Matthew 22: 15-22, page 24
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
So they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”
And they brought him a denarius.
Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
They answered, “The emperor’s.”
Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
“You can’t buy your friends,” my mother used to say. Maybe Chechnyan President, Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov’s (Ram-Zan Kitty-ruv) mother never told him that, as he recently spent millions to buy himself several celebrity friends to attend his 35th birthday party. Singer Beyonce cost Chechnyan taxpayers 2 million dollars, and also in attendance were other American celebrities Maria Carey, Usher, Jean Claude Van Damn, and Hilary Swank who all came with a price tag of their own. I don’t imagine that the taxpayers were happy, but I doubt any complained, as in addition to having to buy friends President Kadyrov is also a known human rights abuser, accused of abducting and torturing those Chechnyans who have dared question his authority.
The story was on the Today Show last Thursday morning and was focused on these celebrities, many who were urged not to attend the big birthday party by human rights groups. Although it’s difficult to decide who to be most disappointed in, the president whose authority is maintained through force or the celebrities whose friendship can be bought at the right price. But the real losers here are the Cheznian people whose money could have gone to fund badly needed schools, hospitals, and roads, but instead covered a lavish birthday party for a president they don’t even like.
This wasn’t the first time however; so it was for the Ancient Jews in the time of Jesus. Taxes were so despised, so resented, that tax collectors were considered hopeless when it came to salvation, rebellions were frequent but strongly suppressed by the Roman legion, and most of the money was shipped off to Rome. Some of the money did stay in Jerusalem however. It went to pay the Herodians, the Roman puppet government, and pay for Herod’s self-aggrandizing building projects.
The Pharisees didn’t want anything to do with it, and didn’t believe God wanted anything to do with it either. Rather than accept the vulgar coins used to pay the Roman Tax at the Temple, they set up money changers so that coins bearing the graven image of the Emperor could be exchanged for coins worthy of being offered to God; God, who is holy and just, while the Emperor is pagan and oppressive.
They feared Jesus, however. They feared that his popularity was a threat, so they set a trap attempting to “entrap him in what he said.”
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
It’s a well laid trap because anyone for the tax was a traitor and anyone against it was a criminal. The Pharisees were there to condemn him if he was for it, and they brought the Herodians with them to condemn him if he were against it.
It’s as though John Adams were campaigning for the 1st Continental Congress. He stands before Sam Adams and the other organizers of the Boston Tea party, violently opposed to British taxation, as well as the British authorities who are prepared to take down anyone openly opposed to paying tribute to the king.
“Mr. Adams, is it lawful to pay taxes to the king, or not?” someone asks from the crowd.
On the one hand is the treat of being tarred and feathered, on the other, execution for openly questioning British authority.
It’s not too different from asking politicians today about it. Even though most of our taxes will be spent on projects that will benefit us, much of what our taxes go to pay for aren’t representative of our priorities. They don’t go to pay for lavish birthday parties, but they do fund unpopular wars and they would go to pay for an unpopular health care plan.
Politicians don’t want to be labeled as being against taxes for fear of seeming irresponsible, but they can’t be for taxes either, as so many in our nation are sick and tired of it. We look at our pay checks and want that big chunk that gets taken by our Federal and State government back. For this reason the IRS has the public approval rating equal to that of the Cheznian President; we just don’t like to give up money that we’ve worked hard for.
So the question the Pharisees and the Herodians ask of Christ could be just as damaging to any presidential candidate – “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the government, or not?”
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says to them.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
They answered, “The emperor’s.”
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
He answers their question, but not the way they wanted him to. Is he for taxes? Yes, but that’s not the point anymore. He has avoided the trap himself and used it against them, showing the crowd what it means to be faithful in a time where money is given universal allegiance. Tertullian, a great patriarch of Christianity writing during the early 3rd Century, explains what Christ means – the emperor has a right to what is made in the emperor’s image: the coin; but in the same way God has a right to what is made in God’s image: you.
So much fighting over a coin; so much resentment. It is the fuel of commerce as with it anything can be bought or sold: cars, homes, and land. Some even put their very bodies and souls up for sale, selling their friendship, compromising their values for a price, knowing their worth in terms of dollars and cents.
But is it theirs to sell?
Give to the emperor what bears his image, but give to God what bears the image of God.
These words mean something in a world where human slavery is more prevalent today than before the Civil War – those who believe that bodies can bought and sold, that lives can be bartered for; they are attempting to sell what God already owns.
These words mean something in a world where so much of self-worth is based on salary, unemployment tearing down the foundation self-confidence, as though human worth was susceptible to the whims of the stock market.
These words mean something when a financial recession causes a state of emergency, compromises standards of ethics, causes spikes in domestic violence and child abuse as though money dictated happiness, not realizing that it does only if we allow it to.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they ask him, as though this were even the issue.
For so many it is – so often it’s easier to keep than to give and to go on longing for whatever percentage escapes our grasp – but the deeper issue Christ puts before you today gets to the illusion of ownership, the weakness of the emperor compared to the majesty of God, and the price tag we put on human life.
Today is the first Sunday of the Stewardship Season, but the question isn’t how much do you really need to give, the question for today is how much was God willing to give for you.
In a world where value is assigned, fortunes are made, and money talks, your value has been decided by Christ who laid down his life to prove how much you are worth in the eyes of God. Your worth, your value, has already been determined by the God who died on a cross so that you might live. You, bearing the image of your creator, belong to God and God will not let you go. While the emperor may want more and more and more, God wants all of you, and for you our God has paid the ultimate price.
You, are God’s own – give to God then your life, your whole self.