Matthew 22: 15-22 October 18, 2020
At some point in 9thor 10th grade, I became obsessed with politics. I think it was the presidential election that got me interested and maybe living in Northern Virginia, which was so close to Washington DC. I remained obsessed all the way through high school and majored in political science. My honors thesis senior year was on religion and politics. For a long time I have been fascinated by the intersection of religion and politics. One of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church is the way that it’s governed. The structure of the Episcopal Church was created at the same time as the structure of the United States government. It was even created by the same people in the same city. You will have to take the Episcopal 101 class to learn more, but there are some considerable parallels.
Despite all of that, I have always been wary of getting too close to politics especially in the pulpit. I preach the Bible and how it applies to our lives. Sometimes there is some overlap, but I will never tell you how to vote or what I think of our current tax structure. Yet, I believe that Jesus was willing to confront the political and religious leadership of the day. Since he was God, he had the right to do that as he had the absolute moral authority. He deserved that right.
This Gospel reading is a familiar one. People like to depict it as Jesus’ definitive stance on the separation of church and state—as if Jesus had a political platform and this was part of it. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The popular interpretation is that Jesus was telling people that there are two spheres with a clear wall in-between them–religion and the government.
There are a few problems with this interpretation. First of all, we cannot compare the political environment of Jesus’ day to ours today…and thank goodness for that. We live in a democracy, an imperfect democracy, but a democracy none the less. Jesus was a Jew living in an occupied territory. Israel was under the control of the Roman Empire. Because they were a people in an occupied territory, they had no rights. They didn’t get a vote on who their leader was. Even the Roman citizens didn’t get to choose their leader. They had an emperor—not an elected official. To complicate matters further, the Roman emperor considered himself a god and demanded the devotion of a god. There was no separation of religion and government. That is impossible when the leader of the government portrays himself as a god. This put the Jews in a very difficult situation because the first commandment is to worship no other god but the one true God.
The Romans, while not known for their overall sensitivity, were fairly tolerant of other religions. They knew that the Jewish people would never worship another god. The Jews would revolt before they did that. The Romans were able to keep some modicum of peace by not forcing the Jews to worship the emperor. But they did make them pay a tax…lots of taxes. Those taxes were controversial because they actually supported the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jewish people were paying to be subjugated.
In our story for today, there were two groups who came together to challenge Jesus. We don’t know much about the Herodians. There is only one other reference to them in the Bible. People have assumed they were supporters of Herod who represented the Roman leadership. If that was the case, it was odd that they were teaming up with the Pharisees in trying to trap Jesus. The Pharisees didn’t usually associate with Herod’s people. It just goes to show you how threatening Jesus was to every power structure that existed at the time.
They thought that they had the perfect question to trap Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” If Jesus answered the question in a way that indicated that he supported the tax, he would alienate his Jewish followers. If he said that they shouldn’t pay the tax, he could be accused of rebelling against Rome. Instead of answering whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he asked for the coin…the coin that would be used to pay this particular tax. He did not have the coin. The people asking the question did. That is an important detail to note.
They brought him a denarius. We know what was on that coin because archaeologists have found examples. It had a picture of the emperor with the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus Pontifex Maximus.” Augustus was a smart man and a very effective emperor. When he took power, he made himself not only political leader, but a religious one as well. When he died, he was a declared a god, making his son, the son of god. It was his son’s picture on the coin. Even possessing this coin was considered idolatry in the Jewish faith. It broke the first commandment. The Pharisees should not have even had the coin, but they did. When Jesus asked for the coin, he was proving that he was not complicit with the Roman government, they were…especially if they were allying themselves with the Herodians. It was a brilliant way to point out their hypocrisy.
Jesus’ answer to the question wasn’t clear. I am not sure he meant it to be. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God, the things that are God’s.” Jesus paid his taxes. We know that from chapter 17 of Matthew. We also know it because otherwise he would have been arrested a lot earlier. It would have been impossible to remain in a land occupied by Rome and not pay taxes. That doesn’t mean Jesus respected the emperor or agreed with the tax. He just knew that was what he had to do. The more important part of this response from Jesus is the 2nd half, the half people don’t quote nearly as often. “Give to God, the things that are God’s.” We know (in theory) that everything is God’s. Everything in creation is God’s. This isn’t Jesus demarcating a separation between God and the government. Everything is God’s. Caesar can have his coins, but that’s because God is allowing it. God doesn’t want part of our love and commitment. He wants all of it—not just the change in our pockets.
One commentator summed it up like this, “Live with the emperor but live for God.” We live with and within the government. We might ally ourselves with a political party or a certain leader, but that is not our identity—that is not the heart of who we are. Our heart is with Jesus, the one true God. We can never stop living for God, because then we lose ourselves.
When we say that God doesn’t have a place in our government or that our faith and our politics can never touch, then I fear that we are missing the bigger picture. God has no interest in a portion of our loyalty. He wants all of it and he wants all of us. Politics is occupying large part of our attention these days. Can you imagine if we spent as much time worshipping and serving God as we do complaining about politics? Try it. Just for a day. Then maybe we will understand what it means to “Live with the emperor but live for God.”