Before we get into the passage I wanted share a TAX PROBLEM I once had –
No, I wasn’t evading or even avoiding paying my taxes. Long story short, I ended up owing a large amount that I could not pay but through a number of “CIRCUMSTANCES” I didn’t owe as much as first thought and then out of the blue we received the EXACT funds required to pay off my debt to HMRC.
The reason for this story is to witness to God’s provision, yes! that seems pretty obvious doesn’t it, but also to use it as a counter to the idea that the text for this morning are not really about money or even taxes. The proof of God’s provision to Claire and I, and towards any of us, for that matter, those who place their trust in Him, is in a way how we answer the tricky question of “does God love me”. The subsequent question is then “what do I owe Him?”
Before we look at the tricky questions that Jesus faces in this encounter and also how He responds. He is faced with a crowd of sycophantic toadies who…first hit Him with flattery – we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth
They attempt to ingratiate themselves to Him and try to appeal to His pride. Don’t care what anyone thinks about you?
They further try to fool Jesus with comments on His strength of character… You don’t flatter? And finally they in a way challenge His metal by alluding to His impartiality. You do not favour anyone? Essentially trying to lull Him into believing that they are with Him, are on His side.
That must have set a few alarm bells ringing. This was not going to be a normal conversation and actually given His experience of the religious and political powers, up to now, this was going to take a little thought. This always requires wisdom, reflection and humility to answer for ourselves.
As an aside, a thought about tricky questions… or questions we find difficult to answer. We have, not so distantly, watched and sometimes cringed and also got a little frustrated at politicians when they avoid difficult questions. When they deflect them, blame others and that’s only after they have failed to hide from the difficult questions in the first place. They fear ridicule, being shown to be stupid and that lack of understanding being revealed.
Simple advice. 3 words. Don’t do it. The response of people who ask us difficult questions, if we behave the same way as politicians, will be the same as we do when we see and hear the way the politicians react. Just bear this in mind, humility captures more hearts than arrogance, especially if that arrogance is misplaced. Admit you don’t know.
Now that we have that cleared up there are three tricky questions in this text.
Tricky question number one – To Jesus
So tricky question number one – directed at Jesus. After the flannel Jesus is asked “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Sounds like a pretty reasonable and innocent question. It is important to note the tax they are talking about is a special tax that is only levied on “subject peoples”, not on Roman citizens. So you see this was not a general, all encompassing request for confirmation of your tax code. They knew, and the bystanders knew, this question was about a very delicate subject. This and any Tax in 1C palestine… was a mighty delicate subject – Arguments raged constantly between the people of Israel and the Roman authorities to the point that several uprisings had broken out. All of them ended swiftly with violent and quick reprisals. The sight of many a tax rebel by the side of the road, crucified, would have been a normal occurrence. Not like any conversations I have had with HMRC.
The trick in the question was first are you going to side with the Romans? Essentially are you going to say… Caesar is king? Now we are encouraged to live peacefully with the authorities but this is only to the point when they do not cross the line and ask that the people agree to something that is counter to God’s law over us. Some things we have been and may be asked will make it difficult to obey or live at peace with the authorities. But not taxes.
Also this all happens soon after Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem and so the difficulty would have been if you, Jesus, think Caesar is king then why all the fuss. What’s the point of your parade and the declaration the kingdom of God is near and then bowing the knee to Caesar? Why all the hosannas? If you are now going to say Caesar is king?
I wonder what my response is to that question. Who or what do I place before God? Is Caesar King? Is the world more of a pull on my life than God? Do I allow the world to influence me, shape my attitudes, guide my actions. And do I check what excuses I might make to continue in that way? Which leads to tricky question/s number 2
Tricky question number two – to the world
I said question/s because there are two here, sort of. Jesus says “Show me the coin you use to pay the tax” He’s asking what’s in your pocket? You can do it yourself now if you like. Although the increase in contactless payments means I’ve not handled cash/coin very much at all lately. “What’s in your pocket” is a tricky question. It might not seem it at first but Jesus is already answering the question they have asked, with divine wisdom of course.
They asked “is it right” knowing full well that, what’s in their pockets, what they have used, will use and are happy to handle is the very coin they are trying to trap Jesus with. They already accept the notion of “Caesar being king” by agreeing and handling the hated currency. To all within hearing of this conversation they would have been well aware of what was acceptable for the religious and political authorities. And again they may have conjured all kinds of excuses to allow them to continue using it and yet still trying to condemn another for the same action. “For paying the tax” with this very coin.
Jesus also is maintaining, already suggesting, what he goes on to attest to later on, “what you have been given by Caesar (the coin) you already pay back to him. However He is harsher with the next tricky question “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” No images were allowed within Judaism to denote/show God, so the depiction of Caesar (God on earth) was forbidden. The edge of the coin said “son of god high priest”… So completely against all their laws and rules was something they were using in their attempt to catch Jesus out, and let’s not forget, still prepared to use and hoard it. They paid the tax with Caesar’s own coin so what was the problem.
What do we force on others to accept while continuing to do ourselves. Are the benefits of society just that and yes of course we are welcome to enjoy them but morally and ethically we can be blinded and hypocritical in our response towards others.
What are the sons of god and high priests that we accept? Nothing wrong with paying back what we already gain from society. That really should be a given but what can be the price to us? The tricky part is knowing when we allow it and it’s worldview to dictate our lives as followers of Christ?
WHAT IS CAESERS anyway? It is temporal. It will not last. Every empire, dictator, every parliament, political party and state believe that it will last forever. However it is always and will always be temporal. Placing our trust in that is a danger to our faith. When the walls come tumbling down on it, we waiver, stress, worry and our resolve weakens in the face of what seems to be a disaster of enormous magnitude. We can then deflect that concern, not on the powers of this world but judge God and His sovereignty. What are you not doing something God? I believe the reply, if we choose to hear it, is I am doing a great dea,l you just don’t see it. You do not prepared to trust my coin.
Tricky question number three – to us
And so this is the final tricky question. The one asked of us “pay unto God what is God’s” “Is God king?
We need to know WHAT ACTUALLY IS GODS? Psalm 24:1– “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”) Not really any wriggle room on that is there?
Everything belongs to God means EVERYTHING. It even means anything that is Caesars. The coins in the pockets are God’s, so in one respect conceding payment is of course Ok for both reasons. That what the world gives already belongs to God anyway and it is our due to pay that back but also it is an allempomassing affirmation that everything belongs to God and that also means YOU and ME. This applies to everyone else. Your friends, neighbours and colleagues but of course it has special resonance for those who have actually recognised that fact in responding to Jesus’ life death and resurrection. Giving ourselves back to God because of the sacrifice made for us.
The tricky question for us is how are we going to respond then? Answer the question. Those outside of the church cannot be asked to ascribe their allegiance to God because they don’t know they belong to Him. They cannot be expected not to act in any other way than allow the world to shape them. Their response may be without thinking but there is no alternative for them. They pay their dues and much more, to Caesar.
The religious authorities asking the question of Jesus are just as liable to this tricky question as we are. We know their response, do we know what our response is going to be?
What is the impact of “pay back to God” in our own lives? What are the claims of ownership that Jesus would make on us even today? Where are our allegiances placed? If God owns all, then we belong to God alone. Yet we are called to live a life in a world where competing powers and influences vie to own us, to sway us, to capture our hearts. The tendency is that what/who owns something will always exert that ownership on it. You only need to experience the lengths of some will take to claim a few feet of land in their back garden to see that. To demand the movement of a fence a mere 12 inches.
One exertion placed on the Christian is “you cannot serve both mammon and God” Mammon that wealth, regarded as an evil influence or false object of worship and devotion. Interesting to note that when talking about “paying unto Caesar” The power of money is great but ultimately it is the influence the world exercises that is dangerous, money is only a symbol of that power.
What does that look like for you? What power does that exert on us? Is it that we must guard against consumerism and materialism as it competes for our allegiances, above our love and loyalty to God. Is it that we would act with a lack of faith in moments of chaos? Do we use every means at our disposal to hide our misdemeanours, our wrong actions and words? To blame others for our own failures and so not face the consequences or be forgiven for them?
To answer “give unto God what is God’s” is to completely and wholeheartedly give our allegiance to Him, while navigating a life that often pulls at that allegiance.
Paying to Caesar what is Caesars, well that seems a lot easier to answer that tricky question. You must pay back (i’d be tempted to say return) what belongs to those who are owed. To give back to God means giving Him everything, heart, mind and body, finances, relationships, jobs, even dreams and desires.
Giving that answer is not easy at all but seeking God’s wisdom and discernment as we desire to follow Jesus in a world full of pulls on us, will go a long way to answer it for us. Jesus is the source of God’s wisdom–his wisdom shows through in his answer to this tricky question posed to Him. And offering ourselves back to The Kingdom of God we begin to understand the world and the nature of power differently than following Caesar. Victory was won by the Love and power of God and ultimately that was over the greatest enemy, death, one even Caesar and this world, must face and will forever lose.
The questioners of Jesus go away amazed (22:22). Amazement is not such a bad response to seek to reproduce in others as we respond and repay our dues to God. Isn’t our prayer always that others would see God, experience Jesus and offer themselves back to God? Well I imagine that if we truly give ourselves back, completely, the amazement of others at what God can do and the change in us, will go some way in answering that question.
We are going to take communion together next so let’s take a few moments of silence asking God to open our hearts, minds and soul’s to His voice.
So as we gather at this table let’s think on what God has given us.
What we have received?
This body, broken for you… This nourishment for your hearts, mind and souls.
This blood, shed for your forgiveness… The quenching of our thirst for righteousness
The love of God shown in paying the ultimate price for us…
Take this bread and thank God for the price He paid… and eat
Take this blood and thank God for the cost to Him… and drink
To pay back for all that God has done, is doing and will do, is nothing but ourselves.
He desires nothing more and He deserves nothing less.