Isaiah 45, 1, 4-6 + Psalm 96 + 1 Thessalonians 1, 1-5 + Matthew 22, 15-21
This biblical story is being retold and relived in our own life time. The context is different, and the way the dilemma emerges is different, but not the message. It is as troubling and challenging today as it was then. At the time Matthew recorded this incident I like to imagine people laughing, or at least smiling and poking each other with a wink a little over the situation and the way it works out. At the actual time if this is an historical event, there must have been some gasps of amazement and wonder, shock and perhaps some smirking. For disciples of the Pharisees to join up with Herodians would have been quite amazing. It would be like Socialists and Tea Party members getting together! The Pharisees resented the Roman occupation and resisted quietly but begrudgingly because they wanted to preserve their right to practice their religion. Herodians, on the other hand supported the right of Caesar and his Romans as a political non-religious party to occupy the Jewish territory in exchange for some limited right to rule. Here they are joined together in opposition to Jesus, and they meet their match as they attempt to put Jesus in a lose/lose situation with their silly question. The story gets better.
Jesus exposes their hypocrisy by asking them to produce a Roman coin. When they do without hesitation, the onlookers must have gasped and laughed. The mere fact that they had one to show him made them look like game playing fools. The question they propose has religious overtones while seeming to be political. The phrase: “Is it permitted”is what I call “Bible/speak”. It means, “Does the Torah allow a tax be paid to Caesar?”Since the Book of Leviticus (25, 23) insists that the land shall not be sold because the land is God’s; this is a religious question, not a political one. This incident is happening in the Temple, the most holy place, and these so-called holy people pull out a Roman coin right there in the Temple! Not good. By having that coin in their pockets, their question becomes irrelevant. They have answered it themselves.
I like to imagine that when Jesus responded, it was a little different from the way you just heard it proclaimed here. I like to think that after speaking the first sentence he stopped for a long time and just looked at them. “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”Then as they began to shuffle around and wish they had never produced the coin much less asked the question, he would have stepped a little closer, perhaps lowered his voice for dramatic effect and said: “and to God what belongs to God.”
There is no balance and nothing equal here between Caesar and God. Jesus is not saying that there is a secular realm and a religious realm that are equal both deserving of respect. Not so. The second statement annuls the first. Everything is God’s. There is nothing and there is no territory that does not belong to God. Jewish thought at the time allowed that some foreign kings might occupy and have power over Israel, but only by God’s permission; and when God chooses to liberate the foreign power will be no good at all.
In the second part of his response, Jesus is making a big demand. Having said during the Sermon on the Mount that we cannot serve both God and mammon”there is no contradiction here. There is no dividing into parts. There is the firm affirmation that everything is God’s and God’s will comes first. If you throw a few coins at Caesar, it is just a reminder that what we possess is not our own.
Given the fact that this story is told in Matthew’s Gospel, it is not likely that most of those who heard it cared one bit about Caesar and resistance to Caesar. By the time this Gospel is dispersed, Caesar has destroyed Jerusalem and most his opposition. So the story stands again to remind us that there is no way we can divide up this earth and it’s good. It all belongs to God.
Today, those who look to this story for some easy way out of contemporary controversies between church and state or God’s law and Civil Law must be careful not to draw some conclusion that is not there. Our lives these days are often troubled by conflicts between Church and State over civil laws that challenge our consciences. Only in the second half of the response Jesus makes can we find anything to guide us and encourage us when it is time to stop being passive and step and speak up in opposition to the power of the state. Civil societies, regimes, and governments rise and fall all the time. Yet, everything belongs to God, and God’s law and God’s will prevails.