Even for Jesus, who must surely have had a reputation for answering every question with a question, for avoiding the traps of those who plotted against him by turning their words back upon themselves, this was a memorable little exchange. Not least because this time, the stakes were so high.
It’s the final week, the week in Jerusalem. Jesus has entered the city in triumph, and has set the cat very firmly amongst the pigeons by clearing the temple, and by telling a series of parables directly targeting the religious authorities. In fact, he’s gone so far in his attacks on the priests and the Pharisees that even old enemies are now united against him.
He’s just accused them, in a parable that they understood all too well, of being direct enemies of God; of standing in the tradition of those who killed the prophets, and who were preparing to kill him, the son.
And they know just what he was saying, “they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd”
But they certainly weren’t going to let him get away with it.
So they sent some Pharisees to him, along with the Herodians. Do you have any idea how crazy that sentence is in the context of first century Jerusalem? In occupied Israel, the Pharisees, those who have fought and been willing to die to preserve their religious traditions in the face of Roman oppression getting together with those who collaborate with Rome. The Pharisees had died at the hands of the Romans, sometimes in their thousands, because they insisted on the rule of God over the rule of Rome; and here they are, bringing in as allies, the party of Herod, the puppet king, Roman in all but name.
And they bring to Jesus a question. A simple question, but one with no safe answer. For the Pharisees, it’s a simple enough set up. The tax levied by Caesar, by the Roman authorities, was detested. Not only was it inequitably levied, it represented everything the people of God hated about being an occupied nation. Their money, going to pay for the forces who oppressed them.
But it’s worse even than that. For in the economic system of the people of Israel, taxes were fundamentally religious in nature. They were paid to the Temple, to the priesthood, for the maintenance of worship, and for the care of the poor. Paying your tithes and offerings was part of your worship of God.
So to be commanded to pay taxes instead to a distant, heathen ruler, was not just an economic injustice, it was a religious affront; a declaration of the religious, and not just political, rule of Caesar.
For Jesus to affirm the payment of the tax would have been terrible for his popularity amongst the crowd. But for him to say that it should not be paid – well, that would be rebellion. And that, of course, is the reason that they invited the Herodians along to hear what Jesus would say. To make sure any hint of rebellion was heard by those closest to the throne.
This isn’t a question about tax.
This isn’t even a question about money.
It’s a much more basic, much more fundamental question: They’re asking Jesus which side he’s one.
Does he accept the rule of Rome, or does he stand for the rule of God.
Because to them – the Pharisees, and to the Herodians, though they might agree on nothing else, agree on this – to them, it’s that simple. You have to choose.
Which side are you on?
Now one way of reading Jesus’ response is that he cleverly manages to choose both sides. That he declares a divided loyalty: granting to the rulers of the age power and authority over matters of finance and politics and the rule of law, and reserves for God just matters of spirituality and personal faith.
And so often that’s how we read this story: Caesar has his place, his role, as the political and military power of the day, and that is to be respected and obeyed. But praise and worship are reserved for God. Obey Caesar’s law, but worship God alone.
As if Jesus has suddenly abdicated any interest in the political and economic realm.
Despite all he has had to say about justice, despite all his talk of the Kingdom of God, despite everything the prophets have said about the way we treat the poor, the way we order our society: Jesus has suddenly decided that that is the realm of Caesar, not of God.
To see Jesus as advocating a division between the spiritual and the secular is to miss almost everything important about his life. It’s to miss the whole point of the incarnation: that the word, the spiritual, became flesh, entered the secular, not to divide the two, but to unite them.
The genius of Jesus’ answer is not that he advocates a division of authority, and cleverly avoids getting in trouble with either side. No, the genius of Jesus’ answer is that he doesn’t answer. That he instead throws the question back in the faces of those who asked it.
If Jesus had wanted to answer the question, he would not have been afraid of causing trouble by doing so. There was no need for him to spin clever words to avoid getting into trouble – he was already walking into trouble with his arms wide open.
Instead he draws their attention to the reality of the question they are asking him: whose coin is this? And then he hands the question back to them. What is God’s is God’s. What is Caesar’s is Caesar’s. You work it out.
How did they hear his words? They were amazed at him, but what answer did they take away?
For the Herodians, there is no word here of rebellion; he has identified the coin as Caesar’s and commanded: “pay the tax to Caesar, for that is his due”. A simple accommodation of the political reality of the day.
But the words can certainly be heard a different way. The coin bears Caesar’s image, Caesar’s inscription; the coin was, in and of itself, an act of idolatry. This coin could not have been used as an offering at the Temple – that’s why the money changers were there – it was inherently unclean. Drawing their attention to it was a challenge: why would you value this thing? Why would you strive to keep it? It represents the authority of Rome, so let Rome have it! Have nothing to do with it.
Or is there a play on words here – this coin may be in Caesar’s image, but you, you are made in the image of God. This coin may be Caesar’s, but you are God’s.
Jesus’ response to their question, as is so often the case, is not to answer it, but to send it back with a twist. Not the politician’s twist of answering a totally different question to the one asked, but the twist of the great teacher, who takes your question and draws your attention to the assumptions behind it, shows you the question you haven’t yet thought of asking, the question that you really need to ask.
It’s not that the question of paying tax isn’t an important one; it is that it is, quite literally, a detail. It’s not the place to start. It’s not the point.
Instead, he takes them back to the real question: “what belongs to the political power of the day, and what doesn’t?”. Answer that, you will find the question of taxes easy. Don’t start at the end.
When you read the Old Testament law, as given in the story to Moses at Mount Sinai, there’s a sort of spreading-out pattern: it starts from “you will be my people and I will be your God”, and then goes to “love the Lord your God and your neighbour” and then to the Ten Commandments, and then to the nine hundred and however many rules of the Law. The basic truth of our call to belong to God, turns into ten broad principles turns into hundreds of detailed rules for every situation.
And what Jesus seems to do here, and so often when challenged about the obedience to the law, it to pushing back against that codification of what the Jewish tradition called the Living Torah – the living, dynamic, right way to live that is before and beyond any written law.
Not because trying to work out the detailed implications of living as God’s people is wrong; for we have to do so, to live. But because when the written detail obscures the living relationship it exists to serve, it has outlived its value, overplayed its hand.
The great 4th century theologian Augustine suggested that there was one supreme rule that we ought to allow to guide us in the readings of the scriptures:
Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.
And so much of Jesus’ teaching reflects this same sentiment – to draw our eyes back to the questions that matter.
It’s what he does when asked the most important commandment, or when asked “who is my neighbour?”. It’s what he does when confronted with the woman caught in adultery, or when asked to heal on the Sabbath. He pushes back against the detailed rules, the specific operation of the ordinance, and asks us instead to see what the rules were for. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. You who is without sin, cast the first stone. Love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself. Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s.
The paying of tax to Caesar is not the real question. The real question is one of allegiance.
Some may show their allegiance to God by a refusal to pay.
Others may show their allegiance to God by treating Caesar’s coin as of no importance.
They may share an answer to the question that truly matters, but differ in the details by which they express that answer.
And that’s ok. Worry less about the details, and our disputes over them, and more about what lies at the heart of faith.
Love of God. Love of one another. If that isn’t where you end up, you’ve taken a wrong turn.