An elderly man who is driving a bit erratically is stopped by the police around one in the morning and is asked where he is going at this time of night. The man replies, "I am going to a lecture about alcohol abuse and the effects it has on the human body." The officer then asks, "Really? Who is giving that lecture at this time of night?" The man replies, "That would be my wife."
You never know what answer you’ll get when you ask a provocative question. Nor did the Pharisees that day when tried to entrap Jesus with their inquiry, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The Pharisees despised Rome and so it is no surprise that what they really wanted was not tax advice but rather to trap Jesus with his own words. If Jesus declares that Torah forbids paying taxes to Rome, he can be arrested for sedition. If he claims that Hebrew Law allows paying the tax, knowing that this money will be used to maintain the pagan temples, his teaching will be condemned.
The trick question elicited a trick answer from Jesus. He asked them for the coin that was used to pay the state tax, then asked whose image it bore. The coin in question bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during those years (AD 14–37). One side of the coin would have deified Tiberius as a "son of the divine August," while the other side would have honored him as the "Pontifex Maximus" or "chief priest" of Roman polytheism—which is to say that the two sides of the coin celebrated absolute religious and civil authority for Tiberius.
To a nationalistic Jew who confessed a radical monotheism—belief in only one God—such a graven image was religiously offensive and politically humiliating. Certainly, much of the crowd would have been aghast at the political, religious, and economic implications of honoring a pagan "god" by paying a tax to him. When his interrogators responded that the coin bore the image of Caesar, Jesus replied with a mysterious and cryptic answer: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Jesus refused to take their bait. We might even imagine Jesus sticking it to his questioners by pocketing the coin afterwards.
If you lived in Palestine, a country that was occupied by Rome and were not a Roman Citizen, you had to pay a land tax and a capitation tax. Then there were civil taxes—used to support the lavish lifestyle of Herod the Great and his successors. And there was the annual temple tax in the month preceding Passover which paid for the upkeep of the temple and paid the priests.
The harsh reality of “giving to the emperor” was that taxation weighed so heavily on the middle class that most people were prevented from living even a modest way of life. Good things you may have wanted to buy for your family were just not possible. In 21st century terms, no 401K, no upgrade of your home, no sending the kids to college.
Then there was the unconscionable position required of Jews to pay taxes that supported a government that oppressed God’s people. In truth, “rendering unto Caesar” caused unimaginable resentment. So when the Pharisees, who had already bickered with Jesus on numerous occasions, and have by now decided to kill him, try to ensnare him in his talk, the tax question is a clever way to accomplish their goal. No Jewish Messiah would ever condone paying taxes to Caesar. The ploy, of course, that Jesus uses to answer them sends them round the bend because his response, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” doesn’t specify what belongs to the emperor.
You may remember a movie from several years ago, “My Dinner with Andre.” Two men meet in a restaurant and begin a conversation. Actually, Andre does most of the talking much of which is rambling and quite strange. That’s all the movie is—near two hours of conversation. They never even move from the table. It’s just a conversation.
But is there ever “just a conversation?” In good conversation, the participants must listen as well as speak. There must be genuine openness that may lead to change. After all, the root of the word “conversation” is conversion. What Jesus was attempting to do with the Pharisees was to begin a conversation that might lead to a change of heart for them. Russell Baker, who wrote on the topic of conversation as a declining art says that there is a “conversational etiquette” that is hard for hotheads, egomaniacs, windbags, clowns, and zealots.” Thus, this attempt to engage Jesus’ inquisitors fell on deaf ears.
The invitation that Jesus extended to the Pharisees may have been lost on them but does not have to be lost on us. Paying your taxes is simple, however distasteful. But what about the second half of his advice? What do we owe to God? Merely a temple tax, or everything—which is far more than money?
New Testament scholar Marcus Borg offers this perspective: “This text offers little or no guidance for tax season. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?”
At issue is not merely our economic relationship to the government, but our experiential relationship with God. On that ancient denarius was an image of Caesar. What appears on all of our money? The affirmation “In God we trust.” Since every human being is created in the image of God, what does that “trust” demand of us? The Gospel today ends this way: Amazed, they left him alone and went away. What was it that the Pharisees left this encounter pondering?
Perhaps it is the question we all have faced—or dodged: What is God’s? What is God’s? That’s a very provocative question that makes for a long, hard, honest conversation.