About ten years ago, we began hearing about a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution which would have limited marriage in the U.S. to unions of one man and one woman. In time, President Bush would get a beating in the press over his support of amendment, though you didn’t hear to much grumbling over the Defense of Marriage Act – which was meant to put in place similar restrictions – which President Clinton signed into law. There was a lot of support for the Constitutional amendment by Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical, who saw it as a way win a theological argument without actually having to win the theological argument. Being known as theologically orthodox, my more conservative friends had a hard time understanding why I didn’t support the amendment. They didn’t seem to get that I didn’t want the Church to give power to the government that truly belongs to God, nor did I want the government to ever have authority to tell the Church what she can do with her sacraments.
It’s an age-old story, really, who has the power to do what where. Today we find Jesus getting cornered by two powerful groups, the Pharisees and the Herodians; they have laid a trap for Jesus, they’re trying to set Him up to say something against either God or Caesar. “The precise issue is paying taxes, not the autonomy of Caesar in the secular sphere. Taxes were an incendiary issue during the lifetime of Jesus. The Roman Empire imposed a head tax on the population of Judea, Samaria and Idumea, and conducted a census to enforce it. Around A.D. 6, when Jesus was still young, Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the census, which was ruthlessly repressed by the Romans (Acts 5:37-38). The Pharisees, who resented the Roman occupation of the pure land of Israel, were against the tax, while the Herodians supported it.”1 In answering the simple question of “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus is faced with being either a collaborator or an insurrectionist.
But despite the obvious tension in this story, it’s actually a kinda funny story. Not being Jews in 1st century Palestine, we don’t really get it, but before Jesus even answers their question, He asks the Pharisees and Herodians if He can borrow a Roman coin. Now, “Roman coins contained the image of the emperor on one side—at this time the infamous Tiberius, with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus”—and on the other his title “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest). Since Matthew locates this incident in the temple area, the questioners are discredited from the start, because they have carried the image of a pagan emperor into the temple.”2 The whole argument is over before Jesus even answers them.
He answered them anyway. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Caesar’s face is on the coin, it’s his power that makes the coin worth anything, so give it to him. Pay the tax, who cares. Caesar may be Caesar, but that’s all he’s got going for him. All the riches and power on this earth is worth nothing next to your soul. So forget about what is stamped with Caesar’s image and focus on what is made in God’s image.
A lot of us will spend the next year enthralled with the upcoming elections, or at least enthralled with all the picking and fighting and scandals and useless fluff that surrounds the upcoming elections. We need to pay attention to these things, they’re important things, because in our democratic republic, our government reflects who we are, what we value; our government spends our money (presuming we have rendered unto Uncle Same what is Uncle Sam’s), our government gives freedoms and takes freedoms in the measure we ourselves allow.
But in the end, “when you know that the whole world belongs to God…then even the big, bright, loud, and resplendent realities of this world become mere sideshows and distractions…they do not ultimately touch God. They do not finally threaten God. Getting all excited about the powers that be and becoming hyper focused on them tempts us to…underestimate the glorious sovereignty of God3, in whose service is perfect freedom, in whose hands we rest, and in whose Son we finally put all our faith and trust.
St. Matthew tells us that after Jesus answered the question of the day, the Pharisees and Herodians just walked away, bewildered. Matthew never got around to telling us what happened to the coin with Caesar’s face on it. Most commentators think that the Pharisees and Herodians probably grabbed the coin back and took off looking for their fellow conspirators, but I like to think that they forgot about the coin and the face of Caesar, having finally looked upon the face of God.
1John R. Donahue, Tax Time in Autumn, America.
3Scott Hoezee, This Week