Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes
to the emperor, or not? (Matthew 22:17)
That question, put to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians, raises for us the age-old issue, What is the legitimate domain of the government and what is the legitimate domain of God? In today’s Gospel, Pharisees and Herodians (strange bedfellows indeed!) join forces around this issue to entrap Jesus. The Pharisees were strict Jews who deeply resented having to pay taxes to Rome, while the Herodians were Jews loyal to Herod, the local Roman king. Each party, on its own, had already decided that Jesus must be put to death; now they’re working together to build a case against him. Here’s the trap they set: If Jesus supports paying taxes to the emperor he will infuriate the Pharisees, who regard Caesar and the empire as a pagan and godless lot. But if he opposes the tax, the Herodians will report him to the Roman authorities, who will arrest him and force him to stand trial as a traitor.
It is to this cleverly crafted question that Jesus responds. He asks to see one of the coins, a denarius (equivalent to a day’s wage), which is used to pay the tax. The head of the emperor Caesar is engraved on it, and it represents all that the Pharisees hate about Rome. But Jesus surprises his antagonists, as he so often did. He turns the matter back to them: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The Pharisees and the Herodians know the law perfectly well–It is up to them to determine what claim the nation has upon them in this matter, and what claim God has upon them. Clearly, Jesus says that paying taxes is a duty; but just as clearly, he says that obeying God is a duty. They need to sort this out.
Now, is Jesus just being slippery here? Should he have come down on one side or the other? What would you have said? Would your loyalty to Almighty God have led you to refuse to pay taxes to Rome? Mine would not. I’m a taxpayer now (not always happily, you understand!) and I believe I would have been then. At the same time, I respect those who feel otherwise. My first bishop was one of the greatest I’ve had, William Appleton Lawrence. He was a pacifist, whose faith and conscience forbade him from supporting war under any circumstances. In a conversation onetime he said he was seriously thinking of refusing to pay the portion of his taxes which he judged would be devoted to the military. Whether he ever carried that out, I don’t know; but I always admired him. Refusal to pay taxes, you know, has a venerable place in our nation’s history. Remember the infamous Stamp Tax, imposed by Britain in 1765, which was a major cause of the American Revolution.
In the encounter between Jesus, the Pharisees and the Herodians, Jesus infers that the government has a legitimate claim upon us; but so does God. He talks of the “things that are the emperor’s” and the “things that are God’s.” How do you distinguish the one from the other? The question falls back upon us as it did upon Jesus’ questioners. As believing people, we turn first to our faith as paramount. That’s what Jesus surely expected of the Jews, and what he expects of us. So what does our Christian Faith tell us about this? Do God and politics have their separate domains, or are they mingled together in some way?
In churches I’ve served I’ve been warned by parishioners to “keep politics out of the pulpit.” I remember a vestryman during the Viet Nam conflict (a very smart guy, Princeton grad) who met me at the door after my sermon and ripped me up one side and down the other for daring to question the administration’s conduct of the war! Another parishioner, a graduate of Annapolis who remarkably served as an officer in the Army and Air Force as well as the Navy, also took me to task from time to time with the old adage, “My country, right or wrong!” Perhaps some of you feel like saying, “Stick to the Bible, preacher!”
The problem with that is that the Bible is one of the most political books ever written. Today’s reading from Isaiah is typical of the great prophets who proclaimed God continually at work among the rulers of nations, condemning the evil and encouraging the righteous. And Jesus, although in this passage he turns the issue back to the questioners—Jesus again and again minces no words in confronting government authorities about their sins and injustices. In the very next chapter of Matthew, Jesus denounces the Jewish authorities: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” And when Jesus is on trial before the local Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, he warns Pilate that he would have no power over him at all unless God granted it.
So, how do you distinguish the things of Caesar (or the government, or the political realm) from the realm of God? Imagine circles drawn with chalk on a blackboard—one for the political realm, one for God’s realm. How would you draw them? Separate from each other? Overlapping each other? One above or below the other? How? The Bible leaves us with no doubt that one should be within the other. Clearly, the circle of God surrounds and includes every other circle! God’s power over Caesar, Pilate, and all the affairs of state past, present and future, is absolute. “I am the Lord,” declares the prophet, “and there is no other.”
We pay our taxes, we obey and defend our country, but above all we follow our God-given conscience. My friend Bishop Lawrence never went to jail. But this coming Friday, October 24th, we remember the death three years ago of one who did. She was a black seamstress, Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a Birmingham bus to a white passenger and was arrested and jailed. It was her courageous act of faith and justice which led to a boycott of the city bus system and inspired the whole Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
In obedience to our crucified and risen Lord, God calls us to work and vote and advocate for a nation that in the words of our Pledge of Allegiance, upholds liberty and justice for all. And that means politics must always be seen within the domain of God. The late William Sloan Coffin, Chaplain at Yale and Minister of Riverside Church in New York, a preacher whom I knew and admired, put it this way: “The important decisions of our time—whether there will be peace or war, freedom or totalitarianism, racial equality or discrimination, hemophilia or homophobia, food or famine—all these are political decisions… Together, faith in Jesus Christ and political application of that faith form one unbroken circle.” (William Sloan Coffin: Credo)