Only a Test
Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Want to get into a rousing conversation at your next dinner party? Invite everyone at the table to share their thoughts on taxes. It could result in a calm, serene, logical conversation that does not last long because everyone agrees with each other, but I doubt it. Whether tossing tea in colonial Boston, debating with Jesus in first century Palestine, or navigating the current U.S. tax code, mention taxation and then stand back and watch the fireworks explode.
In the text for today, the Herodians and Pharisees, two prominent Jewish groups in Palestine question Jesus on the topic of taxation. These two groups agree on almost nothing, except that Jesus has to go. The tax they question Jesus about is the dreaded imperial tax. It was a tax paid by every Jew in tribute to Rome. It was a hated tax as it raised money from the oppressed to fund their suppression by their oppressors.
This particular taxation conversation happens not over a lovely dinner with friends, but out in the public square. The religious leaders ask Jesus to answer a seemingly simple question about taxation, the answer about which even his two groups of questioners disagreed.
But before he answers their question, Jesus does a show and tell. He asks them for a denarius, a coin worth a day’s wage and on which was imprinted the face, or in the Greek, the “icon,” of Caesar. The coin contained this inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.” With coin in hand, Jesus responds to their question with a question of his own. He asks them: “Whose image is on this coin?” The questioners respond with the obvious answer, “Caesar.” ”Well, then, says Jesus, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus’ answer to the Herodians and Pharisees is simple and straightforward, but it is not the answer they are expecting. Rather than answering their disingenuous question directly, Jesus plays a word game with those who are clearly out to get him. Jesus knows that if he answers, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he will be perceived as someone who is in the pocket of the Romans. If he answers in the negative, then those who are loyal to Caesar will string him up for sedition.
So, rather than answering their disingenuous question directly, Jesus proves himself a skilled debater and turns the question on the questioners. It is a simple game of wits and once again Jesus outwits his feeble opponents. Game. Set. Match.
Over the years, some have read this text as a battle cry for the strict separation of church and state. Simply put, they argue that we are to pay our taxes to the state and pay our tithes to the church. It is just that simple, they argue. Maybe it, but maybe not.
In his brilliant commentary on Matthew, Tom Long writes, “Whether we call it taxation, tithing, or stewardship, there is the temptation to compartmentalize life (‘I set aside this part for God, and the rest belongs to me and to Caesar’). What Jesus says is that, although you and I may have to live under this or that Caesar and we may have to plunk down this or that tax, we are never Caesar’s. We belong, body and soul, to the living God, and we are to render to God what is God’s” (Tom Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, pp. 251-252).
In other words, what belongs to God? Everything. Absolutely everything. And what then belongs to Caesar? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Tucked inside the Presbyterian Book of Confessions is a catechism that was written in the 16thcentury to teach children the faith. A catechism is a question and answer format way for people to learn. This 16th century Heidelberg Catechism begins with a question and answer that frames all the following questions and answers. It asks: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” To that question, the catechumen is taught to respond: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
Centuries before the Heidelberg Catechism was composed, the prophet Isaiah spoke this word about our God to whom we belong and who does not leave us alone or bereft: “Can a woman forget her nursing child? . . . Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:1`5-16).
The exchange between Jesus and his debate opponents is not about the merit of or the fine print around taxation. It is about you and I remembering that we belong to God, that we walk around this world bearing the imprint, not of Caesar, not of Biden, not of Trump, but of the divine. That is what we celebrate each time the baptismal waters flow. Or, as Richard Spalding says so beautifully, “Baptism is the watermark of our true currency . . . We bear God’s image—as the palm of God’s hand bears ours.” (Feasting on the Word, p. 192).
“Give unto God” is Jesus’ answer to the Herodians and the Pharisees. But why? What in the world does God need from me or from you? This fascinating exchange in Matthew’s Gospel changes that question. It is never a question of what God needs from us. It is all about, rather, what it means for us to live into the joy of belonging to God with all of our selves – heart, mind, and soul – whether that is stretching our resources to give more to the ministry of God’s people than what seems prudent, whether that is hammering away at a Habitat house, whether that is providing hospitality and welcome to seven refugees from Syria, whether that is housing and refurbishing an old organ that will bring new music to this old sanctuary, whether that is exercising our right to vote and taking others to the polls, whether that is lobbying our legislators for a less porous safety net for the poor, whether that is making sure children in Haiti get at least one nourishing meal a day, whether that is greeting guests with gusto who first walk into our sanctuary or bringing a casserole to a young family overwhelmed with the arrival of a new child.
“Give unto God what belongs to God.” In other words, give God all that we are, all that we have, with heart, soul, mind, body and with unreserved joy.
The Herodians and Pharisees could care less about knowing Jesus’ thoughts on their set-up question. It is a question designed as a test for Jesus to fail. The real test, then and now, is how you and I will live into Jesus’ answer, “Give unto God all that belongs to God.” How will you and I embrace our own God given image every single day, always remembering to whom we belong even on those days when it seems that God has forgotten us, knowing somewhere deep in our souls that God has not? How we will live our lives not carving out occasional extras for God, but giving gladly and lavishly into our God given image, an image that has more life, more vitality to it than any image ever imprinted on any coin.
“Give unto God all that belongs to God.” I am not much for reducing the Christian faith into pithy, little sayings that can be printed on the front of T-shirt. “Give unto God all that belongs to God” are words that I will never wear on any piece of clothing but I pray that they are words that are imprinted in the deepest recess of my heart and in the deepest recess of yours.
“Give unto God all that belongs to God.” That is a good way to end a sermon and a better way to live our lives.