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(warning rough draft ahead)
While doing research for this sermon I came upon an article by David Lose. In this article he suggests that a way of dealing with this piece of scripture we get today is going by the old adage, “I don’t know, what do you think?” He states that this is an empowering conversation starter because it engages the people in the conversation to share their thoughts. If a child comes up to you and asks “Why is the sky blue?” what would be your answer? I know it has something to do with light and it reflecting off something but the truth is “I don’t know, what do you think?” What kind of cool conversation can come out of that?
We may have heard this text before. It is a one of those sayings of Jesus that tend to get mentioned even in our popular language. The New International Version states verse 21 as, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The King James says, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The Greek word used in this verse to mean give or render is apodidomi (a-po-di-do-me). It also means to pay off, discharge what is due, to give back, or to recompense in a good or bad sense. I like the way the King Jimmy states it, render.
Render or even give has its bad and good sense. God wants us to give him our whole being. He wants us to render our lives in humble obedience. We see this as a good thing, (well most of us). On April 15th, we give the IRS what we owe (well most of us). We have to give an account for what we made in a year and then pay the appropriate taxes for that. Warren Buffet just made public his 2010 taxes. He made over $62 million dollars and had a taxable income of just under $40 million. He paid $6.9 million in taxes for 2010. He had to give the IRS or render to them what was owed.
The idea of taxation was at the heart of the birth of this country. The original Tea Party, the Boston Tea Party, happened because people were tired of being taxed without having a voice. They had “taxation without representation.” They fought against this idea and then eventually the United States was born.
Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted for saying, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Taxation has been around since the beginning of time and this was true for the people of Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. Actually they had lots of taxes to pay. Some had to be paid to the Temple, the Temple Tax. To pay this they had to use Jewish currency only and so there were currency exchange people set up in the Temple to help trade in the Roman money for Jewish money. These were some of the people Jesus throws out when he had arrived in Jerusalem.
They also had to pay taxes to Rome, in Roman money. This really made many Jews mad because they had to pay a tax to help the occupying government. Their hard earned money had to be given to Rome to pay for the soldiers and army that kept them in line. It would be like if Canada occupied the US by force one day. We had to pay our regular taxes to the IRS but then we had to also pay taxes to Canada to help pay for their military and government which now dictates our way of life. Not only that but you had to exchange your US dollars for Canadian dollars before you paid that tax. It would be beyond frustrating and it was for the first century Jews who lived this out in their daily lives. This was the society that Jesus lived in.
This is the world of the piece of scripture today. I found it interesting how this scripture starts. The Pharisees hatched this plan but then they sent their disciples and some Herodians to trap him. The Pharisees didn’t go themselves, they sent others to do their dirty work or maybe to throw Jesus off a little. Now we can understand who the disciples of the Pharisees are. They were fans of that certain Pharisees’ teachings and were following them around similar to what the 12 were doing with Jesus. Herodians though we might not be familiar with. They were the political friends of King Herod. Herod was the Roman elected King of the Jews. Since he was elected by the Romans there were some Jews who were not fans of Herod, yet there were others who were. So the disciples of the Pharisees and fans of King Herod came to Jesus and they asked him, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. [trying hard to kiss up, or buttering him up for the kill] Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
From their point of view they have only given Jesus two options. They thought they were asking him a yes or no question. If Jesus answers yes, we are to pay taxes, they could call him out as a Roman sympathizer and they could use that to drive a wedge between him and the Jewish people. If Jesus answers no, they could accuse him of treason or troublemaking against Rome. They think they have Jesus in a Catch 22. But the reality is much deeper than that.
Jesus sees through their rouse and in classic Jesus nature asks a question to answer a question. He asks them, “You hypocrites, [Jesus is not interested in kissing up] why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax. Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” They handed Jesus a coin like this one on the screen. As you can tell one side has a picture of a person with some writing around it. The picture is of Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. The inscription says, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus.” This is basically calling the Roman Emperor out as the Son of God. Simply having this coin, this idol of to a false God, is breaking the first two commandments, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me and thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
Good thing our money is different right? Nothing on there might make God mad or be considered breaking any commandments like idolatry or graven images. Yet if you pull out any of our money you will find the motto of our nation, “In God we Trust.” This has been on our coins since 1864 and was put on our paper currency in 1956. This has not always been popular though. There was a big case in 1984 where a group tried to have the motto removed from our currency. Yet the Supreme Court upheld it because they thought it “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t want it added when he was President because he saw it as sacrilegious to put the name of God on money.
Yet there it is, the generic word that simply means a supreme being. God could mean any god. Our God has a specific name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This Trinitarian God is the God we worship. Is this what God means on our money? If we spoke Arabic this would say Allah, because that is Arabic word of God with a capital G. If we spoke Hebrew it would say Yahweh. Yet both Allah and Yahweh are not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So what God is our money referencing? “I don’t know, what do you think?”
As we read this scripture today our 21stcentury minds read into this scripture our modern tendencies. We look at this and say this is a good example of the separation of Church and State. Yet in the 1st century Jewish mind there was no such thing. Who did the Jews have to pay taxes too? Both their religion and their state. They had to pay Temple Taxes and Roman Taxes. There was no removing the State from religion or religion from the state. However, for us there is a difference and so Jesus’ question is even more relevant to us today than ever before.
“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In our compartmental lives this seems easy to do, right? We understand what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? Because we live in a nation that divides a line between Church and State Jesus’ question is easy for us. Yet what if we look at it from God’s perspective, where does God draw the line?
Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” So everything is God’s. Yet, the car I drive I paid for, so it is mine, oh wait, it is in this world so that means it is God’s. The food I ate, I bought, so it is mine. Oh wait, it grew because of rain and it is of this world, so it is God’s. Well the children I made with my wife, those are mine, you can see it on their faces because they look like us. But they live here too, so they too are God’s. So what isn’t of this world and isn’t God’s. “I don’t know, what do you think?”
Well let’s look at it more philosophical. Instead of physical things let’s look at generalities. What is ours? What is Caesar’s and what is God’s when it comes to time, money, worship, devotion, and love? “I don’t know, what do you think?”
We have this thought that the line is easily defined. We think we can see it in our daily lives. I recently had a discussion with someone about the role faith, Christianity, or even Church should have in the political world. He was totally against the church interacting with the political world. I agree that I should not stand up here and tell you who to vote for in a couple of weeks but that doesn’t mean we are be silent on social issues. We forget that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an ordained minister, a preacher, a man of God, a devoted Christian who stepped out into the political world to change our society and our culture by standing up to the policies and government at the time.
When it comes to social issues the Church should have a lot to say in this world. We should speak up for the poor, defend the oppressed, and stand up in the face of injustice. My discussion with this person then turned to social services. His idea is that the government pays way too much to take care of the poor in this country. I told him I agreed that the government does too much but that isn’t the fault of the government, it is our fault as the church. We have failed to do our job so the government has to step up instead. Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, and house the stranger. It was Jesus who came “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when [God] would save [His] people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.” We as his Church are to follow his lead. So where is that line between God and Caesar? “I don’t know, what do you think?”
As the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians looked at the coin in their hand their minds went numb with the question Jesus asked. Scripture tells us that they went away amazed. Jesus doesn’t give us a clean cut answer to what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. The demands of the nation and society in which we live and the demands of God are left to us to interpret. Yet, thank you God for giving us brains and the ability to reason to think this through. Both demand that we render our obedience and our money. Both God and Caesar ask us to render ourselves, but how much? How can we faithfully be Christian and American? How can we be faithful to both yet the most faithful to the one who is the Creator of all? Not the God on our money, but to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? “I don’t know, what do you think?”
And all God’s people said…Amen.