It’s not exactly a matter of heads or tails
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him [Jesus] 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.
The story of Jesus outsmarting his enemies who tried to trap him is generally well known. We’re familiar with the reporter going after a politician trying to get him or her to say something controversial or embarrassing – framing questions in ways that seek to entrap. Jesus wasn’t facing the media but a combined force of enemies – the Pharisees who believed that God alone should rule and the Herodians who supported the rule of a human king – who have combined to eliminate Jesus they both see as a threat. The question is designed to make Jesus say the wrong thing whichever way he answers. Say its right to pay the tax and the Pharisees have ammunition against him and say that it isn’t right to pay the tax and the Herodians can have a go at him. Their hypocrisy is exposed – even their false admiration of Jesus – as Jesus is revealed as a man of integrity who teaches the way of God and is not swayed by people – when he asks who owns the coin used for the tax. ‘Caesar’, they reply. And then comes the powerful words – parable like – that draws you in and makes you stop and think – still today – Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
We hear Jesus’ reply and also look back over nearly 2000 years of history as Christians from each generation seek how to live in ‘church and state’ – a phrase we know well but unknown in Jesus’ day. We can’t be hermits and cut ourselves off from the state; it isn’t a matter of splitting everything 50-50 between God and the government; when the Church becomes the state it never lasts and goes bad; when the state wants to become ‘god’ it becomes a beast (think Revelation) and out of this Lutherans use terms such as ‘two kingdoms’ or ‘God’s left and right hand’ to talk about the different ways God operates in the world. Yes, he uses the state and laws to keep order and provide peace and he uses the church to provide his means of grace and create new creations who live with him through faith while they live in a variety of states and political structures.
Lutherans believe that God continues to make his world go round with people in all segments of society doing their ‘bit’ so that everyone can be fed and clothed, enjoy arts and leisure, and live in peace and justice. Consequently we say that Christians can be found in all walks of life – not trying to make a heaven on earth but working so that everyone can live in peace and harmony, treasuring life and love, and having the opportunity of hearing the gospel. Lutherans thus tend to be politically and socially ‘quiet’ – we’re not really revolutionaries – for we prefer working within the structures of society – we tend to ‘default’ to the status quo – while treasuring our freedom in Christ to do this and to have differing opinions about how best the world should enact peace, justice, and harmony. We struggle with the freedom we have to respond politically because we feel a tendency that all Lutherans should be the same but that most definitely isn’t the case as we bring our knowledge, points of view, priorities to the table about the current social or political debate or issue. We might even disagree with our government, we may live under a decidedly ‘bad’ one but we still operate with the view that behind it all God is in charge and he’s the one we want to follow – so we may find ourselves fined or imprisoned should the government seeks to claim to be our god. We seek to be obedient while we are always observant and critical. We look back over 2000 years to this scene and appreciate – and still struggle with living – Jesus’ words: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
After nearly 500 years of the Lutheran Church we can recite the two kingdoms doctrine quite well. However – while I don’t wish to challenge the doctrine – I do wonder whether Jesus was actually teaching it; whether that was his goal back then.
We hear talk about tax and we visualise a denarius – no doubt the Silver Denarius of Tiberius who was emperor at the time. The question is a trap. The answer is irrelevant because it is only going to be ammunition to try and shoot Jesus. But Jesus turns the tables. All this we know. What we don’t usually appreciate is that this scene is occurring after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – he’s entered the capital as its humble king riding a donkey – the crowds certainly thought along those lines – he’s in the temple teaching and getting challenged in a place which has its own currency – remember that there are money changers here. The temple was a place which also enacted a tax – the temple tax – which Jesus paid. You might say, ‘Show me the coin for this temple tax, whose image is on it?’ – and the logic of what Jesus said with Caesar means that the temple tax should have had God on it. Bit of a problem there because there is a commandment around saying no graven images. So what to do? Quite simple – use plants or patterns or something inoffensive to Jewish sensitivities. However what did the Jews of Jesus’ time do? Well, it was decreed that the preferred currency for Judean taxes including the temple tax was the Tyrian silver shekel which experience had shown had the best silver content. The Tyrian shekel had images of an eagle and palm branch on one side and an image of Melqart-Herakles – a god – on the other. The coins preferred for the temple tax in Jesus’ day had a god imprinted on it! Bad enough but it wasn’t even the correct God!
Now I think we can easily understand the desire for good currency – especially in today’s financial climate – the pragmatic reason for adopting it even if there’s a graven image on it – and I think we can imagine the arguments going ‘look, it’s a coin, not a statue; we’re not worshipping it, we’re using it to buy the things we need for the temple, we’re doing God’s work’ and so what Jesus did was more than just cleverly slip out of trap and give us something to think about in terms of church and state, what he did was go on the attack and challenge people about who their god really was! The denarius everyone saw I think raised up the Tyrian shekel of the temple tax in their minds’ eye since they were in the temple and Jesus had attacked the money changers the day before.
Give to God – literally ‘give back to God’ – what is God’s. Surely that can only be summed up as our lives; our whole selves; us as adults or children, parents or singles, powerful or powerless, healthy or ill; after all though people were made in the image of God which was ruined and defaced by sin, those who follow Jesus, Paul describes as ‘new creations in Christ’. Jesus is the image of the invisible God and his followers are in him and what Jesus is doing here is cutting through words and rhetoric and argumentation – stuff that Lutherans are very good at – and reminds us that what is important simply is God and our relationship with him.
Why should we have a relationship with this God? Well Jesus went on to die and rise again – and we have nearly 2000 years of Easter proclamations and gospel promises that tell us again and again of God’s grace and mercy and love towards us.
God is simply first, second, and third in our lives. His perspective and relationship governs how we live under Caesar and at home. God’s views become the criteria for our views and the basis for our words and deeds. The two kingdoms teaching is sound and good and worth noting and following but the focus of Jesus’ words is not actually on the choice but on the perspective and priority in life – and that is to be God’s who then sends us back into this world each week no matter the Caesar, each day to live in the freedom we have in Christ; to love those around us.
- Matthew 22:15 - 22