Let us pray:
Throw open every window and every door by which your word might reach us, O God. Open our hearts and our minds and our spirits to whatever you might have to say to us today. Amen.
There is an old saying that one should not mix religion and politics, but it is hard to escape the idea that this is precisely what Jesus did at almost every turn of his ministry. The origin of the word Politics comes from Middle English through Old French. But it goes back even further than that to Latin by way of Greek, politēs ‘citizen,’ from polis ‘city.’ A literal rendering would be “of the citizens of the city.”
Whether today’s passage from Matthew is political or religious, the exchange raises questions about obedience, loyalty, and authority, showing us that faith has an inescapable political dimension, just not a partisan one.
It might be uncomfortable for us, in the 21st century, to talk about the mix of religion and politics. For Jesus, in the context of this lesson today, he is in a challenging situation. The tax that Jesus is being asked about was a “Poll Tax” that had to be paid by everyone, man, woman, or slave. By the way, the Latin word for the tax is “Census.” Not only did everyone have to pay this tax, it had to be paid in Roman currency.
Jesus asks those posing the question to bring him a coin. The coin they get him is the denarius, which was stamped with the head of the emperor Tiberius with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.”
The controversy comes not from the idea of paying taxes. However, just as it is not very popular today to pay taxes was not very popular in the 1st century, it was the inscription on the coin that was the cause of the controversy and the question. For the nationalists, paying the tax meant the humiliation of Israel at the hands of Rome, while for the average Jew, the currency was an issue. A coin that proclaims the emperor as divine and has his image stamped on it is blasphemous.
Right from the start of today’s lesson, we see that this is a trap set for Jesus. The two parties asking the question are described as the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. This is a strange pairing, especially regarding the question of the tax. It would be like Republicans and Democrats agreeing on anything, but mainly on the idea of the tax.
The Herodians were supporters of Herod the Great and, in Jesus’ time, Herod Antipas. They liked the idea of the tax and supported it. The power that the Herod’s had come from Rome. The Pharisees, on the other hand, would have been resentful of the tax. It is an odd situation with these two parties, who are usually aligned against each other but come together to try and trap Jesus. Whichever way Jesus answers is going to put him in a difficult position.
So, Jesus asks for the coin to be given to him. In one way, he turns the tables on his detractors because now they must handle this coin, which they feel is blasphemous. Not directly answering the question, he turns it on them, and in so doing, he silences them. What does “rendering unto Caesar” mean? Does it mean paying nothing to Caesar because everything belongs to God? Pay the tax because earthly authority is different than heavenly authority.
Jesus does not directly answer the question, perhaps to make us wonder if there is something more significant than the idea of paying taxes here. Jesus is making a point about that law and the authority of the law over people.
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew pits Jesus against the Jewish authorities. We have seen this play out in the last three weeks in the parables that we have read. One of the ways Jews of the time of Jesus and Jewish Christians in Matthew’s time would have talked about authority and obedience to the law.
The questioning of Jesus by the Pharisees has precedence in Matthew’s Gospel. The Pharisees have criticized Jesus’ disciples for doing what is not lawful, plucking grain on the Sabbath to feed themselves and healing on the Sabbath. Using the exact words they used when questioning Jesus about these earlier incidents, they ask Jesus about paying taxes.
All these questions open an important dimension underlying what Jesus is asking about the coin as it relates to obedience. Obedience to the law should not devolve into legalism, where the letter of the law stands in the way of carrying out the will of God. Satisfying hunger and healing illness are just two examples of this idea that Matthew uses. The law should never be an obstacle to serving, nor an excuse for avoiding the higher purpose of God’s desire that everyone should flourish.
But, and there is always a but, this principle does not absolve us from obedience to the law. In other places in Matthew’s Gospel, obedience to the law is a minimum but necessary requirement on the way to perfection. In Chapter 19 and Verse 3, the Pharisees question Jesus about divorce and whether it is lawful. Jesus responds by demanding behavior that includes and supersedes the law. Obedience to God, in this case, is a challenge to live up to the highest standards possible, even going beyond the legal minimum.
There is also the story of John the Baptist confronting Herod Antipas about his marriage to his brother’s wife. John denounces this marriage as unlawful and, by doing so, demonstrates remarkable courage. John does not fear the consequences when he speaks the truth. John’s obedience to the law got his killed by the very people he was denouncing.
The examples of obedience, including the tax question, touch on several dimensions of obedience. Discerning how to “render to God what is God’s” can range from unwavering relativizing of the letter of the law to going beyond what the law demands and even, as we saw with John the Baptist, facing persecution to uphold the law. In each case, obedience to the law means seeking God’s will.
As you know, I was ordained in a different denomination than where I am today. For all the beauty of Orthodox Christian liturgy and worship, there is a distinct lack of mercy regarding social principles. As my theological understanding matured, I came to a crossroads and had to decide which path to follow. I could stay where I was, keep my mouth shut, and do what I was doing in my small corner of the world. Or I could leave and find a new path.
I chose to leave and, in a sense, was persecuted for it. The Church condemned, tried, and convicted me of the sin of apostasy, abandoning the faith. My ideas of radical inclusiveness saw me put outside of communion with the Church that ordained me and that I faithfully served for 12 years. I discerned that God’s will for me was in another place, so I had to face the consequences of that decision.
One of the founding principles of our country is the idea of religious freedom. The idea of being able to worship as one’s conscience dictates was one of the driving forces behind the Pilgrims leaving everything they knew to come to the new world. Of course, their idea of religious freedom was to worship as they saw fit, but we will leave that for another day. However, the critical thing to remember is that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, and that is something that many in our country cannot understand.
Sure, we hope that God blesses our country and those who lead it, but it does not mean that God blesses those who lead us in a unique way; that sort of thinking leads to idolatry and the idea that our leaders can do no wrong and deserve special privileges. There is a real danger of idolatry when there is interaction between politics and religion.
Rendering unto Ceasar does not necessarily mean that Ceasar is performing the will of God. The writing of Paul and the Book of Revelation cast a very suspicious eye on the horrible ways governments treat people.
The message of Jesus is a challenge for us to render unto God the things that are God’s. Jesus’ message means living in a world of various commitments and obligations, but the ultimate criteria of the gospel must guide our choices. To live out the gospel, we cannot avoid political commitments, but it does not mean we should claim partisan ideologies on either side as the will of God.
The challenge is to seek God’s will and to imitate the example of Jesus to render all things to God.