Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
The question was put to Jesus in order to trap him. At issue was one of the burning questions of the day. Rome itself produced little. It became wealthy by conquest and acquisition. After conquering a kingdom they would level the imperial tax on its people (a tax not paid by Roman citizens) for the privilege of being conquered and ruled by Rome. The imperial tax was crippling to the economy of any healthy country, a way of sucking up the wealth and transferring it to Rome. It is a primary reason why the Zealots hated Rome so much.
The Pharisees, who were opposed to both the tax and Roman occupation, sent some of their own along with the Herodians, who ruled both under and by the power of Caesar to pose the question to Jesus…in public and at the temple, the symbol of Israel as a nation and as a people of God. It’s clear indication from the circumstances that they were not interested in anything more than forcing Jesus into taking a position that was bound to alienate him with the partisans of one side or the other. It would also cut very close to home; one of Jesus’ disciples was a Zealot and one was a former tax collector for Rome.
Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Jesus’ answer to their question is construed by some as cleverly side stepping the issue. But it is much more than that. It challenges the whole notion of giving our attention to the burning issues and opinions of the day, of trying to leverage power, loyalty, or guilt for our particular causes. Jesus is challenging the Pharisees and the Herodians both to turn their attention to God’s agenda, God’s purposes, and God’s ways; and God’s ways seldom align themselves with any particular party or issue.
Can one love this country and serve it without being a Republican? Can one be concerned about the economic and social plight of black Americans without agreeing with the agenda of BLM? Can one be concerned about both the health of the economy and the health of the nation? Is it morally responsible to not have an opinion about every issue that is presented to us for a decision? Shouldn’t it tell us something about ourselves that we demonize those who do not agree with us, that we question their morality, their loyalty, or their motives? Shouldn’t it tell us something about ourselves when our opinions line up conveniently with one party or another on a range of issues, that we think in pat phrases, that we see only in terms of either/or, and for or against?
There is something bigger than any or all of the current issues of the day going on. There is something greater happening among us than covid or BLM or the economy or the election. When Jesus gave his answer to the Pharisees and Herodians we’re told that they were amazed. So they left him and went away. But the word translated amazed has a more nuanced meaning; it means to be filled with wonder and admiration or awe—even reverence. Maybe we could take our cue from them. Perhaps rather than be angry or anxious about what’s happening, we could turn our attention to the one who holds it all in his hands in awe and reverence. Let’s render to God what’s God’s; attend with reverence what God is doing.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Rev. Don Muncie