So, as promised, this week we return to the passage to which we were only able to give a little time last week – and added to it the two vignettes that follow on.
The setting is Jerusalem; the time is the last week of Jesus’ life. The triumphal entry and the clearing of the temple lie behind us; the last supper and the crucifixion are just ahead of us. And Jesus comes, finally, face to face with his theological and political critics. And one after another, he silences them – such that in the final verse of Chapter 22, we read “from that day no one dared ask him any more questions”.
So first up are the Pharisees, with their question about taxes. And Matthew leaves us in no doubt about their motives: they “plotted to entrap him”. And that motivation is crystal clear in the very next sentence: “they sent their disciples along with the Herodians”. It’s the sort of throw away line that passes us by, but the Herodians – supporters of King Herod, the ultimate collaborator with Rome, alongside Pharisees, the most vehement critics of Roman rule: this is not a group of people who went to same dinner parties or joined the same clubs. And the question they ask is the one that divides them: Jesus is going to have to upset someone – upset the Pharisees, and lose popular support, or upset Rome, and face the consequences.
And of course Jesus sidesteps their trap, because that’s what a good Jewish Rabbi would do; shift the question. “Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, give to God the things that belong to God”. It’s an answer no-one can argue with.
Except, of course, that it really doesn’t answer the question. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar? It seems to me that what Jesus has done – what Jesus so often does – is not answer the question, but instead tell his listeners the question that they ought to be asking themselves. He refuses to do the hard work for them; refuses to give them simple black and white rules to follow; instead he guides them into how they ought to be thinking about the questions they ask.
“You ask me about paying taxes,” he says to them, “but instead you should be asking yourself – what belongs to who? what belongs to Rome, what belongs to God?”
And from there, those who heard him could go in all sorts of directions. The coin is stamped with the image of Caesar – does that mean that it belongs to Caesar? But you can’t stop there. For if the coin, and the wealth it represents belongs to Caesar, to the anti-God pagan empire, then what does it mean that so many of the people of God are still so keen to possess them?
Still fresh in people’s minds was the clearing of the Temple, the throwing out of the money changers. Why were there money changers in the Temple? Because Roman currency, bearing the image of Caesar, was not acceptable for making offerings – or even purchasing sacrifices – in the Temple.
If this coin, this wealth, is not good enough for God, then what are the people of God doing getting so caught up with it, spending so much time and energy – as we do – worrying about it? If it’s ok to pay tax because the coin is of Caesar, then doesn’t that mean that Caesar’s whole financial system is an anathema to the people of God?
Or perhaps the mind might run off in a different direction. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what is God’s. A good Jew – a good Christian – might well respond by saying that everything belongs to God. “I will pay Caesar exactly what he is due – nothing at all.”
But more likely, perhaps, and more productive, would be to reflect on the logic of Jesus’ answer. For – and this is not at all a novel observation, when Jesus points out that the coin is stamped with the image, the likeness of Caesar – and implies that it therefore belongs to Caesar – and then asks, by implication at least, what belongs to God, the mind of one soaked in the Hebrew Bible surely goes straight to Genesis 1, and the creation story –
So God created humankind in God’s image
in the image of God, God created them;
male and female God created them.
For if the coin belongs to Caesar by virtue of the image it bears, then people belong to God, by the virtue of the image they bear.
And even more than that – for Caesar himself is stamped with the image of God. Enemy, pagan, blasphemer though he might be, the image is there. Look again at that coin. You see the face of a man, a cruel dictator, an oppressive ruler, an enemy to all that you stand for. But I see a man, and in that man I see the image of God. Distorted, hidden, twisted, no doubt. But he too is made by God, loved by God, owned by God.
But what then does it mean? It seems to me that Jesus leaves that question with those who hear him. For they were amazed, and left him and went away. Away to regroup? To plot? Or perhaps even to think about what he has said to them.
The Sadducees then came and challenged Jesus with a rather different sort of question, one which really seems a bit esoteric to us – a bit of the “how many angels can dance stand on the head of a pin?” sort of debating point. But it was a real question – for a significant topic of debate in Judaism at the time of Jesus was the question of life after death. It’s not an unambiguous theme in the Old Testament, but by the time of Jesus it was a major theme dividing the Sadducees from the Pharisees. And it was a question which had practical impliations – for belief in life – and justice – after death made it possible for some to stand for their faith even in the face of martyrdom.
So the Sadducees try to prove that there is no resurrection, by claiming a paradox. And while the details of Jesus’ reply – and what it says to us about the life hereafter – are the subject of a whole different sermon, I just notice that for once, on this question, Jesus comes down unambiguously on one side.
In the question of the resurrection, the life hereafter, Jesus – unusually, one might say – takes a definite stand.
And the Pharisees, of course, liked his answer – and even more, I suspect, liked the fact that he made the Sadducees look bad. So they come back. Perhaps they’ve just begun to realise the implication of Jesus’ “render unto God” reply. For now, at least, comes a real question. A test, yes, but not a trick. Not a trap. Not wrapped in flattery.
“Which commandment is the greatest?”
And of course we know the answer Jesus gives. But before we look at the answer, look again at the question. “Which commandment is the greatest?”
Because hidden in that question is a very significant assumption: that the commandments of God can be ranked. That some of the law is more important than other parts. And the need to decide which commandment is more important only arises out of a recognition that there are times when the commandments come into conflict with one another, when we need to decide which we will obey.
And this is really quite a radical admission – for it was not an uncommon assumption that to break one element of the law was to break the whole thing; and that the law of God, in its perfection, would never require that one part be broken in order than another be kept.
Yet here is the far more realistic admission – there are times when we must choose. Choose between two goods commanded by the law – or even choose which of two rules we are going to break. If that were not the case, the question “which rule is greatest?” would make no sense – the answer would simply be “keep them all”.
But that isn’t Jesus’ answer. Once again, he actually gives them the answer they need. If you have to decide which law to keep and which to ignore, there is one rule that stands above them all: love God.
And then he adds a rider. And in other tellings of this story we have the words “the second is this” – as if the command to love others was important, but not quite as important as loving God. Here Jesus phrases things differently “there is a second commandment that is like this first one”.
How are the two alike? How is love of neighbour like love of God?
Still fresh in the Pharisees mind is Jesus’ answer to their question about taxes, his pointing them to where God’s image is to be found. I don’t think it is too hard to imagine that Jesus is drawing them back to that same idea. Loving your neighbour is like loving God, for it is in your neighbour that you find the image of God. “How,” the apostle James will ask in his letter “can a man love God who he cannot see if he does not love his brother or sister that he can see?”
Love of neighbour – and never forget Jesus’ radical redefinition of neighbour in the parable of the good Samaritan – is not something we do because we love God and God wants us to do it – loving others, loving those who are created in God’s image, however distorted and hidden that image may have become – is loving God.
The rest of the law lies subservient to these two, which are, in truth, one. Love God, as God, the eternal creator – but also love God, whose image is to be found in friend and enemy alike. If any question arises, any conflict between goods, any need to decide what law is most important, Jesus’ instruction is clear: love God, and those made in God’s image. Of course it might not always be easy to work out what that means, and it will often be hard to do.
But at least we know the right question to ask.
What would love do?