“Render unto Caesar…” is Not About Your Taxes: Daily Office Reflection

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February 16, 2017

Epiphany VI (Psalm 105:1-22; Isaiah 65:1-12; 1 Timothy 4:1-16; Mark 12:13-27)

Mark 12:13-17

13Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ 16And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ 17Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.

 

This is a passage that is often used to talk about taxes and civic duty. The argument generally goes something like this: “Be sure to give the government it’s fair share and give God his fair share.” It argues for and reinforces a view of the world in which their are two spheres: the civil and the religious, the church and the state, or the city of man and the city of God.

There may be some value to viewing the world in this way, and indeed, many have and do. But I contend that this is not what Jesus is arguing for in this passage.  This is another classic example of Jesus being asked a binary question (do we pay taxes or not) and providing a paradigm shifting answer.

This was no simple question. To answer ‘yes’ would be to grant legitimacy to the oppressive and occupying government of Rome. To answer ‘no’ would be to effectively be seen as a religious zealot and a blatant act of treason.

Jesus chooses a third way. He asks the questioners for a coin, a denarius. This is a significant act. The imperial denarius of Tiberius includes not only the likeness of the Emperor but also an inscription which read “Tiberius, Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.” The image on one side of the coin represented Tiberius sitting on his throne as one who ruled over the known world. The inscription reads “PONTIF(ex) MAXIM(us) or “High Priest.” Tiberius Caesar claims to rule the whole world–both politically and religiously.

No good, faithful Jew would be caught dead carrying this coin. It was idolatrous! They actually minted other coins to use for day to day expenses so they wouldn’t break any commandments. On top of that, it was unlikely that the average Jew would have that much on them. Most Jewish people were quite poor, living day to day. And Jesus was popular with the poor.

So Jesus asks them for a denarius and, uh-oh, they have one! Mark says that Jesus knew the hypocrisy of the accusers. This is not really in reference to their disposition in asking the question. It was in reference to the question itself. The emphasis could read, “why are you trying to trap ME?” You are the one with the coin! And inside the temple courts! With all of these poor/oppressed people around you! Why are you asking ME if I buy into this system or not. You are the religious and political leaders and YOU obviously do!

The denarius bore the “image” of Caesar. In the world of currency, this was a statement as to whose authority gave the coin value and to whom it ultimately belonged. Jesus uses the word “image” to allude to something else that bears the image of its maker: you and me. Genesis 1:26-27 says that we are made in and bear the image of God.

So Jesus looks at this coin with the image of Caesar’s and says, “That’s cute. It has his face on it so give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; i.e. the coin. But there is a greater at work here. Are you giving to God what has God’s image? I can imagine Jesus lifting up his hands to all the people gathered there in the Temple courts and gesturing to all that was around him as he spoke: these people are God’s. (put perhaps you are giving them to Caesar instead for political power…after all, he had just maligned them for abdicating the responsibility of caring for God’s vineyard)

So Jesus makes the question not about a division of loyalties, but of a primacy of loyalties. The Jews had a saying during this time, “No King but the LORD.” To which we would give a hearty “amen” because it is true and sounds true and feels good to say. Because it is easy for us to look back two millennium and point our fingers at these religious/political leaders and judge them for their shortsightedness.

Jesus exposed the fact that the men who asked the very question about participating in the system were, in fact, participating within it themselves (and benefitting!) This is not about taxes, it is about loyalty and about thoughtful participation in the world around us. It is about recognizing our own role in the “system” before asking others about their own. And it is about the responsibility that we have as followers of Jesus to proclaim and embody the deeply political and cultural statement that “Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not).”

This does beg the question: “When laws or acts of the modern day Caesars effectively disregard the image of God in others, what then is the responsibility of those who bear God’s image in the world?”

Collect of the Day: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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