That’s a denarius featuring Tiberius. The inscription on the other side reads Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs (“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”). It’s a coin with a picture of Caesar on it describing him as the son of God. That’s the coin that the People of Israel have to pay their annual poll tax to the Romans with (you can see why it seems like a blasphemous slap in the face to them!)
The tax was started after a census taken around A.D.6 – quite probably the one organised by Quirinius that Luke weaves his birth narrative for Jesus around. The Jews can remember the census – it was designed to determine their wealth and resources so that such a tax could be imposed. For Luke to set this as the backdrop to the story of Jesus’ birth is quite a political statement! But maybe that’s a story for another day… (Christmas is just a few shopping days away!)
The Jews resented the tax and they resented having to pay it with this particular blasphemous coin.
Soon after the tax was established, Judas of Galilee led a revolt against it – it’s mentioned as a cautionary tale in the book of Acts:
Later, when the people of our nation were being counted, Judas from Galilee showed up. A lot of people followed him, but he was killed, and all his followers were scattered. (Acts 5:37)
It is a dangerous thing to challenge the Roman poll tax. It is a life-or-death thing.
So – we have this encounter between Jesus and a strange alliance of Herodians and Pharisees:
The Pharisees got together and planned how they could trick Jesus into saying something wrong. They sent some of their followers and some of Herod’s followers to say to him, “Teacher, we know that you are honest. You teach the truth about what God wants people to do. And you treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are. Tell us what you think! Should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” Jesus knew their evil thoughts and said, “Why are you trying to test me? You show-offs! Let me see one of the coins used for paying taxes.” They brought him a silver coin, and he asked, “Whose picture and name are on it?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered. Then Jesus told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” His answer surprised them so much that they walked away. (Matthew 22:15-22)
They start with flattery… ha! how pathetically obvious is that!
“Teacher, we know that you are honest. You teach the truth about what God wants people to do. And you treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are.”
If Jesus wasn’t on his guard before, he certainly is now! Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it but don’t swallow it!
He’d probably also have been on his guard because this is an odd alliance – Herodians and Pharisees. The Herodians were a pro-tax party – the Pharisees were rabidly anti-tax, they had to be – the coin itself is blaspemous! To see them approach Jesus together to ask about this tax and this coin of all things would have seemed very odd – perhaps an early example of a common enemy uniting enemies? My enemy’s enemy is my friend?
So here we have odd bedfellows approaching Jesus with cringeworthily cheesy and patently insincere flattery pretending to ask Jesus to settle a question about the Roman poll tax.
IT’S A TRAP!
But Jesus isn’t deceived by the cheese!
He sees the trap. If he says “Yeah – always pay the tax, it is your civic duty” then the Pharisees will stoke up the Jews (who hate the tax) against him… but if he says “No – it is an oppressors tax – you should refuse to pay it” – then the Herodians will run off and tell the authorites and he’ll be dragged off in chains like Judas of Galilee… it’s a neat trap!
I’d imagine there was a bit of a pause – a bit like when they dragged that woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asked if they should get on and stone her to death – Jesus scratched about in the dirt for a bit. It’s no bad thing to pause – measure your words – maybe build a little expectation!
And then he blindsides them.
“ Let me see one of the coins used for paying taxes.” They brought him a silver coin…”
Doh! They had one!! they had one of the hated coins!! Why did they have one? It certainly shoots the Pharisees’ fox! Jesus doesn’t even need to make a big deal of it – he has already shown them up as hypocrites – they are already trading in this hated coin – they are already paying Caesar – they are fully bought in to Caesar – what grounds have they now to challenge him.
The crowd is loving this – they move in closer, perhaps trapping the Pharisees and the Herodians – they can’t escape or beat a hasty retreat and Jesus isn’t finished with them yet!
“Whose picture and name are on this coin you have given me?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered. Then Jesus told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” His answer surprised them so much that they walked away.
And there it is – he has turned it back on them and they have no answer – they slink off. Incidentally, don’t think this is over. It isn’t. You can see every day in our own democracy, politicians repeating things that they KNOW to be lies – things which have been proven and shown to be lies – but they repeat them anyway – and the more they are repeated, the more they are believed as truth. Conservative politicians – every week still – repeat the lie that Jeremy Corbyn promised in the election campaign to scrap all student debt. We know he didn’t – it has been proved he didn’t – they know he didn’t – yet every single week they repeat it with the result that journalists have got tired of challenging it as they did at the start and they just let it go – and it then becomes accepted truth. The same thing happened with Jesus. During his trial at the Sanhedrin:
“They started accusing him and said, “We caught this man trying to get our people to riot and to stop paying taxes to the Emperor.” (Luke 23:2)
That’s nonsense! But you can imagine that it has been said and repeated so many times that Jesus is fed up of trying to deny it. A lie becomes accepted truth. Nothing changes, eh?
The Pharisees and the Herodians slink off – but their lies return to dog his steps. But what are we left with?
Jesus’ answer is clever – it gets him out of a trap – but it is more than that.
“Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.”
People have taken this away and interpreted in wildly divergent ways!
There are those who have taken this to mean that there are two kingdoms – Caesar’s Kingdom (the world) and God’s Kingdom (some other-worldly concept) and that the two do not intersect. We have responsibilities in both – we owe stuff to Caesar and we owe stuff to God – simple – our faith and the rest of our life are separate things to be treated separately. We live a kind of double life as citizens in two places but that’s fine because they are separate. Now that’s exaggerating and oversimplifying the idea for effect – of course it is – there is more nuance than that, but you get the idea! There are people in the world who say that Jesus has instructed us to obey the civic authorities – pretty much without question – and they can be heard saying “render to Caesar” every time someone suggests opposing the goverment as if “Render to Caesar” means we must always obey government. That, of course is patent nonsense. If you are a member here – or soon to become one – then this is very real to you. The URC Statement of Nature, Faith and Order which is read at membership services says this:
AMEN! That’s just a much more long-winded way of saying “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.”
We do not live lives where for some things we are in God’s Kingdom and for other things we are in Caesar’s Kingdom – the whole of life – every tiny part of it is within God’s Kingdom – there is nothing you say or do or are involved in that God is not interested in – even if it’s model trains!
We live lives where there are claims made on us by the world and by God.
The coin that Jesus borrows from his accusers has Tiberias’ image stamped on it. By stamping his image on that coin he has laid a claim to parts of your life – and he backs that up with force, with the power of the law, with penal consequences.
Yet you know that there is already an image stamped on your life. You are made in the image of God. God has already staked his claim to your life. And he backs that up with love that took flesh and blood and walked all the way to the cross and beyond.
That’s the world we live in – a world with competing claims on our lives – and Jesus will have us choose. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.
So – should I pay my taxes, Phil? I’m not going to tell you anymore than Jesus did! Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. Jesus wants you to wrestle with this and think it through and make serious choices about your life and whose it is – whose claims on your life you acknowledge.
But I will say this..
When you unthinkingly allow the Daily Mail or any other newspaper to determine your view on just about any political issue – then you are rendering your mind to Caesar;
When you follow the crowd or the mob or a few popular peers into mistreating or abusing or freezing out or dehumanising another person in order to keep your place – then you are rendering your heart to Caesar;
When you find yourself spending more and more on stuff and gadgets and shiney new toys, when you insist on having the very latest car or laptop or iphone and find you have less and less to spare for the hungriest people in the world – then you are rendering your wallet to Caesar;
When you vote for a political party primarily because you think that it will benefit you, that you will be better off even if many others are not – then your are rendering your choices to Caesar;
When you use other people in relationships or in friendships primarily for your benefit or your advancement or your pleasure rather than for theirs – then you are rendering your soul to Caesar;
If you fail to stand up and speak up when injustice reigns, if you fail to act in the face of oppression and prejudice, if you shut the door and hide away when the poor and the lonely and the grieving come calling – then you have rendered your conscience to Caesar;
If you come to church to be entertained and to be fed a comforting spiritual takeaway and to complain when it is not to your taste; if you have become a consumer of church rather than a servant of Christ – never getting your hands dirty and offering your life as a living sacrifice to be a blessing to others – then you have rendered your church to Caesar.
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – but render unto God what is God’s.
Amen, let it be.