, instead he walked into the temple courts and began to throw tables, and release animals. He began to scold the religious leaders, telling them that they had made his Father’s house a den of robbers. After which he proceeded to teach the crowds with parables and healing those who needed divine encouragement.
For nearly a week the religious leaders had listened to Jesus’ parables, all the while they stewed and fretted in the background. Jesus compared the Kingdom, the kingdom they all longed for in ways they had not considered. They envisioned a kingdom like the kingdom they recalled from the annual of history. A great and mighty king who would bring economic prosperity to the land, one that would bring military victory, and a restoration of the palace and temple government. The kingdom Jesus says is like a vineyard, what? The kingdom is like a landowner? No, they are thinking, that is not the kingdom. The kingdom is power and domination, not a vineyard. The kingdom is not a land owner with mouthy kids.
Jesus then tells them another parable, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a wedding banquet a king has prepared for his son.” We might remember this from last week. The king threw this massive party with fat calves, and oxen. Remember these are plural, a fat calf can feed a family for a year and there are multiple calves plus oxen. Tons of meat. This is a party larger than anything any of us have ever attended. Well maybe you have attended something like that but the largest party I have attended was a hog roast with two hogs, and that fed an entire county. But let us remember this banquet, invitations were sent out and those that were invited said they would attend but when the time came they had excuses. The king sent servants out two times and these invited dignitaries made light of the refusal and others treated the messengers with violence and murder. The resulting actions was that the king annihilated the community, burning the city to the ground. He then sent servants out to gather the common people from the streets.
I want us to consider this parable again this week, because it ties into the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees. Who is invited to royal weddings? Those that were invited would be the elite of a nation, the most well-connected government officials, and many leaders from other nations. To attend a royal wedding would be an honor. To be invited to such an even would be a testimony of the power and influence you had within a nation. To be invited to any wedding is a testimony of the importance you or your family has in the lives of an individual, and to restrict any person from the mailing list is a painstaking endeavor.
The king invited everyone he thought was important to this event, and each of them accepted at first, but then rejected the king. This is more than a simple something came up and I cannot attend. This was an all-out rejection of the power and authority of the king. We might think Jesus was being a bit dramatic when the king sent out his army, but this parabolical kingdom was on the brink of a civil war. They were rejecting their king, they rejected his authority. Not only the people of his own nation but those outside the allies and enemies alike viewed this king with little or no importance to them. This dynasty was facing extinction and the king did what he thought was required to preserve his nation.
We live in a world of nations and we live in our own nation. We take pride in our heritage and what that means to us and to the world. We are concerned with anything that might threaten our national honor. We might consider that parable as a simple story but consider the outrage many have over football players kneeling during the national anthem? Many perceive dishonor and they shut out any discussion or debate. Yet Jesus in this story has taken it even deeper, it is not just a perception of dishonor but a reality. They looked at the king’s servants and they laughed and even killed the messengers. This would not be football players sitting during the anthem but every senator, every representative, every governor, every state representative and senator in every state, and the prime minister of Canada not even taking the time to show up.
Let that sink in while we listen to the question of the Pharisees again. “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?”
What are they really asking? These religious leaders and the crowds, were looking forward to the restoration of an independent nation of Israel, under the linage of David. For a brief period following the return from exile and after the conquest of Alexander the Great, they were free from overlords. But with the rising threats from their neighbors they asked Rome for help, they willingly entered an alliance with the Emperor with the promise of protection. They gave away their freedom for security. Now after a lifetime living within this alliance, they decided that maybe it is not working out as well as they had hoped. Unfortunately for them they no longer have any say. Rome had efficiently moved into this nation and gained dominance. Portions of the nation were given to them by the family of Herod and other portion were annexed outright because of the inability of the king to keep order. Rome did not conquer Israel until after Jesus’ life, until the Jewish wars which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the relationship between Rome and Judea was basically like that of the European Union, except to be included in this alliance there were certain tributes that would need to be collected and paid.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? The nation of Israel had benefited from the protection and economic security of the empire. They had moved from a tiny nearly powerless nation under the constant threat of defeat and exile, to be a semi stable tribute state. If they were to stop paying the taxes to Rome they would lose their protection, they would lose their economic stability and would again face the threat of imperial conquest. At times ideology does not see the picture clearly. Jesus prophetically spoke in the parable what would happen if they did the very thing this question implied. The king would come in and level the city and place others in the seats of power that the religious leaders currently enjoyed.
Jesus calls them out. He calls them hypocrites. Because they like to sit around enjoying the benefits of the empire yet are asking can we some how religiously justify evasion. Rome had built road, aqueducts, provided security forces all at the request of the people. And now they ask Jesus can we stop paying the taxes. They knew full well that if they stopped they would be signing their nation’s death. But could they get rid of this thorn in their side by saying that he was the one that was calling for this revolution?
Let us look again at their question. They begin by 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.” They recognize that Jesus is sincere, and speaks truth. They themselves cannot argue with the words that he speaks. They just do not like what he said because it does not give them any prestige. Jesus calls them hypocrites because he can see they are trying to trap him. He knows that they could care less about the religious ramifications of their question and have no real intent on doing anything but profit from any unpaid taxes. Jesus asks them to give him a coin for the tax, so the give it to him. Whose face is it on that coin and whose title? Why does this matter? The coin was minted under the direction of the Emperor, the metal from which the coin was minted belonged to the emperor. The very source of their wealth and profit was under the system and currency of the emperor. They are standing in the temple courts with over a day’s worth of wages in their pockets asking can we get away with not paying the emperor taxes. Jesus tells them this money this tool of the economy is the emperor’s it is his money, if he wants it give it to him.
If the government wants our money they have every right to it. It is theirs their name is printed on it. It does not have my name or your name on it, and it we were to write our name on the currency we have committed a crime. We might say but it is our money, we earned it. But the reality is that the actual currency is the property of the government. The actual value of the currency is not the number printed but the amount of energy it produces when it is burned. Which is approximately 12.44 BTU per bill, and if it is converted to electricity it would run a hair dryer for a couple of seconds. Jesus says give the Emperor what is the emperor’s give to God what is God’s.
What are the things that a government cannot take from you? They cannot take your mind, they cannot without force take your labor. They can value or devalue the currency all they want but we are still human, we are not made in the image of a dollar, we are not made in the image of a government, but we are made in the image of God. Humanity is God’s. Every human being on the face of this earth has value because they are made in the image of God. God transcends all governments because he created the very land which they lay claim, he created the resources that they value, and he created the people who utilize and manipulate those resources for mutual profit of all. Money the currency we pay taxes with is merely a tool. When we value the tool more than those that wield the tool we have become a lover of money and have placed that tool above God.
The church at one time had to come to an understanding of this. At a time in our history no one could use currency within the empire without giving the emperor honor and worship. Those that followed Jesus refused to worship a man, so they could not buy or sell good, they did not have access to the tools of the economy. Yet during that time they survived. Those that had land to grow food offered their produce to the church for the good of the people within it. They shared what they had each offering their labor and gaining their bread. They used the abilities that they had the things that God had gifted them with to serve each other. And they survived and even grew in number and influence.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were asking can we use our faith to deny the government what it requires to function while still benefiting from it’s services? Jesus says shut up you hypocrites. They easily produced on a coin worth a day’s labor, a coin that would be used to pay the tax, they readily had available to them in a purse and abundance of currency. Currency the obtained under the system they enjoyed and profited from yet they are asking can we keep more for ourselves, and by doing so bringing the threat of war to the entire nation. The question they should be asking is how can we honor the image of our God, those around us? How can we through this tool the empire gives us access to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and live the love he shows us to others more fully.
There is much to consider in just one question. A question that is just as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. A question that causes us to consider what and who we truly live for. It is one where the answer we give can lead to vastly different conclusions but one thing remains humanity. If we do not pay the taxes are we willing to provide the services to those in our household along with all the employees that serve us? Are we willing to honor all people as bearers of God’s image if they come into our community with no partiality? Will we use all the gifts God has given us to benefit the kingdom? And are we willing to enable those around us to use their gifts more fully? It is easy to answer some of these questions, but like most they compound. But what remains is will we love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and live the love of Christ with others no matter what our circumstances may be.
 Whitcombe, Todd (2005, November 3). Re: How many btu are there in a dollar bill? (Or a piece of paper?). Retrieved from http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/2005-11/1131041118.Ph.r.html
Sermon by Jared Warner
presented at Willow Creek Friends Church