October 19, 2014
William G. Carter
Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I was reading somewhere about a woman who worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Her job for the IRS was to track down people who weren’t paying their taxes. Needless to say, it was a thankless job. She traveled through the hills of Appalachia, knocking on front doors and hearing people scramble out the back doors. If she actually found somebody, they often screamed, “You have no right to do this!” One old coot took a shot at her.
But she was persistent and rounded up a lot of tax evaders. She also heard a lot of excuses. The taxes are too high. The government does too little. The government does too much. The government is inefficient. The government didn’t make my money. The government didn’t use my money as I believe they should. The government didn’t send me a tax form so why should I fill one out? I didn’t vote for those people anyway, so why should I give them any taxes? And then there was her favorite excuse: we needed the money for something else – a house, a car, a flat screen TV.
I don’t know about you, but I pay my taxes. You never know if there is a hidden microphone, but it’s true. If I receive one of those computer-generated letters from the IRS, my heart beats a bit too fast. Once the tax people wrote and said that I had accidentally overpaid, and a larger refund was on the way; it took me three days to overcome the fear and open the letter. Even then, I read it over a few time to make sure that’s what it said.
So this Bible story about paying taxes has always struck me as a little odd. Back in chapter 17, some tax collectors wanted to know if Jesus paid his temple tax, to which Simon Peter piped up and said, “Sure, he does.” (17:24-25) The temple tax is what kept the temple going – it paid for the sacrificial animals that declared sins are forgiven. It was part of the tithe of every Jewish man.
But to pay tax to the emperor, to the Caesar in far-off Rome? That was a much different matter. And they wanted to know if Jesus believed they should pay it. And if you were listening to story, you know this is a freighted question. They are looking to trip him up. If he says, “Yes, we pay it,” he concedes to a pagan empire that occupies his country and taxes the people who live there to pay for the occupation. If he says, “No, don’t pay it,” he stands out as a rebel and they can hand him over to the empire. It’s a pretty slick question.
Add to the question the context: they ask this in Jerusalem, a heavily occupied city. It is Passover time, the city population swells, more soldiers are stationed, and tempers are already boiling. Jesus has already pulled a stunt by riding his Palm Sunday donkey into the Holy City, so everybody is watching him pretty carefully.
Not only that, he’s gone into the temple to toss over the tables of money-changers. Who were the money-changers? They translated the pagan Roman currency into Jewish temple money, often charging an exorbitant rate and plundering the people who really couldn’t afford it. Jesus turned over those tables in anger, so the religious leaders are really watching him.
And they pose the question, “Does the law of Moses permit us to pay money to Rome for these soldiers? Does the Torah teach that we should pay a foreign empire for invading our city?” They are looking for an interpretation of the Bible, and they are watching what he is going to say.
So what does he say? He says, “Anybody have a quarter?” There’s a pause and somebody has a quarter. Now, wait, I thought they were supposed to change the money and not bring it into the temple. They’ve had a couple of days to reset the moneychangers’ tables, and one of them is walking around with Roman money in his pocket?!? That’s idolatry. It has the image of Caesar and declares him a false god. And it’s really bad form; Jesus calls it “hypocrisy.” They want to pounce on him for the very thing that they have conceded to do.
Then we get the really famous line from the Lord: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God.” Their jaws drop and they walk away. Matthew says they had the same stunned look as did the women outside the Easter tomb: they were amazed.
It was a stunning, amazing, slippery way to get through a sticky situation. Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God.” But did you notice? He never specifies who gets what.
That’s the most frustrating part of the story. In good Jewish fashion, he answers their question with a question: should we pay that tax? Who has a coin for that tax? And then again, whose face is on this coin? Jesus never pins down what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. He does not provide a checklist. The burden is on the people who hear him to figure it out for themselves and hope they get it right.
What belongs to Caesar? Well, every year I fill out a pile of papers and send in whatever I owe. It’s a thick pile and I have to pay somebody to help me figure it out. And on top of it, I’m considered self-employed (since I don’t have a bishop), so I have to subtract another 15.3% from my compensation and send that in, too. The church doesn’t pay my social security, I have to do that. My accountant says, “That’s what belongs to Caesar.” Pay it now or he will find you later.
Everybody wishes they could pay lower taxes. But I am glad to pay what I owe. I know what it covers: the drainage system in Chinchilla, the agencies searching for the cure for Ebola, the state police looking for that gunman in the woods. Taxes pay for clean water, fair trade, safe highways, good education, and countless ways for our lives to flourish and grow in a fairly open society. I’m OK with that.
I also know the taxes go to protect the free speech of people I’d rather not listen to, a gaggle of politicians who refuse to work together and don’t get enough done, and endless controversies about the issues du jour. Some of that bothers me, but I figure that’s the rent to pay for living in a representative democracy. I’d rather live here than in Ancient Rome or Occupied Jerusalem. How about you? Jesus said, “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
And then he said, “Give to God what belongs to God.” So what belongs to God?
One answer comes from a Psalm that Jesus and anyone else in that Temple would have known. Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who live in it.” To put it another way, everything belongs to God. The soil, the seas, the creatures, the people – nothing is excluded from God’s possession. That is the vision of scripture. Everything comes from God, everything belongs to God. According to the Psalm, God doesn’t draw boundaries as we draw boundaries. God doesn’t get the leftovers; God gets the whole thing.
So that’s one answer. It’s pretty general.
What belongs to God? Here’s another answer that Jesus and everyone else in that Temple would know. From Exodus 19, on the night before God gave the Ten Commandments, God said, “If you listen to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” That is, the people who listen to the living voice of God, and keep the commitment to God that God has to them, they shall be God’s treasured possession.
Well, I’ve spent a lifetime around church people, so I prefer the King James Version of that verse: “Ye shall be a peculiar treasure.” (Exodus 19:5). That’s the truth. Peculiar, all right. There is something distinctive about the people who listen to God and keep the Holy Relationship alive among themselves. They worship together, pray together, study the Bible together, serve together, care for one another, sing together. They are God’s peculiar treasure. They belong to God.
What belongs to God? A whole world, to be sure. A distinctive faith community within that world. Again, Jesus does not parcel this out. He puts the burden to figure out where we put our energy, where we put our time, where we put the money that’s in our pockets. We have to give to God what belongs to God.
A woman named Judy was speaking to one of the parents in her church. The mother had insisted her children be baptized, but she said they were too busy to come to church. “I’m afraid we don’t have time for worship,” she said, “not with soccer and cheerleading on Sunday mornings. We have a full plate. Maybe in a few years. We will show up once in a while, when nothing else is going on.” Well, for her, what belongs to God? Only the leftovers, I’m afraid. She’s either letting her kids call all the shots, or she’s too busy keeping her kids busy.
It is a struggle to give God what belongs to God. I know that. My kids can tell you stories of what it was like to grow up in our house. Church came first, because God came first, because I was the parent. And if they grumbled because we didn’t do Saturday night sleepovers, I reminded them that my parents never gave me a choice on where I would be on Sunday morning, because they were good parents. They committed to shaping my life in the hearing of God’s Word and the keeping of God’s covenant. I knew I was a child of God, claimed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even if I didn’t know what the words of the hymns meant, we were still going to sing them together until the words made sense.
I know it’s a struggle. These days there is so much calling for our attention, so many distractions to tug us this way or that. We live in a culture obsessed with entertainment, telling us something is only worthy if it is fun. We also live in a sea of competition, telling us we are valuable only if we win. And then somebody lies to us and gives us a trophy even if we come in last place. Why? Because that makes it fun. It’s so confusing.
So take the money out of your pocket and give it a good look. It is a symbol of your time and labor, but it is a symbol also of the life you have been given. That breath you just took, that conscious thought, that twitch of the muscle – it all originates from God. Caesar didn’t give that to you; maybe he thinks he did, but all things come from God. You can take that quarter and spend it on something, spend it on anything, although it’s not going to purchase as much as it once did. Maybe it will buy an hour in a Clarks Summit traffic meter, or a gumball from a machine.
But what if we gave it to God? What if we gave it to God first, to declare that Caesar doesn’t own me, that the Empire doesn’t own me, that my work doesn’t own me, that my distractions don’t own me, that my friends don’t own me, that my ceaseless schedule doesn’t own me? Only God is worthy of my complete attention and my wholehearted commitment. What belongs to God is . . . me . . . and you . . . and all of the daily gifts that we take for granted. It matters what we do with what we have received. God delivers what Caesar cannot. God is worthy of it all.
So I was thinking about how to wrap this up, seeking some kind of inspirational quote, when I bumped into my bookshelf and a book fell down. It was a book by the Quaker Thomas Kelly, and here are the words that opened for us:
We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single mastering Life within us. Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self… and each of our selves is in turn a rank individualist, not cooperative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes… We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are unhappy, uneasy … and fearful we shall be shallow. For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by… Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center. Most of us have not surrendered all else, in order to attend to the Holy Within.
Ah, it’s God who is at the Center, God who can ground us from the Center, inviting us to offer only what He has first given to us.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: 1941) pp. 114-15.