This passage from Matthew’s telling of the Gospel is one we associate with Holy Week. It’s part of the big lead-up after Palm Sunday, where all of the folks in power in Jerusalem conspire and work together against Jesus. He’s been preaching and teaching too much that is threatening to their comfort, power, and wealth, and he needs to be stopped.
Before we get into just what is happening in this passage, it’s worth noting what this passage is not. In spite of its use in many times and places, this passage is not a support of Christian nationalism. Jesus’s statement, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's,” is not a wholesale endorsement of Christian affiliation to a civic government.
It’s a hard thing to get past. We have 1,700 years of state support for Christianity as the majority religion of the elite. For Anglicans, we have it written in our ecclesial DNA that our church and our civic government are two arms of the same body. It is part of our work as Anglican Christians living today to work through and leave behind this troublesome and sinful history. As today’s collect says, “...forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what is before.” This does not mean that politics and religion will never intersect; we are humans and we bring our whole selves to everything we do. But it does mean that we need to reckon with the fact that if Canada ceased to exist tomorrow, we would no longer be Canadians, but we would all still be Christians. We would all still be citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
If not about Christian nationalism and allegiance to civic governments, then what is this confrontation about?
The Pharisees and Herodians make strange bedfellows, but Jesus is threatening enough to both groups that they’ve made an alliance to try and deal with the troublesome Galilean. The Herodians advocate that life is good under Roman rule and that institutions like the local government and the now-problematic temple are critical to good life for all Judeans. The Pharisees, on the other hand, say that strict observance of the Law is all one needs for a good life. Even the temple is unnecessary if one is completely devoted to God’s precepts. One can readily imagine the tension in these two groups working together, trying to trap Jesus in a punishable offence. And they’re going to do it right in the temple, the centre of Judean religious life.
The question about taxes is a charged one. Taxes, in first century Judea, are not how we understand taxes in Canada today. I understand there are many opinions about tax and how it ought to be, or ought not to be, administered, but the general premise is: There are services and infrastructure that we all need and it is most efficient for us to contribute to a central body who then undertake those projects and operate those services on our behalf. On paper, at least, this sounds like a reasonable plan.
In Jesus’s context, taxes are money extracted by Rome for the upkeep of its empire with very little benefit to local Judeans. The Roman army has arrived, subjugated the people of Judea, maintains a controlling, oppressive presence, and demands that the Judeans pay for the upkeep of their armed oppressors. This is not just or helpful. The Pharisees and Herodians think they’ve cornered Jesus. He must either speak out against Roman taxation—a sure sign of seditious thinking—or speak against the right to sovereignty of his own people and lose his credibility.
Jesus, calling the lot of them hypocrites, asks to be shown the coin used to pay taxes and his interrogators duly do so. What this means would be obvious to Matthew’s audience, who are primarily Jews of this era. It is less obvious to us, many generations later.
We all know the story of Jesus chasing the money changers out of the temple. The money changers exist because of the commandment against having graven images of things in creation. This is especially true of images of God or humanity, who bear God’s image and likeness. One cannot bring money for offering into the temple that bears the face of a person without violating this law. So, before going in to make one’s offering, one must stop and exchange one’s Roman money for faceless temple money, which is only usable for temple offerings. Of course, the money changers—just like the ones you meet at airports today—make themselves very wealthy by charging fees for this service. Jesus chases them out, furious that the worship of God has been made into an opportunity to exploit people and extract wealth from those following God’s commandments. Perverting the Law for personal gain is sin of the highest order.
When the Pharisees and Herodians, confronting Jesus in the temple, produce a coin with the emperor’s face stamped on it, they have been revealed clearly as first-class hypocrites. Trying to entrap Jesus with a question about Roman taxes and their permissibility under God’s law while, themselves, carrying a graven image into the temple. One can imagine the gasp from the crowd of onlookers.
Jesus, we should note, does not produce a faceless temple coin or, indeed, any object. He simply says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.” What, then, belongs to the emperor? Like a dog, peeing on that which he wants to mark as his own, the emperor has put his face on these little, nearly worthless, lumps of metal. (Money’s actual value is entirely a fiction we humans have created, but that’s another sermon.) And in so doing, the emperor has shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where he stands in opposition to God’s righteous law. The emperor has shown what is most important to him: wealth and power over other people. So important that he has stamped his image and likeness all over it.
What could Jesus possibly mean about offering to God what is God’s? What is most important to God and central to the Law? What in creation bears God’s image and likeness?
When we think of what we might offer to God today, this conversation between Jesus and his persecutors is an important one. God’s greatest desire from us is not money or power but love. God’s desire is that, as beloved children of God who bear the divine image and likeness, we would give our whole lives in love of God. Love of ourselves. Love of neighbour. This is the summary of the Law that Jesus holds up in today’s Gospel passage. Those who want to collect little lumps of metal and stamp their names and faces on everything at the expense of God, themselves, and their neighbours will learn the true value of that work. And they, like the Pharisees and Herodians in this confrontation with Jesus, will be sorely disappointed.
Instead of fretting over how to make a little more money, how to acquire a little more property, how to exert influence over a few more people, let us Christians here think differently. How might I love God, myself, and my neighbour a little more than I did yesterday? How might we as a congregation love God, ourselves, and our neighbours a little more than we did last week? How might we as a whole Church love God, ourselves, and our neighbours a little more than we did in the last generation?
It is not a tax of money that God desires, but an offering of our whole body, mind, soul, and strength poured out in love on the altar of our lives.