Talk about a timeless subject!! Money and taxes. How many arguments and political discussions have been waged over the topic of money or taxes? During this election season it seems as if these two subjects are in our news reports every day. If one candidate wants to raise our taxes, then sure as shootin’ the other one is arguing that we’re paying too much in taxes! We all want to keep as much of the money we earn as possible, yet we know that our responsibility as citizens of this country means that we all have to chip in our fair share to support it. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘happy medium’ that will make everyone happy.
Taxation is one of those hot-button issues that hits us all right in our soft spots—our pocketbooks! Taxes were a big issue for the colonists at the time of the Revolutionary War, and I guess nothing has changed. In fact, taxes were a big issue for the people of Israel in Jesus’ time as well because the Romans were demanding more and more from them. Our Gospel lesson for today points that out in no uncertain terms.
The Pharisees, you remember, have been trying to trap Jesus for quite some time. They have been asking difficult questions of Jesus to get Him to say things that would make Him unpopular with the people, thus giving the religious leaders a reason to arrest Him. The religious leaders knew that paying taxes to the Roman govt. which occupied Israel at the time, was one of the hottest issues they faced. Paying taxes to Rome was highly offensive to the God-fearing Jews. The Roman coins of the day were not only legal tender for the people, but they were also a great propaganda tool for the Romans. The coins had an image of Tiberius Caesar on one side, with many different inscriptions such as, “son of the divine Augustus,” and “the high priest of the Roman Empire.” They were highly political and even carried religious themes the Romans wanted to push on the people they occupied. The Jewish leaders found them so offensive they had their own coins imprinted with non-offensive symbols such as grapes, or wheat which they used for offerings in the temple and other religious payments.
So, when the Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus, they used the issue of the offensive Roman coins, and brought along the Herodians—a group of people who supported the Roman govt. The Herodians and the Pharisees were not usually friendly, but as the saying goes, “politics makes strange bedfellows.”
The Herodians and the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. It would be comparable to asking a political candidate today to make a stand on the abortion issue. No matter what answer would be given, some group would be offended. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to say that paying taxes to the Romans was against the Jewish Laws about worshipping false gods. They were sure Jesus felt this way, and the Herodians would then tell the Romans that Jesus was a radical revolutionary and was a threat to the security of the Roman Empire. Then the Romans would get rid of Jesus and the Pharisees wouldn’t have to dirty their hands and get in trouble with the people—who regarded Jesus as a prophet. It seemed like a good plan, except that Jesus knew their devious intent and put them in their place.
Jesus had them produce a coin. He asked them whose picture was on the coin. They had to answer that it was Caesar’s. Jesus then calmly stated that since the coin was Caesar’s, they were free to give the coin back to its owner! Give it back to Caesar then, it’s no big deal.
But then Jesus gives them the most important directive: “Give to God the things that are God’s.” What does Jesus mean by this? Jesus said that their obligation to the emperor Caesar was limited to a mere coin. But their obligation to God involved their whole being. Our obligation to God is boundless; it involves keeping God and God’s will supremely involved in all aspects of our lives. God isn’t interested in a mere coin. God, however, is passionate in His interest in the poor, the oppressed, the starving, the forgotten—all who are in need and are struggling. God is concerned about our relationship with Him, in our realization of our sinfulness and our true repentance of our sins. God is concerned with how we use our freedom, our wealth, and our influence, to help others and so strengthen the Kingdom of God. God wants our complete devotion to Him, not just a part of it.
As followers of Jesus Christ, what is our responsibility today? How can we be faithful to God in all the decisions we make and all the people with whom we interact? How can we help make life better for people who are powerless, both here and abroad? How can we care for our sisters and brothers wherever they may live?
God has a claim on our whole being and we cannot neglect God’s claim on us. We have been claimed in our baptisms when we were washed in the water, dying to sin and rising to New Life in Christ. Our OT lesson shows how God works through the people of this world to accomplish His purposes. King Cyrus of Persia didn’t even know God, he wasn’t Jewish, yet God chose him for a special purpose. Cyrus fulfilled God’s plans and became a great king over many nations because God had chosen him. Cyrus was used by God to bring to fulfillment God’s plan of returning the Jews from exile in Babylon to their homeland. Through God’s leading, Cyrus had beaten the Babylonians, and God led Cyrus to free the Jews and return them safely home.
God’s claim on us in our baptism is powerful. God works through each of us to work toward the fulfillment of His great Kingdom. We all have a purpose and our lives have meaning because of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Miracles are worked through the people of God each day. People respond to the needs of others in wonderfully generous ways. Even as a country we are very generous. The United States, for example, is one of the only countries in the world that sends aid to the needy, the oppressed, and the powerless in the world. In those ways God can be seen working through others to accomplish His purposes.
As Jesus says, the things that this world has a claim on—our money, our possessions, and the likes—are not the important things in life. They are tools for us to do God’s work. God calls us to turn from looking selfishly at how something will benefit us and use our skills and gifts to help others.
We have been blessed to be a blessing. We have been claimed by our Creator, and redeemed from death by our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. We have a purpose, and our lives have great meaning as His followers. Let Caesar have what is his; but remember to give to God that which is God’s—your whole self.