The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Jesus had this knack for making people very uncomfortable when they tried to entrap him. We just heard another fine example of this in his response to the question from the Pharisees about paying taxes. These taxes were what their Roman overlords demanded. They had taken over the land that God graciously gave to Israel and were treating it as if they were renting it out to the Jews. And this tax had to be paid using Roman currency.
If Jesus declares that the Torah forbids paying the taxes to sustain the Roman occupation, he can be arrested by Pilate’s army. If he claims that Torah allows paying the tax, knowing that the money would be used to erect pagan temples, he will be denounced by those who interpret religious obligation in a most rigorous way.
Jesus asks them to produce a coin, a coin with which they would pay those taxes, and to tell him what appears on it. Of course, the image of Caesar is on the coin. It is already Caesar’s coin. So, Jesus tells his inquirers that they should, indeed, give it back to Caesar.
Then we see the full genius of his response. “And give back to God the things that are Gods.” What we need to understand is that this audience would know well the significance of what he was telling them. Clearly, they knew the statement of their belief from Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, and those who live in it.”
The trick question elicited a trick answer from Jesus. The coin in question bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during those years. 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—that is 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.
Jesus replied to this trap question 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.
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 such as was in first century Palestine—domination systems whether ancient or modern?”
John Hersey’s novel, “The Wall,” is the story of a Nazi siege and destruction of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw at the beginning of World War II. One of the scenes is etched in the reader’s mind. As the Jewish resistance begins to take shape, Berson, the hero, reveals that he has made a list of his friends and family in concentric orbits of loyalty. To each he assigned a limit of sacrifice. For the inner circle of orbit, the limit was death!
In his reflection on this Gospel, the Reverend Bob Dannals writes,” Such a list requires a radical valuing, a painful ordering, a crucial establishment of priorities in personal relationships. All of us must recognize in less searching ways that we too are also involved almost continuously in making value judgments, ranking the relative worth of people and things—from the ways we spend our time to the ways we extend resources of talent, money, and energy. In fact, on a daily basis, we make decisions about what is worthwhile, what will receive our devotion and commitment.”
Luciano Pavarotti said that when he was a boy, his father, a baker, introduced him to the wonders of song. He urged him to work hard to develop his voice. Arrigo Pola, a professional tenor in his hometown of Modena, Italy, took him as a pupil. Pavarotti also enrolled in a teachers college. On graduating, he asked his father, "Shall I be a teacher or a singer?"
"Luciano," his father replied, "if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair."
Pavarotti, later in life wrote: "I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think whether it's laying bricks, writing a book--whatever we choose--we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that's the key. Choose one chair."