To Caesar…or to God?

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22

Our text today involves a trick question.

The Pharisees were “anti-tax” since it represented worshiping a “false god”.  The Herodians supposedly gained their access to power through Rome, and so viewed being “anti-tax” as treason. Here, the opposing political parties team up to trick Jesus.

But Jesus challenges them back. “You hypocrites… Why are you trying to trick me? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what belongs to God.”

What does Jesus mean by this?  It appears to be a question of loyalty and allegiance – to either a government / political system…. or to God. To whom should you give your ultimate allegiance?

  • Is Jesus saying “there should be no loyalty or allegiance to Caesar – only to God?”
  • Or, is he saying that while we owe SOME things to Caesar – like taxes – we owe everything to God?

Many commentators point out that the opening words in Genesis were probably part of the understanding of Jesus’ words by those who heard them. While Caesar had his own “likeness” and “image”  put on the Roman coin, God has imprinted his likeness and image on humanity.

Genesis 1:26 – Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness

So the coin may have Caesar’s image on it – but we have God’s image on us! Figuring out our taxes may actually be the easy part. What we owe God is usually the harder issue to understand.

In our nation today, we are polarized. We are unable to hear each other. We’ve stopped being able to discuss difficult topics without slipping into name-calling and cynicism. We are less than 3 weeks out from a major election. In our politics today, Christian brothers and sisters often disagree heatedly on what our position should be in regard to any number of issues. In today’s biblical passage the issue was taxation. For us today it may be immigration, health care, abortion, racism, sexual gender issues, or any number of other issues. We are polarized, numbed, cynical, frustrated. How are we to behave? What do Jesus’ words have to say to us in our present climate?

Last week Shun Takano shared with us a message from I Corinthians 13 on the topic of LOVE. As Shun stated, if we don’t have love – we have nothing. Even a “correct opinion” is worthless if we have forgotten that love is our true identifier – not our political party. Shun pointed out that in Jesus’ day one of the hot topics was the identity of the long-awaited messiah – was Jesus this promised Messiah, or not? In the end, Jesus didn’t discriminate between those who loved him and believed him to be the Messiah, and those that didn’t. He simply showed his sacrificial love for all by dying for both sides.

During these turbulent days I would like to suggest that the challenge to us is to offer respect, love, mercy (all qualities of God that we are to mimic) to all those around us – even those who hold a completely different political opinion than we do. Our “chief identifying feature” is not which candidate we will vote for – but the love we show for each other. Not, are you Republican or Democrat, but are you aware that you’re made in the image of God – and are expected to behave like it?

There is NO political end that allows you to bypass Christ-like behavior, i.e., treating others with love and respect – as brothers and sisters, created by God our heavenly Father. This is, of course, far trickier than it sounds, particularly when the issues being discussed and the opinions held are life and death matters.

Jesus may have said to his questioners: “It doesn’t matter whether you are a Pharisee or a Herodian – whether you think taxes are payable according to Jewish law or not. The bigger question is this: “Are you aware that everything – yourself included – belongs to God? How do you understand your civic duties in light of this?”

Politics will come and go… Caesars will rise and fall – but the Kingdom of God is eternal. In light of this Paul says the following to the Christians in Rome:

“Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.” Romans 12:1

As a friend and member of JCC, would you walk with me this coming week in struggling with this very real issue: understanding our civic duties and political involvement – in light of the fact that we are imprinted with the very likeness of God? Finding that balance won’t be easy, but the struggle and prayer work is always worth it.

(the above is a summary of the message shared during our zoom worship hour last Sunday, October 18th.)