Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22. 15-22)
This week’s Gospel reading lends itself, on the surface at least, to a comfortable separation between the sacred and the secular: if one should rend unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, then the state and the church each have their own sphere of operation and never the ‘twain should meet. But, if we pay closer attention to Jesus’ pithy and slightly enigmatic response to his questioners, we find a far more provocative set of ideas about the relationship between faith and politics. We might do well to heed them.
The Gospel reading begins with Jesus entrapped by an unlikely alliance of Pharisees and Herodians. They both hope to draw Jesus out in opposite directions over the politically-loaded question of whether Jews should pay taxes to the occupying Roman forces. If one payed the tax, then this acknowledged that a pagan authority rightfully ruled in the
. Surprisingly, some Jews were quite happy with
this acknowledgement. In fact, the
Jewish authorities helped farm the tax, and for political groups like the
Herodians, whatever the violence of Roman occupation, to deny such tribute was
tantamount to treason and a betrayal of their own political status. On the other hand, other Jewish groups –
probably in the popular majority – resented the tax on religious grounds, as
did the Pharisees for whom the question of whether to pay tax to pagans really was
a question of conscience. Seemingly
trapped between a rock and a hard place – or a Pharisee and an Herodian – Jesus
first asks for a visual aid (the
production of a coin) and then delivers a statement which both amazes and
silences his questioners. Chosen Land
What are we to make of the visual aid (the coin) and Jesus’ response, especially if we are reluctant to see them as simply establishing a separation of state and religion many centuries before rebellious men in the American colonies had the notion?
Well, the coin is one used for the tax, meaning that it will have been a pagan coin bearing the emperor’s image and inscribed with the following: Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus, great high priest. Finding such a coin both in the possession of a Jew and also within the holy precincts of the temple was doubly embarrassing for the gathered Herodians and Pharisees. Not only are they hypocrites for using pagan money without any qualms, but they are also blasphemers who desecrate the holy ground of the One God with a symbol of the imperial pretence of divinity. It’s much as if a copy of Playboy has slipped from behind the covers of a chorister’s copy of Smith’s Responses for Evensong. We might giggle, but it’s also profoundly revealing of a person’s true commitments.
Yet, Jesus’ response is not one of rebuke but a reminder of where obligations, both political and spiritual, should truly rest. Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. If the pagan coin bears the image of the Roman Emperor, then it belongs to him as a sign of the power he holds, as violent and distasteful as that may be. Yet, the image of God, and His power, is to be found not in a tiny piece of pressed metal, but within every instance of human nature, within the createdness of every human being made in God’s image. Our ability to think, to reason, to create, and to love reveal us to be diminished likenesses of God’s generous, self-giving, and loving nature. God impresses us with His own image in order to reveal something of true power where service of mankind brings true freedom, not the imperial subjugation of mankind by political, military, or economic might. We are God’s coins, God’s currency within the world He creates, loves, and redeems.
Within this divine economy, there is no true or ultimate separation between the public square and religion, between political obligation and faith. Jesus’ words distance him from simply agreeing with those who want him to come out in favour of opposing
. Yet, neither do his words leave a clear
picture of loyal submission to the state, regardless of religious belief. Jesus’ words underline the provisional and
temporary nature of the status quo,
however terrible or wonderful it may seem.
They also direct us to be wary of collapsing God’s kingdom into one kind
of political order or another, be it socialism, fascism, or even capitalism and
liberal democracy. Jesus has a
contrasting lack of reservation about obedience to God: we ought to give our
life, our all, and spend all of the currency of the divine image by
co-operating with the kingdom that has come and is still to come. The only true and proper obligation is the eternal
ground of all life, God himself. Rome
Jesus does not give us, of course, a simple or straightforward way to measure up the different kinds of demands between our times and our faith. When those demands are not in conflict, one can render both to Caesar and to God with no problems. In cases of conflict, however, Christ is clear which economy should take precedence and which coin, which image, we should render. To do less denies who we are and masks the glory of the image we bear. If we are unable to do so as the Church, then we will be left like the Pharisees and Herodians, amazed and silent and soon ignored. Amen.