The gospel reading on Sunday was from Matthew.
Again there is a confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities called Pharisees, this time over the question of paying tax to the Roman occupiers of first century Palestine. As usual in these conversations, tax is just the excuse to start an argument. They want Jesus to give the “wrong” answer so that he can be dismissed as a credible teacher of an oppressed people or look like a rabble-rouser to the occupying powers.
Discrediting Jesus relies on the impurity of the coin issued by the pagan Empire. For Jews the issues were pretty clear
- A coin with a face on it violates the third commandment; to handle it makes you unclean and liable to contaminate others.
- Possession of a pagan coin is a sign of collaboration. Only a person in league with the Romans would have such a thing. Or a tax collector. Or a prostitute.
- To willingly pay the tax to Rome was seen as siding with the enemy. The Pharisees want a command out of Jesus which removes the unwillingness and makes him look bad to the occupiers.
Jesus is used to the agenda of this kind of conversation, so he overturns their trick question with a simple “gotcha”. Show me the coin. Show me the coin none of you should be carrying if you want to make me look bad. And, without really thinking, they produce a coin, showing the crowd that they probably now have some questions to answer too.
If the conversation was about tax it would be over. But tax is a minor issue in the scheme of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is more interested in the deeper conflict that the coin symbolises. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render to God what is God’s. It’s more than a pithy catch phrase: it is a description of reality.
First, there is a difference between God’s Kingdom and Caesar’s Kingdom. Caesar’s kingdom is always the temporary one. Psalm 24:1 says, “The Earth is the Lord’s and all who live in it.” There are no exceptions, including the emperor.
Second, whose face is on the coin? God’s image in all of us. This is an eternal image rather than the temporary one of a passing king. Genesis 1:26 has God creating humanity with this intention: “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness…”. Rendering to Caesar means if it has Caesar’s image on it, he owns it. So make sure in all you do, you have as little of Caesar in you as possible. On the other hand, you have the indelible image of God in you and if you live to that, you will find life in abundance.
Third, all emperors and would be kings of the world are but dust in the wind. At the start of the 10 commandments, God reminds Israel that he led them out of slavery in Egypt. God gave you your freedom, can Caesar do that? Caesar can provide water, sanitation, defence, trade – but can he transform a corrupt and broken creation? Can he swim with the sea monsters of the deep or unlock the storehouse where lightning is kept or can he know you as you are being formed in the womb?
In the end Jesus proclaims that all Caesar can do is put a face on a coin and hope you will believe that he is the emperor. Otherwise, repent for the Kingdom of God is near.
That is why my heart breaks when I see images like this:
Whoever thought this was good theology would make Caesar proud. The Roman empire was surprisingly tolerant of all religions and the more gods, the merrier. It would be okay to worship Jesus as the saviour of your soul as long as you also kept the faith in Caesar’s legions.
Attaching a nation’s policies, aspirations and power as adjuncts to God’s Kingdom, splits our loyalties and tips us towards Caesar. When the way of empire is deep rooted in us, it is hard to not render our whole selves to the emperor. The empire likes my “soul” to be embedded in its foreign policy and shock and awe and the notion that freedom is only sustained at the end of an assault rifle. Jesus on the other hand says that your whole self finds freedom when it is immersed in the Kingdom of God which tends not to resemble empire in any way or form.
God’s kingdom doesn’t share the aspirations the empire. It is interested in life. Life for me. Life for my enemies. All that is in the world belongs to the Lord. If only all would realise that.