Recall how the story for today begins – the Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus with a trick question. This is in keeping with what we have heard Sunday after Sunday with Matthew giving accounts of Jesus’ run-ins with the religious leaders of his day. Thus, the Pharisees are not genuinely seeking religious instruction from Jesus, despite their flattering statements to Jesus before they asked their question.
The tax referred to in this passage is likely a census tax which provoked a lot of nationalist fervor among the Hebrew people in ancient days. Such taxation helped lead to the Zealot movement and the war against Rome between 66-70 CE which resulted in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The census tax could only be paid with Roman coinage – hence the reference to the image and title of the Emperor on the coin, an idolatrous sign for the most pious persons.
Today’s passage refers also to the Herodians who accompanied the Pharisees and others to the interrogation of Jesus. The Herodians were a faction of the Jewish people who supported and benefitted from Roman imperial rule. The Zealots were the radicals on the other end of the spectrum who nationalistically and absolutely opposed Roman occupation. The Pharisees were more middle of the road, neither supporting Roman rule, nor advocating for the overthrow of that rule. The Pharisees found it lawful to the pay the census tax.
But putting the question to Jesus pitted him against the Herodians on one side and against the Zealots on the other, depending on how he answered. If he said a straight, yes, that paying the tax is lawful, he would alienate the Zealots. If he answered that it was unlawful, Jesus would have alienated the Herodians and possibly risked arrest by the Roman authorities. Thus, again, the question to Jesus was a trick to try to entrap him.
As usual, Jesus does not fall for the trick question, evades the entrapment, and answers in his own way, again: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In those days, both Jesus’ day and a generation later when the Gospel of Matthew was crafted, there was no modern, Western concept of the separation of church and state. But you can see how the saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew could be read as a proof text of such separation. Certain things are God’s on the spiritual side of things. Certain things belong to emperors in the temporal realm.
Traditionalist Lutherans might also see this saying as a proof text for an historic Lutheran teaching about the two kingdoms, that God ordains the secular realm on the one hand to attend to good order in the temporal world, and on the other hand, God ordains a spiritual reign for good order in the church and for the rule of faith.
Now that I’ve given you a little biblical history lesson about this passage from Matthew, what are we in our own time to make of the phrase, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
It seems to me, and to various commentators, that the phrase as it appears in the context of various teachings about the dominion of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel does have something to say about loyalties and allegiances to various kinds of power and authority. Again, some things belong to the emperor. Other things belong to God.
But given wider biblical contexts, it’s not an even 50/50 split between things imperial and things divine.
Emperors come and go, as do empires and nations. They rise and fall. We’ve seen in recent decades the rise and fall of many different kinds of empires and nations. We’ve seen the end of the British empire and their colonies. We’ve seen the re-emergence of Israel as a nation. We’ve seen the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union. And on the list goes.
Time will tell what is happening to our nation and our place in the world. This early part of the 21st Century is proving to be an era of significant upheaval and radical shifting all over the world.
God’s dominion, on the other hand, is eternal, is comprehensive, total, holistic.
The claims of empires and nations, emperors and secular authorities, are comparatively relative. There are times when earthly rule seems absolute. And there have been experiments with Totalitarianism that have sought absolute and total, comprehensive rule. But these experiments have been short-lived and they usually do not end well.
So, while the emperor, or other earthly rulers may have relative claims on our lives, for example in requiring us to pay taxes, compared to the rule of God and the things that are God’s, earthly rule pales in comparison to the divine.
Some posit that Jesus’ answer is really a trick answer to a trick question. Since everything ultimately comes from God and ultimately goes back to God, then all things are God’s, and ultimately emperors are left with nothing.
This may be too simplistic. But the saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” does give us the opportunity to reflect on our loyalties and allegiances and commitments.
To confess that Jesus is Lord is a statement of total, holistic allegiance. This confession was something that got early followers of Jesus into lots of deadly trouble, especially when they would not pledge allegiance to the divine claims of earthly emperors.
The coin used to the pay the tax is just money, a powerful, but not all-powerful reality in the grandest, divine scheme of things.
Thus, there are some potential stewardship implications coming from the saying from today, and that in relation to our loyalties and allegiances.
“Put your money where your mouth is,” so goes the saying. That is, what we give, how we budget, does reveal our loyalties, our commitments, our allegiances. Budgets are, thus, spiritual, theological and religious documents. Budgets are a kind of confession of faith, in that they reveal to some extent where we put our trust.
Look at your budget line items. What line items hold the greatest amounts in comparison and proportion to other line items? A good question for your budgeting at home, and in our congregation, since we now have a draft of our budget to present at our coming annual meeting, and will soon be asking for statements of your pledge.
This discourse could go on. Enough for now. But let me leave you with this word of grace. Our allegiances to governmental authorities are generally required by law. Our allegiance to God is much more a matter of the gift of God’s grace, our consent to God’s rule in our lives, our yes to God’s yes to us as a gift, both from God and gifts offered back to God.
May this word of freedom, of good news have the last word when we consider and weigh the temporal things of state and the eternal things of God. Amen.
And now for your reflection and conversation:
- Consider your household budget. What does it reveal about your commitments?
- Where do your faith commitments and the things of God fit into your stewardship of your varied resources?