Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And 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? Should 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.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus 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.
There is an ambiguity in this passage that vexes almost all who read it. Sure, we recognize that Jesus is making a distinction between the “things of this world” and the “things of God,” but to what end? Is this an affirmation of the separation of church and state or a critique of oppressive worldly powers? Is this a clever response to expose the falseness of Jesus’ opponents or one that reveals our own complicity with “the powers that be”? Is it a call to participate in, or withdrawal from, the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day life?
Perhaps a little background will help. The issue at stake was not taxes in general. First-century Jews paid lots of different taxes, most of which caused no complaining. The question revolved around the Imperial tax paid to the Romans who occupied Israel. Jesus’ audience is therefore likely divided in their strongly-held convictions about whether it was right to pay this tax (the Herodians), blasphemous (the Pharisees), or simply galling and unpatriotic (much of the crowd). No matter how Jesus answered, it would seem, he would offend someone, which is, of course, the plan.
Until he does answer, however, and turns the tables on his interlocutors completely. Because Jesus’ response puts the question back on this adversaries…and on us. Everything, after all, is God’s. So how we deal with our worldly wealth, how we engage government, how we conduct our everyday affairs… These things not only matter, Jesus argues, but also reflect our relationship with and trust in God. How does our belief that all things are God’s govern our lives in the world?
Jesus’ answer is frustrating because he doesn’t give us a clear or clean guidelines. But maybe that’s as it should be. Life is too complex to reduce to simplistic principles. As Christians we confess that God calls to be meaningfully engaged in the processes of government. But how that plays out is another matter altogether. Nor is it always clear what candidate to support, what policies to promote or protest, what taxes are fair. Yet if we’ve paid attention, Jesus has consistently promoted a “kingdom ethic” that values those who are traditionally left behind, privileges those who are most vulnerable, and prioritizes attending to those in greatest need.
“Give to the emperor those things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Ambiguous? Yes, but so is this life. So after our efforts to discern what is right and work to do it, we return from the ambiguity of our life in this world to hear the unambiguous word of absolution that we may know ourselves to be loved, forgiven, and called back once again into the struggle to live out God’s kingdom in the kingdom of this world.
Prayer: Dear God, give us eyes to detect your will and hearts eager to do it, that we may care for the people and world you love so very much. In Jesus’ name, Amen.