Psalm 99 | Matthew 22:15-22
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.
The Pharisees sent their disciples 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, those who have fought to preserve the 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 trap. A simple question, with no safe answer. But of course, they bring the question with a layer of buttering up. You are sincere, you teach the way of God, you don’t care what people say. The Pharisees are setting him up to give an answer that will infuriate their old enemies and new allies, the Herodians.
Should we pay taxes to Caesar?
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.
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 matters of spirituality and 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. But praise and worship are reserved for God.
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. No, the genius of Jesus’ answer is that he doesn’t answer. That he throws the question back in the faces of those who asked it.
If Jesus had wanted to be unambiguous, if he had wanted to answer the question, he would have done 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.
The Herodians hear his answer, and say to themselves “yes – pay the tax to Caesar, for that is his due”.
But the Pharisees hear his answer and say to themselves “the Lord God is King, not Caesar”.
They hear the same answer, but draw different conclusions.
Jesus didn’t give an ambiguous, clever answer because it was the only way out of a trap of words. He gave that answer because it was the right answer to give. Because he didn’t care so much about the details of the particular question as he did about the basic, fundamental principle at stake.
When asked “should we pay tax to Caesar?” his response is “ask yourself this: what belongs to the political power of the day, and what doesn’t?”. He doesn’t answer the question; he tells us the question we need to ask.
This isn’t out of character for Jesus. It’s what he does in the parable of the good Samaritan – asked “who is my neighbour” he replies, in effect “who do you think your neighbour is?”
Last week at the Growing Place we were looking at the Ten Commandments, and we noted a pattern in the law: 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 principle turns into the right ways to live turns into the codification of those principles.
What Jesus is doing here is pushing back against that codification. It’s what he does when asked the most important commandment, it’s what he does when confronted with the woman caught in adultery, it’s what he does when his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. He pushes back against the detailed rules, and asks us 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.
Jesus declares what really matters, and trusts his followers to work out how it works out.
He declares principles that are eternally valid, and trusts that we will fill in the contextual details.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, they ask him.
But he knows there will be many Caesars, many kings, many rulers, many empires, many governments.
So he does not, cannot, give a simple answer.
Here’s the question that matters, he replies.
You work it out.