Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?
Good morning to you all. Firstly on behalf of Anne Coomes and myself I would like to thank all of you who came to Chester Cathedral on 21 October to support the Readers who were being licenced, transferred or made Emeritus. I hope you found the service as uplifting and enjoyable as we did.
Today is the 19th Sunday after Trinity, and we are rapidly approaching the end of the Church’s year. Apart from it being the 109th birthday of St. Oswald Church there is nothing really special about today, which enables us to concentrate on the readings we heard from Matthew’s Gospel.
The story is well known but still important, and I was trying to think of a way to make it a bit more easily understood. Just imagine you are standing in the Palace of Westminster and the great British public asks, “Is it right that we pay vast sums of money to the European Union?” So the wise man (or woman), said, “Show me your coinage,” and he/ she was shown a pound coin with twelve edges. “Whose head is this on the coin?”, and the crowd said, “It is the Queen of England”. I will let you guess what was said next.
A country’s coinage is very important. Had we changed to the Euro some years ago, I doubt if we would or could have even contemplated Brexit today, as we would have been much more closely linked in with, and locked into, the European Union. And if Brexit fails, then the EU politicians have already said that their vision is for a European state with one currency, so the pound would have to go.
As I’ve said, the nation’s currency is very important and it is surprising to learn from this passage that the Romans allowed the Jews to use their own coinage, even if it was only to be used in the temple. The Romans even allowed Temple guards and this was one of the reasons that Jesus was handed over to be crucified, to protect the few perks the Romans allowed the Jews to keep.
But back to the story. This question, which the Pharisees put to Jesus, had an obvious double edge. The issue of paying tax to the Roman emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle East in Jesus’ day. Imagine how you’d like it if you woke up one morning and discovered that people from the other end of the world had marched in to your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having your land stolen! That sort of thing still causes riots and revolutions, and it had done just that when Jesus was growing up in Galilee.
One of the most famous Jewish leaders when Jesus was a boy, a man called Judas (a good revolutionary name in the Jewish world), had led a revolt precisely on this issue. The Romans had crushed it mercilessly, leaving crosses around the countryside, with dead and dying revolutionaries on them, as a warning that paying the tax was compulsory, not optional.
The Pharisees’ question came, as we would say, with a health warning. Tell people they shouldn’t pay tax, and you might end up on a cross. On the other hand, anyone leading a Kingdom-of-God movement would be expected to oppose the tax, or face the ridicule and resentment of the people. Surely the whole point of God becoming king was that Caesar wouldn’t be? If Jesus wasn’t intending to get rid of the tax and all that it meant, what had they followed him for all the way from Galilee? Why had they all shouted Hosanna a few days earlier?
If Jesus had been a politician on a television programme, you can imagine the audience’s delight, and the producer’s glee, when someone asked this question. This one will really give him a hard time.
Before Jesus answers, he asks them for a coin. Or rather, asking them for a coin is really the beginning of his answer, the start of a strategic outflanking move. When they produce the coin, the dinar that was used to pay the tax, they are showing that they themselves are handling the hated currency. Among the reasons it was hated was what was on the coin. Jews weren’t allowed to put images of people, human faces, on their coins; but Caesar, of course, had his image stamped on his and around the edge of the coin, proclaiming to all the world who he was, Caesar had words that would send a shudder through any loyal or devout Jew. ‘Son of God… high priest’ – was that who Caesar thought he was? How could any Jew be happy to handle stuff like that?
We watch the scene as Jesus takes the coin from them, like someone being handed a dead rat. He looks at it with utter distaste. ‘Whose is this… image?’ And who is it who gives himself an inscription like that?’
He’s already shown what he thinks of Caesar, but he hasn’t said anything that could get him into trouble. He has turned the question around, and is ready to throw it back at them. ‘It’s Caesar’s,’ they reply’, stating the obvious, but admitting that they themselves carry Caesar’s coinage. ‘Well then,’ says Jesus, you’d better pay Caesar back in his own coin, hadn’t you?’
Astonishment. What did he mean? ‘Paying Caesar back in his own coin’ sounded like revolution; but standing there with the coin in his hand it sounded as though he was saying: ‘you should pay the tax, and you’d better pay God back in his own coin, too!’ More astonishment. Did he mean that the kingdom of God was more important than the kingdom of Caesar, after all? Or what?
Let’s be clear. Jesus wasn’t trying to give an answer, for all time, on the relationship between God and political authority. That wasn’t the point. He was countering the Pharisees’ challenge to him with a sharp challenge in return. Wasn’t it, after all, they who were compromised? Had they really given full allegiance to their God? Were they themselves playing games, Keeping Caesar happy while speaking of God?
We can only fully understand what Jesus was doing when we see his answer in the light of the whole story. Jesus knew – he had already told the disciples – that he was himself going to be crucified, to share the fate of the tax-rebels of his boyhood. He wasn’t trying to wriggle out of personal or political danger. He was continuing to walk straight towards it.
But he was doing so on his own terms.
His vocation was not to be the sort of revolutionary they had known in the past. The kingdom of God would defeat the empire of Caesar, and the world, not by conventional means, but by the victory of God’s love and power over the even the great empire of death itself.
Yours is the majesty, O Lord our God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirt;
Yours is the kingdom and the Power;
Yours be the glory now and evermore.