Render unto God…
I usually drive East on Route 360 to get to St David’s, and from time to time I have noticed some political signposts about too much taxation. So, as I was preparing my sermon for today, I wondered that even if there were no such signposts – That we know of! – during Jesus’ days, the issue of taxes was very much part of today’s story.
To wit. First, Roman taxation was a cruel and daily reminder of the Jewish oppression. To that end, Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem to be censed. And, in those days, the only reason to order a census was to know how much “protection” money, a.k.a. taxes, the emperor or king of the day could exact from his subjects in a kind of “per head” tribute.
Then, we have Matthew, the tax collector who overcharged the tax and kept the change, and the stories about those who had to pay the unfaithful steward (Luke), the coins that Peter found in his catch (Matthew 17), the cleansing of the temple which is found in all the gospels, and lastly the false charge against Jesus at his appearance before Pilate (Luke 23).
Let me fill you with a bit of background. All the rulers of the day, successors to King Herod were clients of Rome. They held their power by toeing the Emperor’s line and sending to Rome both taxes and tributes and, naturally, “keeping the change.”
But for the people of those days, paying taxes was more than a problem of fiscal policy. To pay their taxes they had to use Roman currency – which they had to exchange at a ruinous rate and, to add insult to injury, using coins imprinted with the Emperor’s head.
So, on the one side, the pharisees adamantly refused to use coins imprinted with the head of someone claiming to be the son of a god, and on the other, the Herodians – the ruling party of the day – were adamant in their view that it was proper to pay taxes, thus ensuring peace and prosperity.
So, for vastly different reasons both groups which were normally at odds, lined up against Jesus– the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
But Jesus saw through their “gotcha” question but nevertheless took their challenge. And so, He ordered a tribute coin to be brought, and He asked two questions, “Whose image is on the coin,” and “What it is written under it?”
So, when Jesus asks for a coin, a Roman coin is produced. And by simply offering the coin, the leaders fall into their own trap. You see, the coin had the Emperor’s face as will as the inscription “Son of the Divine Augustus,” a sure sign of idolatry smack in the center of the temple courts.
The Herodians, in turn, even though they wanted to appear as patriots in defending the status quo under Rome (“It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed,” John 15) nevertheless showed their true colors – treasonous to their nation and loyal to their own self-serving interests.
And so, crestfallen, one by one, began to depart, with Jesus’ words still burning in their ears, “Render unto Caesar what it is Caesar’s, and unto God what it is God’s.”
But have you ever wondered, what was left unsaid? We are told that those who left were amazed. But not amazed in a positive way. To the contrary, they were puzzled. Perhaps, as later events could prove it, “they didn’t get it.”
When God created humanity, He imprinted in us His own image. From the very beginning we were imprinted with God’s likeness. So, if a coin bearing the image of Caesar was to be rendered unto Caesar, what should we render unto God?
If we carry God’s imprint, do our lives reflect God’s priorities? What carries the day? Do we take the call to render unto God what it is His due as seriously as we render unto the tax collector that which it is his due?
Psalm 96:7-9 offers us a good starting point. First, we are called to acknowledge God as He who has ultimate authority – seriously! For, let’s be honest, often we are more keen in caring for the interest of this world, than for caring for the things that God cares about.
Second, we are called to offer our resources out of a generous response to God’s love, grace, and mercy, and not out of duty or grudgingly, as if it were a church tax.
And finally, we are called to worship, in spirit and in truth as John would write. Even as we miss the fellowship and the warm hospitality of Sunday’s mornings, we should remember that our focus must be the worship of our God.
Eternal and Loving God: You have given us the glory of carrying your imprint in us. May our lives – all that we are, all that we do, and all that we desire in life reflect the beauty of the holiness that You so willingly shared with us. May our lives honor you with our words, prayers, and substance. Amen.