Render Unto Caesar

Governments can get it wrong. And when they do, what should we do?

On BBC 4 there is a programme at the moment called ‘Tunes for Tyrants’. It charts the use of music in politics and propaganda before and during World War Two. How surprised I was when I discovered from that programme that in 1942, the British Government forced the BBC to remove Vera Lynne from the airwaves. Her songs, such as, “We’ll Meet Again”, were described as, ‘Flabby Amusement’, that were perceived to be withering the nations morale. It was only thanks to a public outcry that Vera’s songs were quickly restored to the airwaves of the BBC in 1943.

Governments can get it wrong. And when they do, what should we do?

Music may not affect all of us, but I am sure money does. I don’t know if you are a viewer of the Question Time political debates. But today in our gospel reading we have a question and answer session that is every bit as tricky as anything you may see on television about finance and taxation; with a lot of skulduggery in the background too.

Firstly, let’s look at the two groups who opposed Jesus on this occasion: the Pharisees and the Herodians.  In any other situation, these two groups wouldn’t have passed the time of day with each other. In a nutshell, we have the dynamics going on of – ‘the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend’. The common enemy for both groups here was Jesus.

The Pharisees were “devout” Jews. They were sworn enemies of the Romans and vigorously opposed Roman rule. And they stood against paying taxes to Caesar. The Herodians, on the other hand, were the party of the Roman puppet King Herod. They were the wealthy and privileged class who collaborated with the Romans. So they would have no problems in levying taxes for Caesar!

In the last couple of weeks the two previous chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, both groups have been embarrassed by Jesus. One with the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard and the next with that of the Wedding Feast and the invited guests who fail to attend. Both confrontations I labelled under the title of, ‘Missed Opportunities’. Both groups were already wound up then. And so they put a “Catch 22” question to Jesus, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” At first glance it looks quite an innocent question. But if Jesus said “Yes” or “No” he was in trouble.

The tax that they are referring to was a “poll tax” – and we know how popular “poll taxes” can be. I am sure you have your own opinions on them, or have done, when Margaret Thatcher tried introducing one in this country. Like our own poll tax debate, the first Century “poll tax” was a hot issue. Of all the taxes of the day, this “poll tax” was most problematic for the Jewish citizens because of all the taxes this was uniquely required in Roman currency – with coins that bore the image of Caesar.

The coin was particularly objectionable to Jews because it bore the “image” of Caesar, and an inscription describing him as “son of a god”. So Jesus had a real dilemma.

  1. If Jesus said: “Yes, it is fine to pay the tax to Caesar”, he risked losing his popular power base.
  2. If he were to answer, “No, you should not pay Caesar anything”, the Herodians would have had him up on a charge of sedition and would have had little problem persuading the Romans to arrest him.

What should Jesus do?  He asks for a coin used to pay the tax. Jesus takes it and looks at it – with the Roman emperor’s image on it, and says: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are of God”

In context, the saying is thoroughly ambiguous. The word “render” means “give back.” The first half of the saying could mean, “It’s Caesar’s coin–go ahead and give it back to him.” We can imagine Jesus saying this with a dismissive shrug. Rather than a pronouncement about the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule or political authority in general, his words might very well have been a brilliant way of evading the trap. When its second half is added, the phrase remains equally ambiguous. What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? The possible answers range from “Pay your tribute tax to Caesar, and your temple tax to God” to “Everything belongs to God.” If the latter, what is owed to Caesar?

Jesus responded in a deliberately enigmatic way in order to avoid the trap set by his opponents. In this passage as in several others, we see his deft debating skill. This text offers little or no guidance for taxation. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or Pol Pot, or the endorsing of apartheid or the poll tax? What is to be our attitude then?

Governments can get it wrong. And when they do, what should we do?

The 20th century Anglican theologian, Michael Green, once commented on this passage and understood it as saying: “The coin bore Caesar’s image : give it back to him. You bear God’s image: so give yourself back to him.” People, not coins, bear God’s true image, and no edict of Caesar can absolve those who follow Jesus from his mandate to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.

Governments can get it wrong. And when they do, what should we do?

That is still a question for each of us to answer. As Christians our actions are our currency.  Let’s not squander them.

Based on a sermon given by Rev Derek Chandler at St Barnabas Church on Sunday 22nd October 2017 on the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-22.
















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