CMC Worship in Place | Cultivating Beloved Community | October 18

Sermon: Joel Miller

Scripture | Matthew 22:15-22

Sermon | Not trapped

There are a lot of intersecting lines within this brief exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians and the question of whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. 

There is the obvious question of paying taxes, with the additional layer of how an occupied people relates to the occupying government.  Think Gandhi in British-occupied India.  Closer to home, think Native Americans in settler-occupied America. 

There is the lively rabbinical debate of what is lawful in the Hebrew Scriptures and what scripture one might use to back up one’s argument.  Think of the episodes that directly follow this one when Jesus is asked about resurrection, and the greatest commandment, responding to each with a citation from Torah.

There is the modern question of the separation of church and state and the relationship between the secular and the sacred and by modern I mean a relatively recent way of thinking that would not have been on the minds of these first century folks.  There’s the question of how we in a representative democracy relate differently to our government than those in the ancient Roman world.  

There is the matter of conscientious objection and when one’s allegiance to a higher authority is in conflict with other authorities.  Think sanctuary and war tax resistance. 

There is the broader issue of our relationship with money and what we do with it. 

There is the rhetorical issue of how to respond when you are given a Yes or No question and neither answer quite works and either answer could get you in trouble.

The text states up front that the goal was to entrap Jesus in what he says.  It’s a trap set at the intersection of religion, politics, and money.  We jokingly say these are topics to be avoided in conversation where there might be disagreement.  Sometimes, yeah, that’s probably best.  But the questions they put to us are pretty unavoidable.  This is an intersection we navigate every single day.

The setting for this exchange is the Jerusalem Temple.  Majestic architecture.  Pilgrimage destination during the Passover celebration.  And it’s peak season here at the temple.  In Matthew’s timeline this is Monday of Holy Week.  The question has to do with paying taxes to Caesar and in four days, four days, some of those tax dollars are going to be put to use in the execution of Jesus by the Roman state.  When Jesus is on trial before Pilate – this is Luke’s account – one of the accusations against Jesus is this: “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor.”  (Luke 23:2)  Jesus neither affirms nor denies this.    

Like us, Jews paid different kinds of taxes.  There was the annual temple tax to keep it running.  There were land taxes and customs taxes.  Taxes and fees to have fishing rights on the Sea of Galilee.  This is likely the kind of tax Matthew was collecting at his booth when Jesus invited him to spontaneously resign and pursue the lucrative career path of itinerant preacher’s assistant.  This gospel bears Matthew’s name.  Mark and Luke also record this particular episode in the temple where the tax in question is the poll tax.  It had been instituted back with that census Luke mentions around the time Jesus was born.  It’s tribute money.  This tax was paid directly to the emperor, payable in coinage created just for that purpose.  The silver coin had an image of the emperor Tiberius’ head, with the inscription: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”  A little piece of portable propaganda.

It was, understandably, not popular with the people.  And especially offensive to Jews since the claim of Tiberius as Divine was idolatrous, not to mention the whole “no graven images” commandment (Exodus 20:4).  And thus the trap.  If Jesus answers No, that the tax should not be paid, he’s in trouble with Rome.  If he answers Yes, he loses with the people. 
“Tells us, and all these pilgrims milling about, Jesus, what do you think?  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Jesus knows it’s a trap, and can smell the hypocrisy in the question.  He perhaps pats down the pockets of his robe and says something to the effect – you know fellas, I don’t seem to have one of those coins on me.  How about you bring me one so we can have a good look at it.

We’re not told where they got the coin, but they got one, and now they’re the ones holding this idolatrous graven image, and Jesus asks them: “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  They give the answer, just one word: “Caesar.”  To which Jesus responds, in King James English: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Then Matthew writes: “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”

Now, that is an amazing answer. 

What’s also amazing is that we’re left wondering whether it was an answer at all.  Was that an answer?  Or does it simply pose a better question about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? 

Caesar made the coin, it has his image on it so it’s clearly his, so if he wants his coin back, give it to him. 

But doesn’t everything ultimately belong to God? Like that verse from Psalm 24 which says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (v. 1)  And even though the coin bears Caesar’s image don’t we bear God’s image, like it says in Genesis 1, such that all of ourselves belong to God and not Caesar?  Is that the rabbinical argument and the scripture references just beneath the surface of Jesus’ words?

This exchange, and Jesus’ response, is one that has sparked the imagination of people ever since.  I have asked four people to each read a quote that gives a take on this passage.

Gandhi took this teaching of Jesus to heart and wrote this: “Jesus evaded the direct question put to him because it was a trap. He was in no way bound to answer it. He therefore asked to see the coin for taxes. And then said with withering scorn, ‘How can you who traffic in Caesar’s coins and thus receive what to you are benefits of Caesar’s rule refuse to pay taxes?’ Jesus’ whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes.”
(from Young India, 27 March 1930)

Some Quakers and Mennonites have engaged in war tax resistance – withholding the percentage of their federal taxes that go toward military spending.  Mennonite pastor John Stoner spoke of this passage as encouraging this practice: “We are war tax resisters because we have discovered some doubt as to what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and have decided to give the benefit of the doubt to God.” 

(This and other quotes also found at…)

Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement.  She was fond of saying: “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.”  The Catholic Worker movement also promoted a life of voluntary poverty.  Dorothy Day endorsed this by saying, “the less you have of Caesar’s, the less you have to give Caesar.”

Mennonite Dale Glass-Hess wrote this: “The fact is that by our lifestyles we’ve run up a debt with Caesar, who has felt constrained to defend the interests that support our lifestyles. Now he wants paid back, and it’s a little late to say that we don’t owe anything. We’ve already compromised ourselves. If we’re going to play Caesar’s games, then we should expect to have to pay for the pleasure of their enjoyment.” (in Peachey, Titus. Silence and Courage: Income Taxes, War and Mennonites: 1940-1993 MCC Occasional Paper #18, August 1993, p. 29)

We at CMC are undoubtedly embedded within the life and lifestyle of 21st century America.  Unlike people in the first century we have a more direct ability to affect how our tax money is spent and who serves the next four year term as Caesar.  Still, it can feel like a trap to live in a country where the wealthiest corporations and sometimes individuals get away with paying no taxes, or hardly any, and yet by faithfully doing our civic duty and paying taxes we are supporting an expansive military abroad, and an increasingly militarized police force locally. 

And other times taxes are going to those things that are indeed the things of God.  Think education – schools and libraries, disease research, health care, affordable housing.   

So one of the invitations I hear in this scripture is to recognize that Yeah, we’re kind of trapped.  There’s no good Yes or No answer here to a lot of what we’re facing at this vital intersection of faith, politics, and money. So that’s something: confessing that we have a problem.

But this is a story about a trap that ultimately fails to entrap.  And so I ask that we listen to the deeper invitation into the Spirited life that frees our hearts and minds and actions to live beyond the trap.  The place Jesus speaks out of, even as he faces his own mortality.  To live as if the trap is not the defining part of our lives.  Or, another way of saying this, is that we can move from one question where there’s no good answer, to the world of the question Jesus poses where there the answers are multiple, and the question sticks with us – destabilizing us, centering us, provoking us to imaginative action, guiding the way.    

And that’s the gift of this answer to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s  – to free us to pursue the things of God or, we could say, the things of good, the things of mercy and justice, and beauty and creative expression.  Like Gandhi and Dorothy Day did in their own setting.  Jesus cannot be trapped because he is free of Caesar’s grasp.  And we are free to direct our energies toward these good things.  And then rather than us always just reacting to Caesar – should we or shouldn’t we do this thing Caesar asks – Caesar is put in reactive mode, responding to the actions of those who refuse to be trapped. 

This is the resurrected Christ alive in the world.  This is you, and me, and us as the body of Christ.  This is the beloved community under cultivation.