When Pharisees and the Herodians gang up on you, you are in serious trouble. The Herodians were political figures aligned with Herod Antipas, who was the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. While Jewish, he was a puppet of the Roman emperor. Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day. Pharisees and Herodians despised each other.
Imagine how disruptive Jesus must have been for the political and religious leaders of the day to conspire against him!
The Pharisees and Herodians come to Jesus and ask him a question that is almost impossible to answer in a way that will please both groups: Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
Can you hear how smarmy that question is? Jesus has gained a reputation for being a real truth teller and they are trying their hardest to show Jesus up.
Jesus, however, is no fool.
The first thing he does is ask for a coin used for the tax. Now, this is telling, because Jesus did not have any cash on him. Jesus did not walk around with pockets full of coins. Jesus didn’t have a single coin in his pocket. Jesus trusted God to provide for him. He knows both the Herodians and the Pharisees profited plenty off the backs of the people of God, so he turns to them for a coin. And sure enough they have one.
He flips the coin around and around in his hand and asks them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
When they tell him it is the head of the emperor, he dismissively says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus escapes their trap, leaving them bewildered.
We don’t know exactly why Jesus said what he said. We don’t know if he was unbothered because he realized that everything on earth is God’s dominion, even the empire, so giving money to the empire isn’t taking anything away from God. Or whether Jesus was just being pragmatic—no one can escape the political system they are in forever. We live in the real world, where taxes are due, and there isn’t a religious reason not to respect government authority.
But it certainly evokes questions for us—what are our responsibilities toward God and toward our government?
I’m sure our family is not the only one who weighs every mile driven, every work related receipt, every day care exemption when filing taxes. We do our best to keep every penny that belongs to us in our pocket! We not alone! Burger King is trying to move to Canada to pay fewer taxes. Ireland was in the news this week, since it is closing a tax loophole that has allowed companies like Apple and Barclays to set up shop there and lower their tax rates.
The instinct is understandable—government spending can seem so abstract and often ridiculous. And sometimes you have serious ethical problems with how money is spent. You can be a pacifist and be furious at all the money going to bombing in the Middle East. You can be fiscally conservative and furious at the money spent bailing out banks in 2008. Yet, whether we belong to the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Tea or Green Party, every April 15th, our taxes are due. And Jesus does not give us an out!
Following Jesus is not about isolating ourselves from our world. We aren’t called to move to an island and form a commune in which we are responsible only to God. For this entire world is God’s. And so we’re called to stay in the world and do our best to make it as much like the Kingdom of God as we can. With our relationships, our actions and yes, our money.
Being a steward of our time, talent, and treasure may mean running for the school board, agreeing to be on a board of directions for an organization you care about, going to really boring community meetings, even running for office.
When I served at Emmanuel Church one of our parishioners was a woman named Katherine Mehrige. Many of you may know her. She and a friend of hers thought the after school program at Brownsville Elementary could be improved. There were so many gifted people in the community, they thought it would be terrific if the after school program was a time when community members could enrich the lives of children through music, art, sport and other classes. The PTO looked at them and said, that sounds great! Now, go and do it! I think Katherine had intended for the PTO to run this hypothetical program, but she and her friend got to work and created an amazing program that has enriched the lives of students in our community and inspired schools around the country. Children stay after school, which makes it easier for working parents, and the kids have a great time learning about African drumming or jewelry making or basketball or any of the other hundred classes that are offered. Scholarships are available for low income students.
Katherine and her friend weren’t doing this as an arm of the church, but they are Christians. And one hopes that any of us who follow Jesus would also seek to make the world around us a little better. We belong to the Kingdom of God, but we live in the world. So let’s do a little renovations to the world around us to make a world Jesus would be proud of.