Render unto Caesar
Luke 20: 20-26
May 12, 2019 – First Congregational Church of Meredith NH
Rev. Dr. Cathryn Turrentine
Did you get a tax refund this year? They say that fewer people did, and that the refunds were generally smaller than last year. That made a lot of people mad, and it left some of them in a fix, because they had counted on their refunds to make big purchases or pay off debts or just catch up.
No one likes to pay taxes, of course, even though a lot of absolutely necessary things are paid for through our taxes. So, if we want schools and police and family courts, we have to pay for them. Necessary things.
But taxes also support things we may disagree with, even things we detest. Our taxes support these things, whether we like them or not.
Taxes aren’t a new invention, of course. As long as there have been governments, there have been taxes. And the very earliest tax payers liked paying taxes just about as much as we do.
So, we read in our Gospel text today what Jesus said about taxes 2,000 years ago. I learned this scripture as a child, from the King James Version: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God, that which is God’s.” Perhaps you have heard it that way as well: Render unto Caesar …
When I was a child, I heard preachers use this passage to encourage Christians to pay their taxes and also to be dutiful citizens in every way. And by extension this passage came to mean that Christians should be respectful to all the authority figures in their lives. Render unto Caesar … Pay your taxes. Salute the flag. Mind your manners. Clean your plate. Don’t question or challenge any authority. Being a good Christian became synonymous with patriotism.
Now that I’ve spent some time studying Jesus’ ministry, I find this interpretation very odd. Jesus’ ministry was never about supporting authorities and power structures. It was never about being patriotic. It was always about turning power on its head. His message was subversive. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, he said. So why, in this Gospel passage, would Jesus suddenly start talking about giving our money and our respect to secular, earthly authorities?
Let’s start from the beginning … In the last week of Jesus’ life, the local religious and political leaders who collaborated with Rome plot together to trick him, by asking whether they should pay the Roman tax. You need to know that this was not just any tax they were asking about. Jews paid all sorts of local and religious taxes all the time that were never in question. This particular tax was the Roman census tax, the very symbol of the hated Roman occupation. No one wanted to pay it. In a sense, the question to Jesus was about paying to support the very elements of government that the people hated most.
The Romans insisted not only that Jews pay this tax, but that they pay it with the coin of the realm. This coin showed the emperor’s face, and it carried the engraved claim that he was the son of god. Most Jews refused to use these coins at all, except to pay the tax, because it had this image on it. Some believed that even using it to pay the tax was idolatrous. So, Jesus’ questioners think they have him coming and going. If he encourages his followers NOT to pay the tax, the Romans will come after him. If he says they SHOULD pay the tax, his own people will come after him.
Instead of taking the bait, Jesus asks his questioners to show him the coin used for the tax. One of them pulls a coin out of his pocket. And Jesus asks, whose head is this? Whose face do you see here? Or – in the King James Version – “Whose image is this?” Whose image is stamped on this coin? The obvious answer is “Caesar’s.”
“Well,” Jesus says, “give it to him, then.” Let him have it. Pay up. Write the check. Pay to the order of the Roman IRS.
But then Jesus turns the tax – and the trick question – on its head. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” We don’t often talk about this second half of Jesus’ answer, but it is the twist that makes the first half a truly Christian instruction for us in the 21st Century. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Go ahead, give the emperor his coin, then be sure to give to God what is due to God as well. Give back to the emperor the coin that bears his likeness. Give him the coin on which his image is stamped. Then look around for God’s image, too, and wherever you find it, be sure to give that back to God.
Jesus’ questioners, who certainly included religious leaders, must have understood his answer immediately. They knew where GOD’s image is stamped. They knew because they studied Genesis. Over and over again they heard the story of the creation. On the sixth day, “God created humankind in God’s image.”
Caesar’s image is stamped on a coin. Let him have it. But God’s image is stamped on you. We are all made in the image of God. We all carry that spark of the Divine that makes us children of God. God’s image is stamped on our very souls. Let God have THAT. Caesar can have his tax. What we owe to God is much more – we owe our whole selves, everything we have, whatever we have become, EVERYTHING. What is a coin compared to that?
I want to be clear. I am NOT saying that we shouldn’t be patriotic. I love this nation. I salute the flag. When the Star-Spangled Banner is played, I sing out loud and strong, and I taught my children to do the same.
But being patriotic and being Christian are not the same thing. If we are fortunate our loyalty to our nation ad our fidelity to God will not clash with each other very often.
But what we owe to our government is trivial by comparison to what we owe to God, which is infinite. Our ultimate allegiance is not to the nation but to God’s Kingdom, the realm where oppression is broken and wars cease, where people in need are cared for, the hungry are fed, and children are welcomed. May our nation strive for those virtues, too.
Every April we pay our taxes to support both the necessary government functions and the ones we detest. We give our brief salute to earthly authority. We are law abiding. But God’s claim on us is greater. We are made in the image of God, and to God we owe our very souls.