Emmanuel, Champaign—Matthew 22:15-22, Isaiah 45:1-7
Ever since the beginning of June, we have been methodically exploring the gospel according to St Matthew in our Sunday liturgies. We’ve heard something of our Lord’s teaching and preaching, using both parables and direct discourse; his relationship with his disciples, and stories of miraculous healing. As the Season after Pentecost draws toward a close in about five weeks’ time, Matthew’s narrative takes us into the final weeks of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and he builds tension in the plot of his story by turning up the fire under the relationship between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment—primarily the Pharisees. Matthew paints these folks as Jesus’ adversaries. They engage in a series of attempts to entrap him—to get him to contradict himself, either verbally or in his behavior, or to say something that would offend one of the stakeholders in a very tense and unstable political environment—and thereby discredit his ministry, and send him packing back off to Galilee to live the rest of his life in shameful obscurity. They come up with what they believe is the ideal ambush. One of the elements in the volatile political atmosphere was a poll tax imposed by the Roman occupation on the local Jewish population. The fact that this tax was used to finance an oppressive regime was bad enough, but—to add insult to injury—the Romans required that it be paid in Roman coins, which bore the image of Caesar, and thereby forced Jews to violate one of the most sacred precepts of their law—the prohibition against graven images. So the Pharisees, in a dubious alliance with the Herodians, a minority faction that supported the puppet government of King Herod—put this question to Jesus: Should we or should we not be paying the poll tax? So, if Jesus answers Yes, he will offend the majority of the population and lose his base of support. If he answers No, he will be in immediate trouble with the Roman occupiers, who might just take it upon themselves to do him in completely, which neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians would have a particular problem with. They figured they had him on the horns of an impossible dilemma
Now, this situation in first century Palestine raises questions that have contemporary relevance. It speaks to the relationship between our civil obligations—which include, among other things, paying our taxes—and our religious obligations as Christians—at least as far as we’re concerned here and now, although the same issues would be raised no matter what one’s religious commitment is, because religion, by definition, is what the physicists call a “theory of everything”; that is, when push comes to shove, religion trumps even our civil obligations. A case in point for those who are late middle-aged or older: In 1960, when John Kennedy ran for President, we had never in our history had a Roman Catholic in that office, and a great many people were worried whether, because of the strong hierarchical structure of that church, the Vatican might be calling the shots in the Oval Office. We pretty much got over those fears, so much so that, in 2004, when another Irish-American Roman Catholic won the Democratic nomination, it was the opposite question that bothered many church leaders: Would a “President Kerry” be faithful to Catholic moral teaching, or would he leave his religious convictions on the White House lawn?
But it’s not just our political leaders that face these questions. If we actually stop and think, they concern each of us, not only when we go into a voting booth, but whenever we write a check to the IRS, or the Illinois Department of Revenue, or look at a pay stub and see how much has been deducted for taxes. What happens when we conscientiously disagree with our political leaders, and are forced to pay taxes that support policies we consider immoral? What about Christians who live in countries with oppressive or authoritarian regimes? What about those whose taxes are used to support corruption or vice or even genocide?
If we look to the rest of scripture to shed light on these questions, what we see can often seem contradictory. The thirteenth chapter of Romans takes a very pro-government position, and tells us that government officials are put where they are by God, and that we owe them our loyalty and obedience. On the other hand, the Old Testament is full of stories about unrighteous governments being overthrown at God’s command and with God’s help. At the time of Jesus, the Maccabean Revolt—a successful insurrection of Jews against their Greek overlords—was no longer in living memory, but was fresh enough history to be on everyone’s mind.
So Jesus’ adversaries figure they have him between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They figure he’s cooked, no matter what he says—it’s just a matter of whether he’s going to be fried or baked. So how does Jesus respond? He responds by refusing to accept the premise of the question, he refuses to impale himself on the proposed dilemma. Jesus notes Caesar’s image on the coin with which the tax is paid, and reminds his hearers that, as much as they may despise the Roman occupation, and as much as they may rightfully resent the fact that there’s a graven image on Roman coins, the fact is that they enjoy tangible benefit from the civil and economic structure that Rome provides, and so they do indeed owe something to Caesar: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…” Jesus says. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
But we must note well the implication in the phrase “the things that are Caesar’s.” The implication is that some things are not Caesar’s. Caesar’s domain is contingent, not absolute. Caesar’s domain is temporal, not eternal. Which sets us up for the “other shoe” to drop: “…and to God the things that are God’s.” Render to God the things that are God’s. God’s domain is universal. God’s domain is eternal. There is nothing that is not God’s. Even what looks like it belongs to Caesar ultimately belongs to God. Today’s reading from Isaiah talks about the Persian King Cyrus—a really nasty dude who brutally conquered every nation he set his eye on—God, speaking through Isaiah, refers to Cyrus as his “anointed” because God was going to accomplish God’s own purposes through the agency of this unwitting Persian king. Now, we need to understand the significance of the term “anointed.” In the Hebrew, it is nothing other than “Messiah”, which, in turn, is the basis for the Greek word “Christ”! This is tantamount to God saying to Americans during the Cold War: The Soviet Union is accomplishing my purposes without desiring or knowing it; the Chairman of the Communist Party is my Chosen One, my Messiah, my Christ.” No less shocking were Isaiah’s words about Cyrus to his original Jewish readers.
God can use whatever vessels he chooses, even corrupt and wicked human governments. It is our obligation to render to the human government under which we live whatever may be legitimately due to them, even, on occasion, our very lives. But God alone commands our ultimate loyalty. Human governments—democratic or otherwise—deserve our respect and our submission, but only to the point where such loyalty and submission conflict with the demands of loyalty to God. Of course, this is often a difficult line to draw, and while we might hope that the readings today would offer us some help in making that distinction, unfortunately, they don’t. And what makes things worse is that Christians in good faith can draw the line in different places, and that can create some tension within the Body of Christ. So we need to be patient and forbearing of one another, as some among us see the current administration and its policies as righteous and good, while others among us see that administration and those policies as wicked and unjust. Remember, both the ideal King David and the tyrannical conqueror Cyrus are referred to in scripture as God’s “anointed.” Yet, we all—whatever our political persuasion might be—need to be ever vigilant for the place where loyalty to “Caesar” conflicts with our more fundamental loyalty to God. Because the only thing worse than failing to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, is to inadvertently render to Caesar that which is God’s alone.