As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
The lesson of Jesus answering the trick question about taxes has often been used to demonstrate Jesus’ wisdom and insight as he avoids the trap and transforms a trick question into a spiritual truth.
It has also been used to show how Jesus is able to take a materialistic, political question and derive a deep, spiritual meaning from it. In doing so, He reminds everyone that their focus should always be on God rather than earthly powers.
But let’s look at this historically, because I think this obviously political question was theological in nature right from the start. Religion and politics were much harder to separate in those days and frankly, most people wouldn’t understand how we could separate them.
Israel, right from the time of the Exodus and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, was designed to be a theocracy. In other words, God was seen as the ultimate ruler; day to day stuff was mediated through the priests and the patriarchal leaders of each of the tribes.
When something was necessary that went beyond a single tribe, one of the Judges became involved:
- if a ruling on a dispute between tribes was needed;
- if multiple tribes needed to rally for mutual defence;
- if guidance from God was needed for a new problem or to challenge a particular injustice, or to provide an interpretation,
one of the prophets became involved.
Kings were not part of the plan. And when the nation demanded one, the prophet Samuel created a wonderful list of the problems that come with a king, or any government.
God was supposed to be the only ruler Israel needed but they felt more secure against other nations with a king, especially since their last Judge, Sampson, was such a dramatic failure.
The whole Mediterranean world believed that each nation had a different god or set of gods. When one nation conquered another it was presumed that the losing nation’s god had been defeated too. The treasures and idols of the losing nation’s temples were hauled back to the conqueror’s main temple and put at the feet of their gods. That’s how the Ark of the Covenant went missing during one of the conquests of Israel.
Our lesson from Isaiah gives a new perspective on that understanding as the prophet declares that the God of Israel is giving success to Cyrus the Persian to restore justice.
It’s a radical notion that this pagan king might be an instrument of God. It provides a more nuanced understanding than the idea that all foreign rulers are evil and to be resisted. It also raises the question that is revisited by Paul: Can someone rise to such power without God permitting it? And if God permits it, does God have a plan to use them?
Isaiah was working out what it meant to be a nation in exile in a foreign land surrounded by foreign gods but still believing in only one God. Back during the Exodus it was remarkable that God could reach from the promised land into Egypt to draw the Israelites into Canaan. There was still a sense of Divinity being tied to geography.
But Isaiah was dealing with a nation who could not go back to the place associated with God. So, he shows us God exalting an emperor from Persia to get things done. It’s a radical idea because it challenges the traditional thinking about religion and politics.
Fast forward to Jesus’ situation where he is asked about paying taxes to Caesar Augustus who had set up a statue to himself in the temple in Jerusalem. Abomination of desolation! You don’t get a worse blasphemy than that!
So for Jesus to allow payment of the tax is more than just a question of loyalty to Israel. It is a question of allowing a human ruler to get in the way of God. It is a religious question with deep roots and a lot of implications.
The answer Jesus gives is suitably subtle and takes into account the long history of this question. It not only gives the spiritual statement that God is at the centre, it invites people to consider what belongs to God and what belongs to the emperor.
It is pragmatic: the emperor exists; his face is even on the money! We have to deal with him and deal with the reality imposed by this ruler. But Jesus makes sure that it all must be considered in the light of God and what belongs to God.
So what belongs to God? The biblical answer has always been: everything! God is the creator; there is nothing that does not come from God. Everything belongs to God.
So Jesus invites his hearers to judge between the emperor and God and give each what belongs to them. Clearly, the coin with the emperor’s face on it belongs to the emperor, at some level. So go ahead, pay the tax if you must, but don’t forget that the coin, and the land and the people, and even the emperor himself all belong to God, whether they know it or not. And we are to give to God what belongs to God: everything.
This is not a call to divide the material from the spiritual. It is a reminder that in the eyes of centuries of Jewish tradition there is no division. All that is, spiritual and material, are part of God’s world and cannot be separated.
The Greeks divided Spiritual and Physical as part of their philosophy, which is why we have often interpreted this passage that way. After all, the New Testament is written in Greek.
But Jesus was not Greek: he was Jewish and the Jewish understanding of the integrity and indivisibility of the spiritual and material elements of the world was behind his answer. That’s why it was so effective at shutting up his challengers: they understood that he had put God at the top and then turned their own question back on them.
It’s a good lesson to remember: everything in life has a spiritual dimension. In every part of life, God is involved and if we listen to Jesus’ teachings we will understand that God is more than “involved”.
God is to be the one who shapes our understanding and our values and every decision we make. Everything should be seen from the perspective that God gives us, even someone like an emperor, Cyrus the Persian, who didn’t know God but did God’s bidding and Augustine the Roman, who claimed to be a god.
Let’s try to develop that perspective where our spirituality permeates every part of our lives.