First Saturday of Advent
December 3, 2011
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 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. (Matthew 22:15-22)
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)
Religious people can be tough on one another when they suspect that someone thinks differently than they do about something concerning faith. Some of the people who were wary of Jesus were busy about doing that, and thought that they’d come up with a really clever way to trap him. They figured that he was in trouble regardless of his answer about taxes: If he said it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then he would expose himself as a compromised Jew; if he said it wasn’t lawful to pay, then they could report him to the Roman authorities as a lawless rabble rouser.
Jesus, however, turned the tables on them with his simple words, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Paying taxes to Caesar were just part of their reality. There would always be someone in charge who demanded payment for services rendered, whether real or imagined, and Jesus didn’t seem concerned about that.
His words, however, strike a disturbing chord. There are things that go to Caesar that are different than the things that go to God. Taxes are about money and represent the economic fuel that keeps governments moving. But that which goes to God is different from any kind of economic or material substance. On that, Jesus does not want his hearers to be confused.
Christians, however, throughout the ages have indeed gotten confused about this. From Jesus’ coming at his birth to the gatherings of the first Christians, this confusion has caused persecution and hatred. By the fourth century people began to confuse the Empire with the Church—a confusion that exists in some form even today in certain places. In the 1930’s and 40’s, people in Germany began to allow Hitler’s agenda to be compatible with the state church’s agenda. Even in the US we often confuse our nation (or at least our preferred political party) with the desires of God.
If some sort of tribute is inevitable when it comes to nations and rulers and governments, then what sort of things are for God? What things are separate, unique, and sacred? Jude says it well: Glory, majesty, power, and authority. That belongs to God. Let Caesar have his taxes.