Original post at http://sacredise.com/blog/?p=1570
There is a beautiful, poetic symmetry in the synoptic Gospels as they describe Jesus’ ministry. At the beginning Jesus faces three famous tests by the adversary, and at the end he faces three great challenges by the religious leaders. There is a strong resonance between the temptations in the wilderness and the traps set by Jesus’ opponents. And, of course, there is the wisdom and strength with which Jesus resists both the temptations and the tricks.
If you heard the Gospel reading from the Lectionary read yesterday in worship, you would have reflected on one of the three tests from the religious leaders – the one where they ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. This is a loaded question since, with Israel as an occupied nation, the issue of paying taxes had not just economic implications but political ones as well. If Jesus denounced paying taxes to Caesar as wrong, then he could be accused of stirring a revoution against Rome, and he could be put to death for treason (as others before him had been). But, if he supported paying taxes, he could be accused of being a traitor to God’s people (much like the tax collectors to whom such tax would be paid) and a blasphemer for claiming to speak for God. Either way, it was a neat trap that the religious leaders thought would finish Jesus.
However, Jesus approached the question from a characteristically surprising angle, and turned the trap around. He drove the issue into the heart and raised the question of devotion. Caesar may require taxes – it was Caesar’s currency after all – but God required a far greater sacrifice – the offering of our whole selves.
The genius in Jesus’ response is in his request that someone give him one of the coins used to pay the tax. This revealed two things – first, that Jesus did not himself carry such coins, and second, that the Pharisees did. The coins were hated by the Jews because they carried an image of Caesar (graven images were forbidden by the law) and they carried an inscription claiming Caesar to be divine (also a blasphemy). So, by revealing that he did not posses one of Caesar’s coins, Jesus revealed that he had no devotion for Caesar. But, in contrast, by revealing that the Pahrisees did have one of Caesar’s coins, Jesus revealed that they were already in Caesar’s camp. They were idolaters and hypocrites who had compromised their allegiance to God. I like to imagine that there was a gasp from the crowd when the Pharisees easily pulled one of Caesar’s coins from their money pouch, and that Jesus took it between the edge of two fingers with a look of great distaste on his face to echo the expected revulsion for this idolatrous coinage that the crowd would have felt. Before he said another word, the trap had already been rendered useless – but Jesus had not incriminated himself in any way!
So, when Jesus said they should give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar he was suggesting that idolatry and hypocrisy were fitting not for God’s Reign, but for Caesar’s Empire. Whereas what belonged to God was complete, undiluted allegiance. It’s a little like his earlier saying that no one can serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24).
Which, of course, raises the question for us of where our allegiances lie. When the values of God’s Reign call us to simplicity, not the accumulation of wealth, do we embrace simplicity as an act of allegiance to God’s Reign? Or do we excuse our materialism by calling it God’s blessing? When the values of God’s Reign call us to service and self-giving, not the quest for power and self-protection, do we embrace servanthood and selflessness as acts of allegiance to God’s Reign? Or do we excuse our quest for power and privilege as our “right” as followers of Jesus?
But, if we follow the story through – as the Gospel will in the next couple of weeks – we will discover that what really belongs to God is simply this – the love of our hearts, souls, minds and strength. And, the commitment to love our neighbours – the God-imaged, God-beloved people around us – even as we love ourselves.
If all we did, as followers of Jesus, was give to God what belongs to God, our world would be a very different place indeed. Perhaps you’d like to try it this week?