‘Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor and God what belongs to God’.
That saying is recorded in the gospels of Mark and Thomas, and borrowed by Matthew and Luke. In other words it was most probably uttered by the historical Jesus.[i]
The story that precedes this saying is about a verbal and political trap, and Jesus’ escape from that trap.
You might think it’s about tax, and Jesus’ avoidance. But really the moral of the story is the difference between the claims of the emperor and the claims of God; and how allegiance to the latter [God] impacts upon allegiance to the former [Caesar].
This story is not about two realms, one belonging to secular governance and one belonging to religious governance. It’s about God’s ownership of the one and only realm, and our stewardship within it.
We know the early Jesus movement struggled with the tax issue – and Paul, writing before Mark or Thomas, came down, like many fellow Jews, on the side of expedience.[ii] To publically rebel against paying tax was to invite the stripping of your assets, then your freedom, and then your life. That said, many Jews saw expedience as collaboration with the Roman occupiers. Tax was a major cause, if not the major cause, of the Jewish-Rome war of 70.
We Kiwis know about tax – income tax, company tax, fringe benefit tax, goods and services tax, and maybe soon an Auckland petrol tax. The majority of New Zealanders believe that tax is about pooling our resources and redistributing, so that our society is better off. The arguments among us arise about the extent of that pooling and who it is redistributed to. Despite the rhetoric in our recent election, in comparison with others in the OECD, we are not a highly taxed country.[iii]
1st century Palestine especially for the peasant classes was highly taxed. There was religious tax [the Temple[iv] and priest tax], regional tax [King Herod and his extravagances], and then Roman tax, called ‘the tribute’. It’s the tribute that is being talked about in our story today.
The tribute was levied on landed property including crops and livestock and personal property. With the add-ons of the tax collection system[v] this tax alone amounted to a quarter to a third of a small holder’s harvest. With other taxes included Dick Horsley[vi] estimates that a peasant paid about 40% in tax. Tax kept the poor in poverty.
The payment of taxes was mostly done in coin. This is why there were money changers in the Jerusalem Temple – they were converting goods in kind into coin. But note there were two types of currency – Jewish and Roman – and the difference was what was engraved on the coin.
In New Zealand tax is by and large not a religious issue. But in 1st century Roman-occupied Palestine the tribute tax was a religious issue. The reason tax was religious was not primarily due to the exploitative nature of the tax system, how taxes were collected, and what they were spent on. Rather, it was due to the Roman coin and what it stood for.
As with our coins, Roman coins were engraved with a bust of the emperor/’monarch’. But unlike our coins this image was accompanied by the inscription ‘Caesar Tiberius, Divi filius’ [son of a god]. This inscription was not vain pretentiousness, but a serious theological statement. The emperor was a god. And a coin was therefore an idol. As such it was contrary to the 1st Commandment: “You shall have no other gods besides me. You shall not make for yourself an idol.[vii] So Roman coins were problematic for Jews.
Let’s return to our story. Jesus is approached by a grouping of critics who begin with crafted flattery, praising him for telling the truth regardless of consequences. In other words they are prefiguring their desire to want him to commit to a course of action that would get him into trouble. Verse 17: “Tell us, then, [they ask of Jesus] what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would get Jesus in trouble. If Jesus were to answer no, he could be charged with advocating denial of Roman authority - in short, sedition. If he were to answer yes, he risked discrediting himself with the crowd, who for both economic and religious reasons resented Roman rule and taxation. Most likely, this was the primary purpose of the question: to separate Jesus from the crowd by leading him into an unpopular response.
Jesus though sets a counter-trap when he asks to see a denarius, a Roman coin. Note Jesus is not carrying one of these graven idolatrous images but his critics are.
Jesus looks at it and then asks, “Whose image and inscription is this?” We all know their answer: “The emperor's.” Jesus' strategy has led his questioners to disclose to the crowd that they are carrying a coin with Caesar's image on it. In this moment, they are discredited. They are exposed as part of the politics of collaboration with Rome.
Then Jesus says, in effect: ‘Repay the one to whom you are indebted’. No Jew could have allowed for a valid analogy between the debt Israel owed to Yahweh, their God, and any other human claim.
Jesus was not telling his opponents to pay or not to pay the tax. He is inviting them to choose whom they will serve; to state who commands their allegiance. ‘Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God’ is structured as a radical antithesis between emperor and God, not literary parallelism.
So what belongs to God? Well, human beings belong to God [Gen 1:26-28] – we are made in God’s image. The land of Israel belongs to God [Leviticus 25:23]; indeed all land belongs to God [Psalm 14:1] – we are merely tenants/stewards/kaitiaki of it. What belongs to Caesar? Well… violence?, idolatry?, and little coins that symbolize both. Caesar like us owns nothing, though he thinks he does.
For a Jew and a Christian it is God whom we serve, and to whom we owe our allegiance. Caesar, Herod, and all those since who use violence – physical, emotional, economic - to subvert the purposes of God need to be resisted, and their egocentric and coercive claims refuted. But, as this story implies, there is danger here. Such resistance and refuting needs to be done carefully, cleverly, and if possible non-violently. It is a difficult path.
This morning Betty and Noel have committed themselves to following Jesus by serving/ministering to others. Such commitment and this story about allegiance overlap. For both involve some tricky and searching questions.
I would invite you to consider what are the idols today that entice us away from allegiance to God? You might think the pursuit of wealth is idolized. You might say the pursuit of power is an idol; or the pursuit of happiness.
But then we all need some wealth in order to live – and not only monetary wealth. And we also all need some power in order to live – power to make decisions, and exercise some control over our lives. Similarly with happiness.
Is then the difference that idolatry is a slavish addictive allegiance to ‘gods’ like wealth, power, and happiness to the detriment of one’s soul, the detriment of the poor and vulnerable, and the detriment of God’s call upon one’s life? Maybe to live a Christian life we need to acknowledge that all sorts of things can grow into idolatrous addictions pulling us away from an allegiance to God-in-Jesus.
The gospel story also begs the question of us: how do we pay God what belongs to God? The mysterious, loving, nurturing presence that we call G-o-d does not require coins, or armies, or burnt offerings, or even our prayer and praise. The Hebrew prophet Micah asked the rhetorical question: “What does God require of you?” and he answered: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”[viii]
[i] The story that precedes the saying is less historically reliable as being attributable to Jesus.
[ii] Romans 13:1-7.
[iii] As a percentage of GDP New Zealand tax is just below the average in the OECD.
[iv] This was a yearly tax on all males over the age of 20.
[v] Tax collectors had the right to collect funds much larger than those that were assessed by the government. To make the situation still worse, these tax collectors had significant power with few checks and balances. They could call upon the military to enforce their collections in addition to employing their own private thugs.
[vi] “Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine” Richard A Horsley.
[vii] Exodus 20:3,4.
[viii] Micah 6:8 paraphrased.