(Year A, Sunday closest to October 19, Gospel reading Matthew 22:15-22)
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’  They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.” (Matthew 22:15-22, ESV)
Nobody likes paying taxes – at least, not anyone I know. True, some people are more accepting of it than others, recognizing that paying taxes is a duty of “good” citizens, and expected of members in a well-ordered society. If I expect to benefit from the services of the government which rules me, then I should fulfill my duty to pay into its coffers. But just because I recognize that paying a tax is a consequence of “doing business” as it were, that doesn’t mean that I engage the activity with any real enthusiasm (unless of course I expect to receive any kind of refund).
Jews in the first century A.D., living under Roman rule, were no different in the negative view they held for taxation. What was different was the underlying principle behind that viewpoint. Our dislike of paying taxes is rooted in the notion that if I am to be taxed, I should be fairly represented in the activities imposing that tax, itself rooted in the Age of Enlightenment view that the individual is the pilot of their own ship. The first century Jewish rejection, especially by the multiple populist movements collectively called the Zealots, was rooted instead in an objection to the inherent idolatry of the Roman tax system, which was justified in part by the coinage used to pay the tax, which bore the likeness of Tiberius Caesar and was inscribed by a claim that he was the son of a god (specifically the “divine” Caesar Augustus). This wasn’t merely “taxation without representation” – instead, it was, from the point of view of strict interpretation of the Law, participating in a pagan religious act.
With this backdrop, we can understand the the trap the Pharisees and their momentary allies the Herodians planned to lay for Jesus. On the one hand, if he supports paying taxes to Caesar, he gives his enemies what they need to label him a false teacher, it will cost him the support of the populists among his disciples. If, on the other hand, he comes out against paying taxes, the Pharisees can easily go to the Roman authorities and warn them of the rabble-rouser fomenting sedition and treason within Jerusalem.
Something I had never noticed in the narrative is the inherent hypocrisy on the part of Jesus’ would-be accusers, evidenced in the very fact they had one of the Roman coins in their possession! To put it into context, there were at least two coinages in first century Palestine, one being the official Roman coin which bore the pagan image of Caesar as well as the blasphemous assertion of his deity, another being the coin used for everyday commerce which bore neither objectionable element. For the Pharisees to have a coin at the ready meant that they themselves were entangled in the Roman economy, which painted them with the same collaborating brush they sought to paint Our Lord.
Of course, Jesus’ response is the famous phrase “render unto Caesar” which has been appropriated both by movements friendly and antagonistic to the imposition of taxes (and involvement of church in State and vice versa generally). On its surface, the phrase “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” seems to plainly support paying the coin (which bears Caesar’s image) back to the Roman state – though there are interpretations which view this considering the hypocrisy of the Pharisees carrying the coin of idolatry, going so far as to rephrase it as “render to Caesar his blasphemous coin.” This interpretation would give Jesus’ words an ironic cast, by heaping more shame on the Pharisees for trucking with the oppression of the Empire. This interpretation, to me at least, seems lacking – especially in light of how Jesus concludes his response: “render to God that which is God’s.”
I submit that Jesus’ response is not an evasion of the question at all. He answers it pretty plainly, in my eyes at least. The coin bears Caesar’s image, so in Jesus’ view, paying the tax was merely giving the coin back to its owner. Paying or not paying the tax was not the core issue Jesus was concerned with, otherwise, he would have left it at “render unto Caesar” and we would not have been commanded to “render unto God.” So, what is God’s? If the coin – by virtue of bearing Caesar’s image – belongs to Caesar, then the thing which Jesus refers to as being God’s must be something that bear’s His image. So, to answer “what is God’s?” we must then consider what bears His image – and the well taught, mature Christian should know immediately that Jesus is referring to us, humans, created in the Image of God.
From a practical perspective, I believe we should pay our taxes if we submit ourselves to the rulers that have been placed over us, as St. Paul commands us in multiple letters. And from a cultural and contextual commentary perspective, it is interesting and illuminating that Jesus’ response is given the rhetorical upper hand by the mere fact his opponents were participating in the very system they were supposedly preaching against. But the deeper matter, which is what Jesus always is getting at, is to be primarily less concerned with who has the right to demand money from me, and more concerned with Who has the right to demand my heart, soul, and strength. If I get that part right, then the question of “what belongs to Caesar?” will be answered satisfactorily before God. If I neglect that question, then it’s a toss-up whether I offend against the laws of men (both unwavering anarchism and unquestioning collaboration will lead to moral and ethical failures absent the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit), but it is certain that I will offend against God, and by failing to consider what is His that I should render to Him, I commit idolatry in placing the created order in a place of higher importance.
This week, when considering any of the number of issues confronting the Church and its relation to the earthly states, consider before God whether your response to them is primarily in pursuit of your acknowledgement of Whose image you bear.
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.