Yesterday’s sermon is now available for your listening pleasure on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
We’ve all heard the old saying that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin wrote these words to his friend Jean-Baptiste Le Roy in November of 1789. The American Constitution had just come into effect in January 1789, so Franklin was able to speak with some personal wisdom about taxes, and at 83 years of age and rapidly losing weight and energy, he was keenly aware of death. Though it really was little more than an aside in a personal letter to a friend overseas, this pithy phrase has taken on a life of its own. Of course, it comes to mind every third year when we find ourselves back in the Temple as Matthew tells us the story of Jesus’ “taxing” conversation with the Pharisees and Herodians.
Our story begins, as most of our recent Gospel lessons have, with the understanding that Jesus was a wanted man. You’ve heard me talk about it several times over the past month. By now it should be clear that the religious powers-that-be wanted Jesus out of their hair for good. His disciples had openly taunted Rome by comparing Jesus to Caesar during the parade on Palm Sunday. He had cost them a day’s income by flipping the tables and running out the sacrifice sellers. When they tried to challenge him on theological grounds, he humiliated them at every turn. He was too annoying and had to go. Which leads me to another pithy quote.
In 1870, Charles Dudley Warner wrote that “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” He probably adapted the phrase from Shakespeare’s line, “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Both seem to apply in this case. When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple, he upended the political system that allowed for a relatively calm relationship between Israel and Rome. The Romans loved and respected all things old, so when they took control of Israel in 63 BCE, they made several concessions for the ancient place, its people, and their religion. Rather than require their new subjects to bow down to the Roman pantheon of gods, they allowed the Jews to continue to worship their God in their Temple, their way. As long as the proper taxes were paid on time, the Romans didn’t interfere with how things got done in Jerusalem and most everyone was happy, except the poor, the outcast, widows, orphans, and, of course, Jesus.
Two groups stood to lose out big time if Jesus’ rebellion was allowed to take hold: the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees, those who ensured that Temple worship went on properly despite all outside influences, hated Rome and everything it stood for, but they knew that Rome could take it all away if the people stopped paying their taxes. The Herodians, those who argued that Roman occupation and the relative peace that came with it was actually good for Israel, knew that peace would not last if the people stopped paying taxes. Despite their polar opposite political leanings, the fear of misery at the hand of Rome caused the Pharisees and the Herodians to join forces to trap Jesus.
“Tell us, what do you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” That’s their question: as simple as it is cunning. If Jesus answers no, then the Herodians can turn him over to Pilate on charges of treason against the emperor. If he answers yes, then the Pharisees can stir up the crowds against him for suggesting subservience to a pagan worshipping, foreign power. The trap is set.
Like I said a month ago, Jesus isn’t dumb. When two groups as opposite as Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner join forces to shower you with praise and then ask you a question dripping with political implications, it isn’t hard to see that they are trying to trip you up. Jesus, after railing against them for their hypocrisy, defers in answering their question for a just a minute. “Let me see the coin used for the tax,” he says. The average Jew paid lots of different taxes to Rome and to the Temple. There were taxes on land, taxes on purchases, taxes on imports, and taxes due on the various feast days of the year. The tax in question here is the Census Tax, a one penny per person tax owed to the Roman’s to help pay for the occupying forces in Israel. The Romans were very kind to Israel on most things, but this Census Tax was pretty much a punch in the gut. Not only were you required to pay a tax to pay for the soldier who made sure you paid your other taxes, but this tax had to be paid in Roman currency. One Denarius Tiberius per person in your household. Jesus didn’t have one of these coins. Presumably the Pharisees didn’t either, since the coin itself was a violation of the first two commandments: “You shall worship no other god but me” and “make no icons or graven images.”
The front of the coin showed the image of the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and declared him as “The August Tiberius Caesar, Son of the god Augustus.” The reverse carried the image of Pax, the goddess of peace, whose cult was headed by the Emperor as high priest. Everything about this coin was an abomination to a good Jew, and yet someone in the crowd was quick to produce one when Jesus asked. He followed up with two questions, “Whose image is this? Whose title does it bear?” The answer is as obvious as it is condemning, “the Emperor’s.”
Here’s where Jesus finally answers their question, but not in the way we tend to think about it. Most translations have Jesus saying something like, “Well then, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That’s a nice pithy quote from Jesus: kind of like death and taxes and strange bedfellows, but it doesn’t actually capture what Jesus is saying. The Greek verb Jesus uses actually means to give back. It is a subtle difference, but one worth paying attention to because it applies not just to the things of Caesar, but more importantly, to the things of God. Jesus uses only one verb in this sentence. “Give back to Caesar the stuff that belongs to him and to God what belongs to God.” In both cases, Jesus notes that nothing we have is our own. The coin used to pay the Census Tax was manufactured by and received its value from the Empire. Money, be it a Roman coin or an American bill stamped with “In God we Trust” may seem like the result of our own hard work, but in reality, it only exists because we are a part of an economic system that declares it to be worth something. If the Empire asks for it back in the way of taxes, Jesus says, then by all means give it back.
On the other hand, everything else, from the air we breathe to the lungs that transition it into our blood streams, is a gift from God. Specifically, in his choice of language Jesus seems to point especially to the very gift of life itself. With a nod to the first Creation story, Jesus reminds us that as humans we carry the imprint of God, having been made in his image. Everything we have belongs to God and so our whole lives should be lived as a gift offered back to him, in thanksgiving for the blessings that we have received. Giving back to God the things that belong to him doesn’t mean giving 10% to the Church, it means living a life of discipleship each and every moment. It means thinking about our divine image when we shop, when we vote, when we eat, and yes, when we give to charity. It means asking, in everything we do, is this bringing the giver of all good gifts honor and glory? It means that death and taxes, while certain, do not have the last claim on our lives. Instead, all of our certainty, all our hope, all our lives rest in God’s great gift of love. A love which we are to offer back to God every moment of every day. Amen.
 Albert Henry Smith, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin Vol X, 1789-1790 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1907), p. 68-69.