A tricky question
15th November 2019
The Pharisees plotted a way to trap Jesus into saying something damaging. They sent their disciples, with a few of Herod’s followers mixed in, to ask, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students. So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, “Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me? Do you have a coin? Let me see it.” They handed him a silver piece.
“This engraving—who does it look like? And whose name is on it?”
They said, “Caesar.”
“Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.”
The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.
An interesting question to ask at the moment might be – how would Jesus vote? The question in our reading isn’t quite that one – but it does sound a bit like one of those tricky questions interviewers use with politicians, trying to pin them down of catch them out. Asking about taxation is always a good one, because people really care about their money.
The questioners think that they are forcing Jesus to choose between making himself unpopular by siding with Caesar, or more likely getting himself into trouble by telling people not to pay their taxes. Surely, with all his talk of the Kingdom of God, he will say that God’s authority supersedes all human authority, and so Caesar’s demands should be ignored?
The reply Jesus gives isn’t just a clever way to get out of a difficult situation. He is making a clear distinction. Living in this world means living in the political – and economic – reality. We do have human authorities. They demand certain things of us, and meeting those obligations doesn’t mean that we are not paying due deference to God.
We can all ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’ – by paying our taxes, keeping the law, and voting in elections. That doesn’t usually stop us ‘giving to God what belongs to God.’ We don’t have a ready made excuse – ‘I’m too other worldly to fit in with this human system’.
But we also have a larger perspective – and that is what is so powerful about Jesus’ answer. The questioners assume that how we use our money is what really matters – but I think the listeners hear Jesus saying that our responsibility before God is much more important. One involves just our wallets – the other involves, as many parables show, the whole of our lives.
And what if this wider perspective of the Kingdom of God challenges the way that human authority is used? Jesus doesn’t deal with this here – although he is more than willing to challenge the human authority of the Jewish leaders. But there are people who have lived out that challenge.
Martin Luther King was inspired by his dream of a time when God’s kingdom would right the wrongs of American society – when black and white children would be able sit down as equals around one table – when justice would roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
That dream lead him to challenge the human authorities. He didn’t deny those authorities had their place – but, like Jesus, he made it clear that their authority was limited. He and his followers challenged it by non violent protests – they worked within the system to challenge the system – so that they could make that system a better reflection of the vision they had.
So we can hold these two things together – working with the system as it is, and challenging it where it clashes with the bigger vision that God gives us. Maybe for some of us the bigger vision at the moment is focussed around our response to climate change. Working within the system means checking every manifesto to see what their promises are in this area before we vote – and for some people it might mean getting involved in the grubby business of politics itself – trying to change those policies – because politics is embedded in the way the world works.
It might also mean challenging the system in the light of this bigger vision – as the protesters in London did last month. Unlike in the days of the Roman empire, we might really be able to affect the decisions of those in power.
Jesus doesn’t give us a free pass to giving up on the world as it is – but he does hold out a hope of a better way. When he stands before the Roman Governor, on his way to be crucifying, we see a very different sort of power at work – the power of unarmed truth, the power of undefeated love – an authority which is deeper and stronger than all the powers of this world.
May your kingdom come may your will be done
We pray for our politicians, and all involved in this election: Lord, may those who seek power in our country learn the ways of integrity, and humility, of justice and compassion…
We pray for ourselves: Lord, give us wisdom to know where to challenge power that is wrongly used – in our community, in our country and in our world, and give us the courage to speak and act when you call us…
We pray for our country: Lord, renew a vision in the people of this country which includes the needs of all, which commits to care for our planet, and which draws us together around the deep values of your kingdom…
Lord, may your kingdom come; may your will be done.