Paying God in God’s Currency
Presented -October 19, 2014
(Isa. 45:1-7; Mt. 22:15-22)
Very soon we will go to the polls and vote, which means we have endured endless rhetoric of late (as we seem to do more continuously than we used to). One of the perennial subjects of the rhetoric, political spin, and all the rest of it is taxes, who raised them (or lowered them) last time, and who will this time. A long time ago Jesus had his own debate about taxes with an unlikely coalition of religious/political leaders within his culture called the Herodians and the Pharisees. We don’t know a lot about the Herodians, except that they were lobbyists for keeping Herod’s family in power, which depended, in turn, upon keeping the Romans in power. Religious things were really not that important to them. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were folk for whom a dedication to a certain religious tradition superseded political motives. The Pharisees tolerated the Romans as long as they didn’t trample on their take on Jewish religion. They quietly opposed Rome on the matter of taxes. Both these groups opposed Jesus, perhaps, because he neither belonged to nor consistently agreed with any of the political/religious parties of his day and would have taken political and religious stances different from what the Herodians probably thought and for sure what the Pharisees did. This story takes place after Palm Sunday inside the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple.
Now, most people are careful to be “religious” “in church” (whatever those terms may mean for them). The Temple was the holy place in the Holy City, so, if Jewish people ever were going to dot their i’s and cross their t’s religiously, this is where it would be. These odd bedfellows approached Jesus about taxes paid to, literally, “The Caesar” (or the emperor), and they did it in this center of religious and national identity.
These chaps began by telling Jesus that he was a great guy, just as political debaters start out today, before they lower the boom on their opponents. One of the things they said was that Jesus “spoke truly,” by which they indicated that he said what he meant. They, then, uttered words used to ask a rabbi for a professional legal opinion (“What do you think”?) Later, Jesus called the speakers of these words hypocrites for speaking them. As some of you know, the Greek word hypokrites, ”hypocrite,” basically means “play-actor.” It means one who speaks words that are really not theirs, but come from someone else’s script. They really didn’t think that Jesus was qualified to make such a judgment, but were hoping to trap him. Jesus “got” what they were trying to do and called it hypocrisy, play acting, spin.
The plan was to trap Jesus by asking whether, in his “professional” legal opinion the Torah permitted payment of taxes to Emperor Caesar or not. What would he say? Jesus had already made it his business to proclaim the kingdom or reign of God, who, according to Jesus’ Bible (the Old Testament) was the real ruler of the people and owner of their land. How could they dare pay taxes to emperors who had usurped God’s reign and God’s land? If Jesus said he thought the Bible allowed God’s people to pay these taxes, he would have been marked out as an awful left-winger a big-tax guy and not only that, but one who wanted to let the godless Romans spend Jewish tax dollars on Roman projects. Many Jews would turn against him if he said that. If Jesus said, “No taxes to Caesar,” then the Romans, and their friends like the Herodians, could put him out of the way as they had done many other of these awkward Jewish folk as guilty of sedition. It was required to pay the taxes. Rows of fresh gravesites dotted the countryside from time to time to make that point. How would this rabbi respond?
Although all this was deadly serious in its way, this story shows Jesus’ wry humour. We shouldn’t be afraid to laugh in church at a Bible story when it’s funny. For example, the first part of his response was to ask his opponents to give him a coin used to pay the tax. Now, it’s important to realize was that Roman taxes had to be paid with Roman coins, not local coins. The common Roman coin was the dinar or denarius. In Jesus’ day, the dinar had the image of Tiberius Caesar on one side of it. The inscription read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” All that would be pretty offensive to Jews, who objected to people being called divine, and also very picky about having images of anything because of the second commandment that said, in short, “Never make an image and use it for worship.” To have such a coin made one unclean.
As I play this scene in my mind, Jesus, who didn’t have a Roman dinar with Caesar’s image with him in the temple, since it would have made him unclean, said, “Who’s got a denarius?” and Lo and Behold it was these super spiritual guys who had one stuffed down in their money bags…at church, no less. If they wanted to trap him they had to cough it up. It would be like asking for a flask of whiskey at a Billy Graham crusade. Jesus “received” it from these folk, and said, “Well, whose image is this?” “And who would write an inscription like that about himself…? Again, the answer was obvious, but I can imagine it being mumbled out, “The emperor’s…” and Jesus saying, “Could you speak up so we can all hear!” That’s pretty funny!
“So it’s Caesar’s. Then, you’d probably better pay Caesar back with his own coins then.” What might that have meant? It depends on who’s spinning it. Paying Caesar back with his own currency might sound a little like “Give back to Caesar the same stuff he’s given us, if it’s violence, then violence.” That sounds like a revolt against Rome. On the other hand, standing there with the coin in his hand might also sound a little like Jesus thought they ought to pay the tax to Caesar. The answer was as ambiguous as the question, not one that would have gotten him in the trouble the Pharisees and Herodians wanted. Jesus tricked the folk who were trying to trick him. And that’s funny!
We hear this passage through ears that are used to centuries of separation of church and state, in a democracy, and can’t imagine he’s talking about anything else. Jesus is giving us the rule for what most of us stand for. But what did he mean? No hearer of Jesus in that day or for centuries after would have heard what we hear. Jesus is not giving rules for what no one would have understood in his day. In fact, he was not giving rules at all, but general guidelines about which we must think.
Matthew is struggling to keep his diverse community together by emphasizing the things that were central and crucial, and encouraging inclusiveness on the less central and crucial issues. In the passages just previous that we’ve looked at in the weeks that have preceded, Jesus said that imitating God in actions of love and mercy was central. Just talking about things was not central. Making sure we all agree doctrinally and in the way local groups do their business is not. Here Jesus, through Matthew, is trying to give another centrality. In the first part of Jesus’ response he does recognize that there are such things as emperors and states and people have to deal with them.
The second part of Jesus’ response deals with the centrality. While the hearers were trying to deal with what he meant about paying back Caesar in Caesar’s own currency (was it revolution or paying taxes?), he said something else. “Yes, Caesar has coins minted in his image and they are, therefore, his. But, ”if you pay back Caesar in his own currency, then you’d better pay God back in God’s own currency, too.” There are many Caesars and many empires owned by them, and they all put their images on things and claim loyalties. But what is it that belongs to God? Is it only Caesar’s leftovers? This last part of what Jesus said is really the trans-cultural part, and that with which Jesus intended to leave disciples thinking and re-thinking. What is it that belongs to God? All of a sudden, Jesus stopped being funny.
Long before Jesus’ time, Israel was struggling as a displaced people in a foreign land. The “Caesar” of their world was Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who had taken them captive and burned Jerusalem and its temple to the ground. The people of God had thought that God, their God, was the Lord of the whole earth, the creator of all that was, and the defender of the righteous. That Israel was God’s chosen people with a responsibility to live their lives as examples of what it meant to be chosen was commonly thought to carry with it the assumption of a little privilege as well. Where did the privilege go when the king of Babylon who had never even heard of their God, but called on many others, successfully defeated them and, pretty much, emptied their land of inhabitants? Maybe their God (or so-called god) wasn’t so great after all. Maybe it was God who got Caesar’s (or, in this case Nebuchadnezzar’s) leftovers. It went this way for between 40 and 50 years, until, one day, they heard of another super-power, the Persians, and a new “Caesar” named Cyrus the Great. And Persia and the Persian gods were marching ever westward toward Babylon with victory after victory. Maybe, just maybe, the world didn’t belong to Nebuchadnezzar, but to Cyrus. But what of God?
It is then that the word contained in our Old Testament Lesson sounded clear that, although Cyrus was to be the instrument of Israel’s emancipation and home-going, that it wasn’t Cyrus, but their God who was working to bring this about, using Cyrus as a tool. And this was puzzling, of course, because they, like we, assume that if our God is going to do anything in this world, God will do it through us and people like us. But the principle behind the particularity of this remarkable text in Isaiah 45 is that our God is not so limited. God’s work needs neither us nor those like us. God is sovereign over the whole world and may work through anyone. Interestingly, this text in the Old Testament and Cyrus’ own words show that, while he may have known the Hebrew God’s name, he was no convert. And God worked through him still. God’s sovereignty includes all the kingdoms of the earth, and all the peoples, nations and tongues.
This Old Testament text suggests that we need hear what Jesus meant (and means) by “giving back to God in God’s own currency” differently than we may have. We have been taught to divide it up neatly: “This much of our lives for Caesar (whatever the name), this much for God.” There are two kingdoms, or two realms…we call them the church and the state or the church and the world. And it’s best when these two have little to do with one another. But, what would paying God back in God’s own currency mean if everything already belongs to God as the Bible, again and again, says it does?
I have already suggested to you that Matthew was trying to help his community know the difference between what was primary and important for them, and what might be left to individual conscience. This story suggests that it is central for Jesus’ disciples to trust that, although it might be necessary to pay off the emperor in the miserable coins that bear that image, our prior necessity is to recognize the sovereignty of God in Christ, and to pay God back in the divine currency of love, mercy, grace, and peace by imitating Jesus’ actions in this world. We owe primary allegiance to God and to God’s values.
Now, of course, the particularities of the world in which we live are quite different from those of either Jesus’ time or the time of Cyrus the Great, and it’s sometimes hard to sense the sovereignty of God. How we pay Caesar is notoriously difficult to think through. But we need to. Disciples who don’t think, soon stink. One way, I suggest, that we can do this is to see how God’s values are going forth today in the hands of many folk–those like us and those who are not like us. Whether it’s our agenda, it’s God’s work that is being done when Jesus’ love and grace, his mercy and warmth are going forth in action. If that makes us a little uneasy, or even afraid, we aren’t the first of God’s people to feel that way. Only a little earlier in the Book of Isaiah, in the 41st chapter, God said: “Stop being afraid, for I am with you, do not be anxious, for I am your God; I strengthen you, I help you, I uphold you with my victorious right hand.”
Wouldn’t it be wise to conquer our fears of those unlike us, and to recognize that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who dwell therein, and that, in the words of 1 John 4, “Mature love casts out fear.” Let us follow Jesus’ way of love of God and love of neighbour, recognizing that, in Jesus’ teaching, our neighbour is anyone who needs us.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,
Sermon created by Rev. Dr. Timothy Ashley