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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Read the whole passage)
We have been journeying through a particular section in the Gospel of Matthew for weeks now. It all began with Jesus teaching in the temple, when Pharisees question his authority. And so Jesus has been telling parables in response. He has talked about sons who do not do what their father asks, he has talked about landowner to his sent his son to collect from murderous tenants and who end up killing the son, Jesus has talked about a proud King who destroys the invited guests who will not come to his son’s wedding banquet and who then throws out another guest who had been pulled of the street because he was wearing the wrong robe.
All of it has been part of a plot to trap Jesus into saying something heretical. And all along the way, Jesus has been showing his audience and us, that we are power hungry sinful people. And that God is radically merciful and outrageously gracious.
And finally, we land today with the question taxes and authority. The Pharisees have questioned Jesus own Authority way back at the beginning of this series interchanges, and now they are questioning to what authority Jesus will submit.
Now, before going any further, knowing some history is vital to understanding what is going on. The question of paying taxes to Rome, was more of a question of idolatry, than it was civic responsibility. Most people in Israel were taxed about 85% of their income. Some to Rome, some to the temple, some to pay off tax collectors, some to the Levites, some to the towns and villages in which they lived. People were bled dry for their money, and were often only allowed to just enough to survive. Most had to go into debt in order to make ends meet. Sound familiar?
However, the issues with paying taxes to the Emperor had to do with the coins themselves. Caesars were considered to be Gods, and the Roman coin the denarius was a constant reminder of that. The Israelites were prohibited from having any other God’s but the God of Abraham and Moses… therefore to even touch a coin would be sin. And yet, their Roman occupiers gave them no choice, since they all must pay taxes. This is why there were money changers in the temple, sinful roman money needed to changed into pure temple money.
So in this context, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus so that they can get rid of him and his enthusiastic followers.
Yet, the trap that the Pharisees have set for Jesus reveals something far worse than any kind of blunder that Jesus can step into. They attempt to get Jesus in trouble my making him either choose heresy by denying the one true God or to risk the wrath of the Roman Empire by undermining Caesar’s divinity. Yet in trying to make Jesus choose between the God of Abraham and the imperial Roman overlord, the Pharisees reveal something else.
The way the Pharisees pose the question, by using God as object to catch Jesus with the Pharisees show how their own faith is broken. Faith to them is nothing more than a tool to be exploited, a means to obtain power and influence. Being a Pharisees meant status and material comfort.
They might not even know or see what they are doing. They might think that they are protecting their faith… they do not see that they are using God and God’s relationship with the chosen people as tool to get Jesus in hot water… and to eliminate his threat to their cushy gigs.
The trap that the Pharisees fall into is one that we all can fall into. Our faith can be broken apart by the same kind of thinking, often when we least realize it. Being part of a faith community can quickly move from being about following the God who reconciles all creation to Christ in the cross and the empty tomb… to spending out efforts protecting our status in the community, to holding on to the comforts of faith, to seeking more control and power.
We too get sucked into thinking that faith is about status and privilege, about budgets and positions, about doing things like grandma and grandpa did, about having a place that is about us rather than about God, about using God is a weapon to condemn and judge others, and on and on and on.
And with that thinking, without even knowing it, our faith can break and crack too. And God can become a tool or an object that we use, rather than the One who is the centre and definition of faith. A way to trap an unsuspecting prophet in the temple, or a way to trick and entice the young people back to church in order to fill the offering plates.
It is a very human thing to try to make into God something we own and control and can use for our purposes. The hardest part is that like the Pharisees, we don’t usually even see it.
And so when Jesus answer the Pharisees, he gives them the thing that they have been wanting. He makes a statement about giving to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
He chooses the route of accepting the wrath of the empire, because to claim that Caesar is not God is to threaten the power of Rome.
But giving Caesar what is Caesar’s is not the point. As much as many preachers have tried to use Jesus’ words as reason to encourage the faithful in doing their civic duty… Jesus’s emphasis is on God.
Give to God what is God’s.
So what belongs to God?
The entire universe.
Even as the Pharisees are using God as a tool, a weapon and a trap for Jesus, Jesus is point them back to God. Reminding them everything belongs to God.
All things. All of creation. All of life. All power and might. All righteousness and virtue.
And all Grace and forgiveness. All mercy.
Even us and our broken faith belongs to God.
But more importantly, giving to God what is God’s is NOT really ours to do.
Because we cannot give anything to God.
And that is thing that Jesus has caught the Pharisees with. As they try to trap him, and contain the threat of this ministry, and they try to protect the true faith of Israel, which just happens to give them a lot of power and privilege and wealth… Jesus reminds them their faith, that God is not a thing to control, nor tool to use to maintain their position.
Rather, God is the one who to whom all things belong.
And the Pharisees and all Jews knows this, even when they don’t remember it. Because they pray it at every sabbath, and they pray the reminder over and over at passover:
Blessed are you, O Lord God, King of the Universe.
And so giving to God what is God’s is truly to be remind of the God to whom we belong,
is the God of Kings and Empires, of beggars and the lame, of regular folks.
And this God to whom we belong is also the God of life.
The God who has sent the Son in flesh to bring the Kingdom near and to point us back to God.
The Lord God, King of the Universe knows already that the faith of Pharisees is broken, and knows that our faith is broken. It has been broken since Adam and Eve ate of the fruit.
And so while the question of the Pharisees reveals just what their faith is in and what they are trying to hold on to… It is no surprise for Jesus.
In fact, our broken faith, our tendency to try to turn God into a tool to use and manipulate is the whole reason God has come. And it is the whole reason that Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem a conquering King and it is the whole reason that soon after the Pharisees ask this question, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial and put to death.
But the blessed Lord God, King of the Universe is the one to whom all things belong, even death.
And in death, God shows us that there is nothing that doesn’t belong to God, no place where God will not seek us out, no brokenness that surprises God… and that there is nothing in all of creation that God does not hold in God’s hands. That even death belongs to God.
And so in pointing the Pharisees and us back to God, Jesus is also pointing us from death to life. Reminding us that the God to whom all creation belongs has promised us, and our broken faith, resurrection and new life as well.
Jesus says, give to God what is God’s…
But it is the Blessed, Lord God, King of the Universe who is giving us mercy and life.