There’s an old joke where you ask someone, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” There is no good way to answer that question. In this Gospel text from Matthew 22 the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking him a trick question like that one. They ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The question is loaded because paying taxes to Rome was a hot political topic that provoked a revolt some 30 years later in 66 CE. For Jesus to say “yes” would anger Jewish nationalists chaffing under Roman oppression. To say “no” would be illegal and treasonous. They have Jesus between a rock and hard place, or so they think.
I had not noticed that word “lawful” before in this text. How many things can we think of that are perfectly lawful or legal but highly questionable ethically? Owning human beings was lawful and quite profitable in this country and most of the world for centuries—including Biblical times—and human trafficking is an increasing problem to this day. Denying women equal rights is still legal in much of the world and was in the U.S. for most of our history. And if you or any women you know have bumped into any glass ceilings lately you know it still is in practice. Those who benefited from sub-prime mortgages that helped create the economic mess we are in were well within the law because those with money and power make the rules we play by.
I like Mark’s version of this text better than Matthew’s. Mark (12:15) adds a second question to the dialogue that raises the bar. In Mark, after asking if it’s lawful to pay taxes the Pharisees also say, “Should we pay them, or should we not?” That question pushes the stakes from a purely legal level to an ethical one. Human laws, because they are created by fallible human beings, change with the swings of the political pendulum. Think about prohibition or Blue Laws, for example. Back in the 1972 when I was even more naïve than I am today I remember celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the existing capital punishment law was unconstitutional. I thought, “Good, we can finally check that cause off the liberal agenda.” But it only took 9 years for the political winds to shift again. According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections website, “After drafting a new law to reflect the strict criteria for the imposition of the death sentence, Ohio lawmakers enacted the current capital punishment statute, which took effect October 19, 1981.” Human laws come and go, but God’s laws, the true standard of what we should and should not do, regardless of what the empire’s laws du jour say, is as constant as the rising and setting of the sun.
Jesus is not taken in by the Pharisee’s trickery. The three synoptic gospels agree on this point, but they use different words to describe the situation, at least according to the NSRV translations. Where Matthew says Jesus was “aware of their malice,” Mark uses “hypocrisy,” and Luke a bit milder term, “craftiness.” Whatever the adjective, Jesus sees through the scam and trumps their cleverness with some of his own. He asks to see a Roman coin. He apparently doesn’t have one, but the Pharisees do; which makes a very subtle point we should not miss. The inscription on the coin would have read, “Tiberius Caesar, the Majestic Son of God, the High Priest,” or “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus, the High Priest.” Modest fellows, those emperors. (For a similar dramatic encounter between divine and human authority, read Daniel 4 and the account of Daniel not so subtly reminding King Nebuchadnezzar of his rightful place in the divine pecking order.)
The point is that it would have been blasphemous for a good Jew to have these Roman coins in their possession. The Romans provided a generic coin for the pious Jews who objected to these coins on religious principles. So for these Pharisees to have one of these Roman coins in their possession immediately shows they have compromised their faith. But, before we are too quick to cast stones at the Pharisees, let’s ask ourselves how we compromise our own values and faith?
- What kind of deals do we make with our culture and popular society because it’s just easier to go along with the crowd than to stand up for what we believe?
- Anyone have any stock in companies that are helping to destroy our environment or compound the epidemic of home foreclosures? Do we even know where our pension money or mutual funds are invested? Do we care as long as they are (or were) making money for us?
- Do we pay taxes to support wars or other causes we don’t believe in? Are we using our political power to try and change those practices?
- Do we support companies that exploit women by using sex to sell everything from Audis to Zest soap? Do we watch violent TV programs or buy brutal video games for our children? Are we addicted to watching overpaid athletes?
- Do we buy lottery tickets when we know gambling preys on those who can least afford it?
- Do we feed junk food to our kids because it’s easier than cooking a healthy meal?
- Are we intimidated by friends or powerful lobbies to ignore the mayhem on our streets by not speaking out against the insane proliferation of hand guns in our society?
- Do we turn a blind eye to unethical business practices for fear of losing a much-needed job?
The bottom line in the Gospel lesson and in all of those questions is, “Who really has ultimate authority over our lives?” Is it the most high priests of wealth and power, or is it Almighty God, our creator and final judge of how we live our lives?
There’s a very short answer to this dilemma. Jesus says, “Give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). The trick of course is to figure out which is which, and the simple answer is nothing really belongs to Caesar or Uncle Sam or any earthly authority. The Biblical position on that is crystal clear. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” That pretty well covers it all. Even Paul, a Roman citizen who is frequently cited (Romans 13:1) by advocates of total obedience to government authority, quotes that verse from the Psalms in I Corinthians 10:26. Numerous other New Testament texts argue strongly for ultimate obedience to God when there is a conflict between divine and human authority (I Peter 1:1, Phil. 3:20). Perhaps none is clearer than Acts 5:29 where Peter and other apostles are under arrest for teaching the Gospel and their defense is simply, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Jesus is painfully clear on multiple occasions that God’s authority trumps any other competing allegiance life tempts us with–wealth, comfort, family, even honoring the dead:
- “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of me; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37)
- “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60)
- “One thing you lack,” he said (to a rich young ruler who kept all the commandments). “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
- “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24)
The Pharisees would have been all too familiar with these radical teachings of Jesus. In fact, some of them got the point when he said “Give the emperor what is the emperor’s and God what is God’s.” At Jesus’ trial before Pilate one of the charges leveled at Jesus is that “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor” (Luke 23:2).
No, Jesus didn’t say that exactly. But he does lay the burden of choosing between competing commitments squarely upon each of us. Paying taxes as part of a democratic society is a necessary cost of doing business and creating an orderly civilization where together we can provide services for everyone better than individuals or families can do so themselves. How would it look if we all had to build our own roads and other infrastructure or provide for education, law enforcement, emergency services, or defense? As idealistic as it may sound, families and churches and other charitable organizations caring for all the poor and elderly and sick without a society-wide network of support is simply not practical in the complex world we live in where extended families are scattered and badly over-extended. We all know very well that not all taxes are just or equitable or necessary – but most are, and our job as citizens and people of faith is to work within the political system, broken and imperfect as it is, to make human authority as much like God’s plan for humanity as we possibly can.
We pray it all the time, “Thy Kingdom Come on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus challenges us to put our allegiance where our mouths are and make choices in every area of our lives so we “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God what is God’s.”