Silver Denarius of the Emperor Tiberius, commonly referred to as the Tribute Penny. Early First Century, CE. Public Domain.
Matthew 22:15-22 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They 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.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Sometimes I wonder if we lose something when we read our gospels as Scripture. Granted, they are, and as such, the gospels have been mined through the centuries to help us humans figure out how the world works, how to be good to one another, and how to connect with God. As Scripture, though, our gospels are usually read one short section at a time in our personal or group studies, or during worship services. Often, we return to our favorite parts and sometimes disregard the more difficult parts.
But what if we read the gospels more like stories, with beginnings, middles, and endings, with villains and heroes, allies, and conspirators? What if the main character showed development and growth throughout the story and faced down some great evil in some climatic series of pages that, like a really good novel, we aren’t able to put down until we figure out what happened? What if seeing the entire story was part of the gospel experience? What if, by reading more broadly, we might challenge the way we read and apply those gospel nuggets we learned in Sunday School growing up or saw on a bumper sticker or road sign?
Today’s gospel reading, where Jesus is asked to give his opinion on paying taxes, really doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it takes place in the latter part of a story, as the conflict between Jesus and the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem is escalating. If this story was a modern novel, we might notice ourselves reading a little faster right now, connecting earlier elements with these climatic events. We might be closer to the culture and society that our story was written and understand the context of these events without any explanation. And we might come to different conclusions about what it means to be faithful to God when we think about our own politics because this story is a political thriller of sorts. But, because it’s also Scripture, it informs how people of faith might think and act politically.
So, to get us caught up, here are the notes we need to help is today.
From the very beginning of our gospel story, we know that Jesus is special. As an infant, he was visited by foreign dignitaries who offered him royal gifts. The local ruler, King Herod, hears of this, and, fearing that his rule will be usurped, murders infants in the town of Bethlehem. Meanwhile, Jesus and his parents escape to Egypt, where they live as refugees until King Herod passes away.
At some point after Herod’s death, either at Jesus’ birth, according to Luke’s gospel, or when Jesus was a child, a census was held in the region so the Roman Empire could count everyone and tax them accordingly. While not mentioned in our gospels, but written about in other Jewish and early Christian writings, Judas the Galilean led a revolt against Rome because of this census, arguing that by submitting to being counted and paying taxes to Caesar, the Jewish people were submitting to another master, other than God, which was forbidden. And as this movement grew, Galilean Jews who submitted to the census were attacked, a Roman armory was captured, and political assassinations became common. To add fuel to the fire, Emperor Tiberius had coins minted with his image and the words, “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus, and High Priest.” These coins, which bore the image of the emperor who declared himself the son of a god and the religious leader of the Jews, were to be used to pay taxes. The Galilean countryside where Jesus grew up flared with regular fighting between the empire and rebel leaders. This backstory was common knowledge to the early readers of our gospel story.
As Jesus reached adulthood, a prophet named John began gathering a crowd of dissenters in the neighboring region of Judea, just outside of Jerusalem. People, a lot of people, were attracted to John’s message because he’s naming the abuses, corruption, and violence they face in their everyday lives because of their leader’s greed, quest for power, and authoritarian control. Further, he offered a story of hope, proclaiming that God is about to do something good, and the corrupt rulers will be held accountable.
Inspired by John’s message, and having been baptized by John in a miraculous event, Jesus returned to Galilee and began working as an itinerant sage, healer, and leader. Mostly, he attracted the disenfranchised, local peasant fishermen, a couple of loud and brawling brothers, a recalcitrant guy named Judas with his own revolutionary ideas, and a reformed tax official named Matthew, the gospel’s namesake. And he spent a great deal of time with these guys, teaching them a different way to live with greater generosity, love, and faith. Above all, he argued that ordinary people like them could make change possible through direct action. He then sent them out to spread the good news and help those in need.
Sending the twelve apostles out is a turning point in our story. The success of their mission brought a lot of attention to Jesus, and folks came in the thousands to hear Jesus speak. The size of these crowds had the attention of local leaders. Soon after the apostles return from their travels, Jesus is confronted by those same religious and political leaders John spoke about in Judea. And then Jesus receives news that John has been arrested and then killed by a local governor during a drunken birthday bash. Jesus inherits John’s followers, many of which are angry at the needless death of their leader and are ready for open revolt.
At this point, Jesus’ message, and the way he tells it, change. He’s no longer a wandering holy man with a handful of non-descript followers who performs miracles for a few individuals. He gathers large crowds wherever he goes. And some in the crowds are ready for a fight. He’s become a popular leader to the disenfranchised, the poor, and all those treated poorly by those in power.
So, knowing that his crowds are on edge, and seeing representatives from local leaders watching his every move, Jesus begins to teach in parables. These parables are stories Jesus tells to make a point about the corruption of the system, or God’s alternative way, called the kingdom of heaven. These stories serve as a buffer of ambiguity, so those watching Jesus, and hoping to nab him like they did John, have nothing of substance to report. These parables also calm the crowds, as most stories do, and give Jesus time to teach a message of hope that doesn’t include a violent uprising.
But this new style only buys Jesus so much time. Conflicts and disputes with authorities are now commonplace by the time Jesus gets to Jerusalem for Passover. There, folks in the city usher him in like a victorious king, or a conquering one. He goes to the temple and, using the power of his gathered crowd, chases out the officials who were running a racketeering scheme. The next day, he issues a threat, telling the angry officials that their power is about to be taken away.
So now, in chapter 22, Jesus gets three trap questions, one about taxes, one about life after death, and one about the greatest commandment. These are all questions posed by religious leaders who hope to get Jesus to say something they can arrest him for, either against the Roman occupation, or blasphemy against God.
Jesus knows they are feigning genuine appreciation when they begin by saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. So tell us, is it appropriate to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
These folks know that Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, an alternative way to order life that challenges both Roman occupation and religious corruption and complicity. Perhaps they thought that Jesus was like Judas the Galilean, another ruffian from the sticks that opposed Roman rule and taxation. If they can get Jesus to say “don’t pay the tax,” the case is open and shut. Anyone aligned with Judas’s movement was arrested by Roman authorities and summarily executed.
But, if he says “pay the tax,” then Jesus loses some of his most devoted followers, folks who agree with Judas the Galilean but seek a more peaceful way of sluffing off foreign rule.
It’s wonderfully calculated. Either Jesus is arrested for sedition, or he loses his audience.
Calmly, Jesus asks to see a coin used for the tax. And someone pulls out a silver coin.
And Jesus asks, “Whose image is this, and whose title?”
And his opponents say, “Caesar’s.”
“Give to Caesar, what is the Caesar’s,” Jesus says. “And give to God, what is God’s.”
It’s a mic drop moment. Even his opponents are amazed at his answer.
But why are they amazed? And while this has been a fun summary of the gospel of Matthew so far, what does any of this matter to us today?
So, there’s an election coming up in two weeks. And here in the US, it’s an important one. And a divisive one. And the outcomes will affect how our country recovers from the pandemic, practices health care, works with other countries, and funds education. This election will affect our economy, our use of energy, and how we care for the environment.
And for some, faith leaders and faith communities should stay quiet and never talk politics. In fact, this passage, the “Render to Caesar, what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s” passage was used by Martin Luther in the 16th century to argue for his “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine.” In it, politics and religion are two separate kingdoms that should not meddle one with the other. Jesus was in charge of the Heavenly Kingdom, and Earthly monarchs in Luther’s time were thought to be ordained by God and rightful leaders of their servants, regardless of competence. While Luther does this, in part, to discourage 16th-century monarchies from interfering with church life, the inheritors of Luther’s “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine” have often described the life of faith and political life as two self-contained worlds that can be separated from one another. In this way, the words of Jesus about peacemaking, healing the sick, or holding leaders accountable can be applied only as spiritual or religious ideals, and do not carry weight when it comes to our politics.
But I offer one observation about this position and one word of encouragement. The gospel story of Jesus Christ is a political thriller. It’s other things too, but it is also a story about a man whose life was affected by the politics of his day. When leaders behaved in abusive and self-serving ways, Jesus drew attention to it. More importantly, when Jesus met with people who had no healthcare, who had been discriminated against, and who had experienced injustice at the hands of a corrupt and unstable administration, he felt it. He felt pity and compassion and frustration, and anger for the people that were hurting. And he taught a new way, a different kingdom option, one that confronted the powers that be. When he challenged this system, he was arrested, tortured, and put to death on charges of sedition, a political charge. To dismiss the political story of our gospels, as some do, leave us with some really cool sayings about being nice to our neighbors and being loved by God, but skirt any political responsibilities we might have to make the world a better place by voting, lobbying, and advocating for politicians who tell the truth, work for the common good of all people, and place the health and wellbeing of a diverse nation above quarterly profits.
And I think all of this because of the zinger in today’s story, “Give to God, what is God’s.” What isn’t God’s? That’s Jesus’ entire point, and the reason his opponents left awestruck. Jesus isn’t describing two separate kingdoms, one run by an earthly emperor and one by himself, but an entire cosmos that belongs to and is sustained by a gracious creator God. If we believe in a God like this one, and if we turn to this God when a loved one is ill when we lack discernment and direction in our personal lives, and when our own broken moments need divine reconciliation, why wouldn’t we consider the teachings of our faith as we cast our ballots this November? How might our faith remind us to be less cynical, more trusting, and mindful of our political responsibilities? How might we act more like Jesus when it comes to the politics we practice?
Folks, we are created in the image of a loving, compassionate, and faithful God. As image-bearers, we work to make this world more loving, compassionate, and faithful with all of our powers, including our political power. May we prayerfully consider the votes we cast in the coming weeks. May we pray for those officials responsible for our voting system. May we pray for peace and clarity at the polls. And may we vote faithfully, doing our part to make this world better for all God’s creation. Amen.