At Home in Lent ~ Holy Monday: Bills
Render to God
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
When Jesus is asked, ‘Should we pay tax to the emperor or not?’, the key word is ‘or’. It is a closed question, restricting Jesus to an either/or answer. It is also a trick question, because to answer ‘No’ would be rebellious against Rome, and to say ‘Yes’ would be tantamount to blasphemy. Jesus is not drawn, though, nor forced to take sides, but tells the Pharisees’ disciples to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. The attempt to confine him to an either/or mentality fails, as Jesus sidesteps it and asks them an awkward question, to which they must give a closed answer: ‘Whose head is this?… The emperor’s’ (vv. 20–21).
Jesus uses a technique made famous by the Greek philosopher Socrates. The Socratic method was immortalised by Plato, who in recording the philosopher’s deeds and sayings showed us a master of the method of question-and-answer teaching. This famous account of Jesus catching out the Pharisees reveals how it is possible to mentally manoeuvre an opponent into a corner by understanding and then exposing their hidden preconceptions. The Pharisees’ disciples approach Jesus with the Herodians – supporters of the Roman puppet King Herod – and they are actually asking him whose side he is on. The Pharisees pretend to support Roman rule in order to cause trouble, and this is why Jesus accuses them of hypocrisy. So to support Roman taxation was to support the Roman occupation of Judea, but to object was to support insurrection. It was an awkward question, putting Jesus in a tight spot.
Jesus’ ultimate answer, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (v. 21), is a both/and answer to the either/or question. Jesus’ interlocutors don’t like a blurred answer like this, but nowadays we live by such fuzziness. In a sense, Jesus gives a 21st-century answer to a first-century question. Jesus’ general response to being asked an awkward question is to ask an awkward question in return. We might remember that Jesus does a similar thing when the woman caught in adultery is brought before him (John 8:1–11). He says to the scribes and Pharisees, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ They all slink away.
In these situations, Jesus is effectively saying, ‘Think differently. See it another way. Don’t squeeze things into your box that isn’t my box.’ For God’s ways are not our ways. The kind of kingdom to which Christ points us is different: different rules, and a different logic, apply. This way of thinking was strange to the closed-minded Pharisees. Jesus’ logic is not that of the Jewish law, which basically said, ‘Do this, that and the other and you will be saved’. Rather, Christ’s logic comes from the basic fact that God is our creator, redeemer and sustainer who no longer operates from a position of law but of loving mercy. In that logic, there is no need to see the emperor as an enemy to hate, nor even as the opposite, a friend. In Christ, even enemies are to be loved (see Matthew 5:44).
The emperor is who he is, and God is who he is. The emperor is the one in charge and taxes are due to him because taxes are payable to the ruling authorities. It was ever thus and remains so. But God is God, and Jesus is effectively implying that the Pharisees do not actually know what that means. It does not simply mean that God is the one who sets the laws, punishes transgressors and demands resistance to earthly powers. Rather, it means that God is – well, God; no more, no less. God is God – not the emperor, whose head is on the coin and who was considered by some to be a god. On one level, the question Jesus is asked is, ‘Which of these is God: the emperor or God?’ It is not linguistically possible for anyone or anything other than God to be God. God is God, and God is God.
The paying of taxes is a side issue. Pay taxes, by all means, Jesus says. It is a good idea and saves a lot of hassle if one does. The same can be said for other bills, invoices and debts. But we should make sure that we also give to God the praise and honour due to his name. So it may be that a tax or gas bill can be a reminder that, because God has paid the debts of sin through our redeemer Christ, we owe to God a duty of praise and honour. Like so many things in our homes, bills have a mundane (worldly) purpose or function, but they can also be a spiritual reminder of our status under God and our higher calling as a disciple of Christ.
Whatever dilemmas, decisions, conundrums and confusions come our way, we need to do what is necessary in our day and age. We pay our bills, fill in forms, renew licences and keep the law of the land. But through it all, we must not neglect to render to God what is God’s, giving God the praise and honour due to his name. Money is what it is, and we have as much of it as we have. Taxes are as certain as death, as Benjamin Franklin might have put it, so we accept the price we pay on earth and pay our dues as best we can. Yet on the other side of the coin is the sure and certain fact, and the sure and certain hope, that God is God, and God is God: our maker, our debt-payer and the eternal presence in our lives.
Creator God, by your Spirit, help us always to remember that you, and no other, are God, to promote peace and to live as those whose debts have been paid in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield.
Please note this text is copyright © BRF, Oxford, 2018