If you’re anything like me, you’ve absorbed much of the total catalog of rock ‘n’ roll without thinking too hard about what the lyrics mean to say. For example, I’ve heard the Beatles sing Taxman at least 1000 times since I was young and heard my brother playing it in his room. I thought the subject matter of the lyrics was obvious, but I also thought that George Harrison, who wrote and sang Taxman, was exaggerating: Harrison opens with
“Let me tell you how it will be
There’s one for you, nineteen for me
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman”
Keeping 5% of one’s earnings sounded like a metaphor or something to me, until I learned that as “their earnings placed them in the top tax bracket in the United Kingdom, the Beatles were liable to a 95% supertax introduced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government.”1
No one liked Wilson’s supertax except Wilson, and taxes have never been particularly popular; people have always spent a lot of time and, strangely, money, trying to get around paying taxes. The Jews of Roman Palestine were no different, and the Pharisees actually claimed it was a sin to pay taxes to Caesar, because it amounted to paying tribute to a man who claimed to be a god. Even worse, the Pharisees weren’t even allowed to carry or use Roman coins, as they bore images of Caesar, and so they would, in effect, be carrying around a graven image of a false god.
All of this contributed to the already tense relationship the Israelites had with the Romans, but the Pharisees and their frienemies the Herodians were not above using the Romans to their own advantage. You see, they wanted to get rid of this Jesus fellow who was causing them so much trouble, and so they sought to trap Jesus, to get Him down on record saying that faithful Jews should not pay taxes to Rome, and then have cause to hand Jesus over to the Romans as a captured criminal. And so our scene today.
“At first the questioners flattered Jesus by praising his integrity, impartiality, and devotion to truth. Then they asked him whether or not it is right for Jews to pay the taxes demanded by Caesar. Jesus first called them hypocrites, and then asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar’s tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, “Caesar’s,” and he responded: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. The questioners were impressed. Matthew 22:22 states that they “marveled”, and being satisfied with the answer, they went away.”2
We too marvel at Jesus’ answer, though we probably don’t understand what He meant any more than the Pharisees and the Herodians. It might sound on the surface like we are to divvy up our assets and income: 3 for me, 1 for taxes, and what little is left goes to God. Too often that’s how real life ends up; what divvying up our time, talent, and treasure looks like.
But that wasn’t Jesus’ point; we know this by His use of the concept of ‘image’. Jesus asked His questioners who’s image it was on the coin, and the answer was obvious: it was Caesar, the image of the Empire. Then Jesus dropped the rhetorical bomb: give to Caesar what is in Caesar’s image, and give to God what is in His image: us. Every good Jew and every good Christian knows that we are made in the image of God, and so Jesus tells us here that we are to give back to God what God has given us: money, sure, because money allows us to do what we’re doing now and to reach the lost and the hurting, but to give also of our time and talents, to use the gifts of God to the glory of God, and for the relief of those made in His image.
On top of being Pumpkin Spice season, it’s also Stewardship season, the time when ask ourselves to pledge of our time, talent, and treasure, when we ask ourselves what it’s worth to us to have this place to gather into, what it’s worth to us to able to do so much good in our community. Jesus reminds us today that our worldly obligations are real and not to overlook them: bills and taxes are real things. And He reminds us that we are wonderfully and fearfully made in God’s image, and to consider well how we bear that image into the world. What would your life look like if you remembered that all the time?