Brief synopsis of the readings: In Isaiah God spoke to the Persian King Cyrus. God told Cyrus that even though Cyrus did not know God, God had chosen him so that all may know that “apart from me, all is nothing.” In Matthew’s Gospel the Pharisees plotted to trap Jesus. They asked him if it was permissible to pay taxes to Caesar. Recognizing that this was a trap, Jesus called them hypocrites and asked for a Roman coin. It had the face of Caesar on it and Jesus told them to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.
For the past three weeks we’ve seen Jesus set and spring a trap on the chief priests and elders of the people. Today we read about the Pharisees attempt to turn the tables. Simply put, they set a trap and congratulated themselves on their cleverness. Alas, Jesus flipped it back on them.
But we need to take today’s Gospel in the context of the time. When the Roman Empire conquered what we now call the Holy Land they brought their own currency, and naturally the coins bore Caesar’s image. This presented a problem to the Jews as they were prohibited from having graven images, and yet they could only pay their taxes with Roman coins.
Everyone agreed that they couldn’t carry these Roman coins in the Temple and that’s why they had moneychangers
outside the Temple where Jews could convert Roman coins into Temple coins that bore no images. Those were the moneychangers Jesus targeted in the previous chapter.
Most Jews recognized the need to pay taxes to Rome and begrudgingly use Roman coins. But others (among them the Zealots) refused, often at great personal risk.
And therein lies the trap. In a public setting the Pharisees demanded that Jesus choose sides. They knew that if Jesus sided with the taxpayers he would lose the support of the Zealots, but if he sided with the Zealots he would find himself in the crosshairs of the Romans.
Jesus, instead, refused to take the bait: he told his followers to return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s.
But here’s the problem: this Gospel isn’t simply about coins. It’s too easy to read this and come away thinking we should pay our taxes to the government and put money in the church collection each week. It’s not that simple.
We need to see these coins as a metaphor for our values and that makes this Gospel much more complicated. Today what do we return to Caesar and what to we give to God? Let’s begin with what we give to Caesar.
Most, if not all of us, live in modern day democracies. Our governments provide a great deal to us. We have protection from within (police departments) and without (the military). To varying degrees they provide infrastructure such as roads and utilities. And most provide some level of assistance to those who are in need of nutrition or health care. Some believe that the taxes we pay represents money stolen from us, but I think that’s a vocal minority. I think most of us recognize that our taxes go toward those things we value and it’s the necessary cost we pay for the benefits we receive. Returning to Caesar no longer stops with paying our taxes: it also encompasses what Caesar does with the coins he receives.
And what do we give to God? As I spoke about last week, God gives us everything and asks only our acknowledgement. But God also gives us a moral compass that we can follow or ignore. For those of us who elect our leaders we are Caesar and we have a gift Jesus and his followers did not.
Obviously the coins we carry bear images. Some are our monarchs but most are our heroes, those people we revere. Unlike the coins in Jesus’ time they are not our oppressors. And that gives us a tremendous gift. In a sense it gives us the opportunity to turn the Temple coins (our moral compass and values) into the Roman coins (the funds use to carry out our moral compass and values).
Without choosing individual issues I’d like to suggest that today we have the ability to achieve what Jesus was hoping to teach the Pharisees. I’d like to suggest that our leaders are not our oppressors but instead our servants.
We have the ability, by our voting our values, to call Caesar to God’s values. Jesus spends a great deal of the Gospels (and indeed much of Scripture) calling us to feed the poor, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the prisoner.
Please understand that I’m not suggesting that any nation be dominated by a particular faith; indeed virtually all faiths profess the same moral compass. Here in the United States we’ve seen tremendous progress in this. We no longer allow slavery or legal discrimination; the voting public now includes non landowners and women; it’s no longer legal to block participation based on skin color or sexual orientation.
Finally let’s loop back to the Pharisees. They challenged Jesus because Jesus challenged them. They attempted to present a false dichotomy to Jesus: choose God or choose Caesar. But in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed there is no difference. We all follow God.