Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading are well known, but how do you understand them?
Jesus says: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Year after year, throughout my life, I have heard many, many sermons on these words, and they all seem to draw the same conclusion – Jesus is drawing a distinct dividing line between things of this world (the secular) and things of God’s kingdom (the sacred).
But … this morning I would like to question whether Jesus is really drawing a line that cannot and should not be crossed?
At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, Jesus is very much in the secular world.
Throughout his ministry the Pharisees have been testing him with intricate and probing questions.
But … now things are different … Jesus is no longer a minor nuisance … now he seems to have developed ideas that threaten the religious and political order.
The Pharisees now want to get Jesus out of the way, but they are also afraid of his popularity.
Today they are trying a new approach … they are trying to trip him up … to show him as an enemy of Rome.
If only they could do that … then the Romans would deal with him.
Any child could recognize the opening gambit of the Pharisees … they start by flattering Jesus: 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.
Just one sentence … so much flattery!
And then comes the killer question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
We all recognize this sort of question, don’t we?
It is a politician’s or a journalist’s question –
Go on … answer that one … yes or no … choose now!
To fully understand the potential ramifications of this question we have to understand how this tax worked:
- Rome imposed a head tax on its occupied territories;
- Every year, every person had to pay for the privilege of being a subject of the Roman empire;
- The tax had to be paid with a Roman coin … the denarius;
- The denarius bore the image of the emperor on one side and an inscription on the other: Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, most high priest.
Not surprisingly this was not only an unpopular tax because it was payable to the occupying Romans, it was also unpopular because of the blasphemous inscription.
All of this makes the Pharisees’ question a very dangerous question to answer injudiciously.
This is the context in which Jesus gives his well-known answer: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
In their flattering opening statement the Pharisees said that Jesus was teaching the way of God in accordance with truth … and here he was doing just that.
Jesus acknowledges that God’s law allows what is imprinted with the emperor’s image can be given back to him, but he also insists that it be done in the ultimately more important context of giving what is imprinted with God’s image back to God.
Jesus calls us to return to God all that we are, and all that we have been given.
Yes … we can give the emperor that denarius, that one coin … that tax which is owed.
But … there is no limit on what is due to God, because everyone and everything is God’s.
But … and this is a sad ‘but’ … we do not live as though this is true.
The worldly authorities get their dues by enforcing taxes which we, albeit reluctantly, pay …
but, God does not tax us.
God simply says: You are my beloved creation. I have demonstrated my faithfulness to you over and over again. I have given you everything, even my beloved Son. I have called you to be my children, to live in my kingdom, and to participate in my reign over the world.
But … sadly … we do not willingly live out that spirit of generosity that God himself has modelled for us.
We set limits on our generosity.
We render to God the last fruits, rather than the first.
We calculate how little we can give back or give away.
We even plead poverty when it comes to our time and talents and treasure.
It is a harsh reality that the Church, at national, diocesan and parish level, cannot ignore its need for the generosity of time, talents and treasure.
So few make time for their churches, so few share their expertise and experience, even fewer give generously to the mission and ministry of Christ’s church.
Today’s gospel presents us with Jesus making the connection between both the secular and the sacred.
Are you willing to join the Pharisees when they praise Jesus’ teaching, or are you joining the Pharisees in mocking Jesus’ teaching because of its inconvenience and challenge?