The series of encounters among Jesus and his detractors continues today, but now with a twist. First, they take the offensive, hoping to silence Jesus before they lose credibility with the people. Second, this is an alliance of strange bedfellows. The principal detractors are the Pharisees, who were patriotic and puritanical — the anointed protectors of the Law. They were what we would now call Bible literalists, keeping the letter of Torah at the expense of its spirit, not unlike today’s religious fundamentalists or those jurists calling themselves constitutional originalists.
Joining Pharisees for this episode are Herodians, who are Jews who have sold out to the Roman Empire by having allegiance to Herod, who is a non- observant, half-breed Jew; a sub-king who is in charge of keeping his fellow Hebrews in line. Finding them alongside the Pharisees is a perfect example of the old saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. For Jesus has become, not just a radical reinterpreter of theology, but more importantly a religious rival to the establishment people who enjoy wealth, privilege, and influence as a result of their office.
The question posed to Jesus today is, whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the Empire. This should be the challenge that puts Jesus out of business. If he answers yes, he will be seen as a collaborator and he will lose his base. If he says no, he can be arrested for treason. Instead of a direct answer, Jesus asks them to hand him a coin. He is given a denarius, a coin bearing the effigy of Caesar surrounded by his several titles. (Notice they are not using the ‘temple money’ coined by the Romans for use by observant Jews who do not want to handle currency bearing the graven image of an emperor who claims divinity!) Jesus asks whose likeness is on the coin and, when they reply Caesar, he says the coin comes from Caesar, so give it back to him, and Give to God what is God’s. So Jesus has defused another potential disaster!
What is our practical take-away from this story? I would say first that it is o.k. to pay taxes. They are, as Abraham Lincoln said, how the people do what they cannot do for themselves or not so well. We should be willing to pay generous taxes to provide for the general welfare of our people. At one continuing education class, the teacher said to us: When we stand before the Throne of God, we will not be asked, “how low were your taxes?, rather “what did you do for the least?”
But we also render to God what is God’s by supporting the ministry of the Church and through worthwhile charitable activity, by our pledges and monetary support, but also by personal involvement. We can be good and responsible citizens, also good and responsible people of faith striving for God’s vision of a world where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. In all let us remember that when we pass from the world we will take with us only what we have given away.