A sermon preached at St.Mary’s Iffley
by Anthony Phillips on 22 October 2017
‘Then the Pharisees went and agreed on a plan to trap him in his own words’
The plot was simple – to get Jesus to commit himself on the issue of paying taxes to the heathen occupying power, Rome. If he declared himself in favour of paying taxes, then the Pharisees could renounce him as a collaborator with the conquerors: if he said that taxes should be withheld, then they could have him denounced to the Roman authorities as a dangerous nationalist who was encouraging revolt. Whether Jesus said yes or no he was trapped, or so the Pharisees thought. If he tried to win Jewish sympathy, the Romans would arrest him: if he sought to save himself from Roman attention, the Jews could brand him as a traitor.
There were three major views on the tax issue. The Jewish nationalists, the zealots, flatly refused to pay them. They were particularly incensed that the coins bore the image of the emperor, for to the zealots God alone was their ruler and king. On the other hand the Herodians as supporters of Herod the Great, who ruled Palestine with the consent of Rome, naturally supported the payment of taxes. It is for this reason that the Pharisees made sure that representatives of the Herodians should hear Jesus’ reply, so that if he sided with the nationalists, the Roman authorities would speedily be informed.
The Pharisees themselves took a neutral view. While they deplored the payment of taxes in principle, they were not in practice prepared to withhold them believing that they should not encourage revolt, but leave it to God in his own good time to set Israel free, as he had done in the past. Thus there were the rebels, the collaborators and those who were prepared under God to let events take their course. To the Pharisees immense surprise, Jesus agreed with their view. He was not a collaborator with Rome whom orthodox Judaism could denounce: neither was he a nationalist figure whom Rome must suppress. He belonged to main line orthodoxy.
Jesus argument is simple and in accord with the thought of his times. The coinage which bore a ruler’s head was regarded as the personal property of the ruler. Since current Israelite coinage bore Caesar’s head, it was Caesar’s property to do with as he liked. Taxes should be paid. Their payment does not conflict with allegiance to God. But then comes the sting – not only must taxes be paid to Caesar, but what was owed to God must also be rendered to him.
When interpreting the Gospels we cannot take a passage on its own, but must always set it in its context. In Matthew this incident follows on the parable of the great feast told to illustrate how the Jews having refused God’s invitation were themselves rejected in favour of the Gentiles. So the confrontation about taxes is a deliberate attempt by the Pharisees at revenge on a dangerous rabbi who was undermining Jewish religion. Luke though is more subtle. In his Gospel this incident about payment of taxes follows on the parable of the wicked husbandmen – the story of how a rich man left his estate in the hands of tenants and went off to a far land. When harvest came he sent first his servants and then his son to receive from the tenants the produce. But the tenants beat and killed the servants and slew the son thinking that by ridding themselves of the heir they could take possession of the estate. This parable is also a direct attack on orthodox Judaism – this time for failure to render to God pictured as the rich man what was his due.
Thus when Jesus replied to the Pharisees question, ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s’, he was in effect saying, You Pharisees are right not to withhold taxes, but you are more concerned that you do not get into trouble with the Roman authorities than you are to render to God what is rightfully his. The questioned turns the question on the questioners. The reader of Luke’s Gospel would have grasped the point immediately.
What does all this add up to for us this morning?
First Jesus was asked and answers an awkward question. From time to time we will be asked such questions and as Christians should be prepared to give an honest answer. We shall only be able to do this by continually examining our faith through reading, discussion and prayer. Above all we must avoid the slick and the cliché. A legitimate answer can be ‘I don’t know’ or as the late Professor Dennis Nineham put it: ‘I need notice of that question’. The Church has too often given answers when silence or a suspended judgement would have been wiser. We still suffer from the outcome of the science and religion controversies of the Victorian church.
Second, the question which the Pharisees put to Jesus was directly political. There are still far too many Christians who try to divorce politics from religion, usually when religion makes them feel uncomfortable about their political views. But faith is not a department of life, but embraces all life. Christianity is not an other-worldly religion but intimately concerned with the here and the now. Do we not pray, Give us this day our daily bread? Ignoring the dangers, Jesus is not afraid to give his opinion on a pressing political issue of his day. So must we. Failure of good people to enter the political arena leaves it open for evil men to triumph as the rise of Nazism illustrates.
Third, Jesus answer is in a sense enigmatic. He does not say it is always right to pay taxes: he says now it is right because at this moment no conflict with one’s duties towards God ensues. But there may come a time when to render to Caesar what Caesar demands brings one in direct conflict with one’s faith. In other words Jesus does not give the state a free hand to demand whatever it wills. While Jesus saw no necessity to rebel against the current emperor, there is no guarantee he might not have done so against later emperors. The individual has to decide whether he can still render to Caesar what is his due, or whether by so doing he acts contrary to God’s will. And there is no law which can prescribe the answer. Indeed often the position is far from clear cut. It is your judgement and yours alone.
Finally it is easy enough to pay earthly taxes which are specified down to the last penny, but it is not so easy to give God his dues. God does not send us a demand note, but leaves it to our consciences to determine what is required of us. Pay as you earn provides for most wage earners a pretty painless way of making sure that they render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But there is no similar system devised by God for he is not an Inspector of Taxes but love. He does not send a bill, or deduct something from our salary and our time and say OK, you have now fulfilled your obligations to me. Instead he sends his Son to embrace us with his nailed arms, breaks his body for us, spills his blood. Then he tells us to take up our cross and follow. That’s his demand. It’s not easy. We will never entirely succeed. But if to-day’s lesson is to mean anything for us, we had better understand the consequences of our faith. For most of us, Caesar isn’t the problem: its God.