October 18, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
A saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Taxes are literally on the ballot this year, and as Americans we argue about taxes quite often; it’s part of who we are. After all it was the Stamp Act of 1765 which stirred a raid on tea shipments in Boston Harbor, and helped inspire our declaration of independence from Great Britain.
There have been disputes over taxes ever since there have been governments to collect them, so it’s no surprise that Jesus was confronted with the question of taxation. In the first century, Israel was a Roman-occupied colony, and the Jewish people had to pay taxes to Rome. Those taxes paid for roads and bridges, plumbing and sewers, but they were also used to pay for the army that occupied their country.
Just as we may support or oppose taxes in our time, and Revolution-era America had loyalists who supported the British government and those who opposed it, ancient Israel had supporters of the Roman rule under Herod Antipas, and those opposed it like the Pharisees.
The Herodians, who supported Herod as ruler of Israel for Rome, were in favor of paying taxes to Caesar. The taxes had to be paid with Roman coin. Caesar considered himself to be a god, and may have been viewed that way by others. The coin which bore the head of Caesar also had an inscription which read, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.” The Pharisees, committed as they were to the details of Jewish law, viewed the coins to be blasphemous idols, icons of a rival god. Since the commandments forbade worshiping other gods and the making of idols, the use of the Roman money was a violation of religious law.
These two groups, Pharisees and Herodians, opposed as they were to one another, shared at least one thing in common: their desire to get rid of Jesus. They plotted together to entrap him with a question about taxes. They started by flattering him as one who is sincere and impartial, and then cornered him with the gotcha question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (v. 17).
If Jesus declared to his followers that it was lawful to pay the taxes, the Jewish people would turn against him and view him as a Roman sympathizer. If he opposed paying the tax, he could be accused of treason or sedition against Rome.
Jesus slips the trap by not taking a side. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). The coins, they have the image of Caesar on them, they must belong to Caesar. If it is money that motivates you, then you belong to whomever controls the money. If you wish to be a good Roman citizen, you have to pay your taxes.
The question implied by Jesus’ response, though unspoken, is “what belongs to God?” What is it that bears the image of the true God? The image of God is found in the face of every person, created in the image of God. If it is God that motivates you, then you belong to God. If you would be a good citizen of the kingdom of Heaven, you have to give yourself to God.
There is a kind of dual allegiance at play in the answer as it applies to us. We are accountable to both God and country. We have a responsibility to be good citizens, to pay our taxes, follow our laws, and vote for people to represent us. We also have a responsibility to be good Christians, to love and serve God and our neighbors, to avoid sin and seek forgiveness, and to work for peace. Most of the time the responsibilities of citizenship don’t conflict with the responsibilities of our faith.
What happens when they do conflict? How should Christians respond when the government uses violence against its citizens? What should we do when laws support or oppose the marriage of a gay couple? Where does our faith come in to play in how we respond to immigrants and refugees? When are laws written a thousand miles away superseded by the needs of the person right in front of us?
There are not always simple or easy answers to the problems and challenges we face. I suspect that it is easier to pay Caesar than it is to resist. It may be easier to walk on the smooth-paved Roman road than to follow the footsteps of Jesus on the sand by the lakeshore. Yet it is the image of God, not Caesar, that is imprinted on our souls. When we look at each other, or even at ourselves, we may see only the tarnish of life, the dirt and scratches left on the surface by the lives we have led. But underneath it all, the imprint of God remains. Let us render unto God what belongs to God. Amen.
 Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, 1789.