The Pharisees went out and plotted how they could trap Jesus in what he said. 16 And they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God in truth, and show deference to no one, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 So tell us, what do you think? Is it proper to pay a tax to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, perceiving their evil intent, said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” 21 They answered him, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, so they left him and went away.
Loaded questions. Gotcha questions. They’ve been a part of politics forever. Remember when, as a candidate, Barack Obama was asked why he wasn’t wearing an American Flag pin in his lapel? His response was that his patriotism ran deeper than a lapel pin. That should have been the end of it, but, of course it wasn’t.
Loaded questions are designed for entrapment and today’s gospel gives us one of the all-time great examples. It’s a political question, designed to put Jesus on the spot. The really fascinating thing about it is that two political factions that usually wanted nothing to do with each other came together to ask this question. That’s how much they wanted Jesus out of the way. That’s how much they wanted to discredit him.
“Is it proper to pay a tax to Caesar or not?” they ask. The particular tax they’re asking about is the poll tax, a tax of one denarius per year levied on every adult man and woman in the empire. This tax was relatively new when they asked Jesus this question. It had been instituted by Tiberius not long before Jesus was born as part of his overall reform of Rome’s taxation system.
The Herodians, who were big supporters of Rome and all it stood for, were all in favor of the tax as a way to help pay for what they saw as the many benefits of being part of the empire—decent roads, improved trade, aqueducts, general law and order, and so on. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were not supporters of their Roman overlords and not at all happy about the tax that paid for these conquerors to dominate them and every aspect of their lives in their own homeland. One of the things that they found particularly objectionable, though, was Roman money.
Roman currency was not just a reminder that Rome had complete control of the economy, it was also propaganda. The Roman denarius had on the obverse, the “heads” side, a portrait of the emperor, Tiberius, so every coin was a reminder of who was in charge. On the reverse, the “tails” side, was a seated woman in the role of Pax, the goddess of peace, a reminder that Rome kept the peace.
To devout Jews like the Pharisees, the portrait stamped on these coins was a kind of idolatry. But worse than the portrait was the inscription on the coins: Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus. The coin proclaimed not only that the emperor was the son of a god, but also the high priest of the empire’s religions. All of the empire’s religions. Including theirs.
When the Pharisees and the Herodians team up to ask Jesus their loaded question, they think they have him trapped. If he says, “No, it’s not right to pay this tax,” he’ll make the Pharisees and a lot of others in the crowd happy, but he’ll be guilty of sedition in Rome’s eyes and the Herodians won’t waste a minute bringing it to Pilate’s attention. If he says, “Yes, it’s perfectly proper,” then he’ll give the Pharisees ammunition and disappoint the crowd; they’ll no longer regard him as a prophet and he’ll lose these last precious opportunities to teach them about the kin-dom of God.
What he does instead of falling into their binary yes or no trap is brilliant. He asks to see the coin that’s used to pay the tax, and when they produce one for him he asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they reply. I imagine this was a tense moment. I can imagine him holding that coin in his hand, evaluating the metal portrait in his palm for a long moment before he hands it back to them and says, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
When they heard this, the text says, they were astonished, so they left him and went away.
On the face of it, it sounds simple. On the face of it, it sounds like we can divide life into two compartments: on one side of the line are the things that belong to God, spiritual things, and on the other side of the line are secular things.
But wait a minute. What really belongs to Caesar? Does his own likeness? Don’t we read in Genesis that we were created in the likeness of God? So in that sense, isn’t Caesar’s own likeness something that, in the end, belongs to God? Does the silver the coin that bears his picture belong to Caesar? He may be in possession of it or exercise some control over its distribution, but isn’t God the one who brought both the silver and the man depicted into being? Long after Caesar has been gathered to his ancestors, the silver will pass to other hands and only God will know where it is. When all is said and done, doesn’t everything belong to God?
When I was a kid, we always sang a brief refrain as the offering was brought forward: “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.” It was a reminder that we don’t really own anything, that everything we have in our hands belongs to God and we are entrusted with it for a time.
Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesars. What is that, exactly? What are those things, if everything really belongs to God?
Well, there are some things we owe to Caesar. One thing we owe to Caesar is taxes, not just because it’s the civil law, but because as people of faith and followers of Christ it’s ethical to pay our fair share to support the civil contract we live under and from which we benefit. We’re bound by an agreement to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare. That’s our civil contract with each other and God calls us to keep it in good faith.
Voting is another thing we owe Caesar. It is one of our most important obligations in our government of, by, and for the people. Voting is supposed to be how we select those who will be stewards of our collective resources on our behalf. It’s how we select people to make decisions on our behalf. Our vote is the tool we wield to ensure that the burden of taxes is distributed more fairly. Our vote is our shield to ensure that justice is maintained, that our laws are applied evenly and fairly, that no group is unfairly targeted by them or excluded from their protection.
As people of faith and followers of Jesus, though, voting is also something we owe to God.
As a follower of Jesus, when I prepare to cast my ballot, I have to ask myself bigger questions, deeper questions, than mere partisan questions. I have to think beyond expediency. I have to remind myself that political issues and economic issues are also theological issues. My responses to political and economic issues reflect what I truly believe and impact the world more than my words.
As a follower of Jesus I am beholden to a deeper loyalty than partisan loyalty. As a follower of Jesus I am beholden to a deeper loyalty than patriotism.
So as a follower of Jesus, how do I render my vote unto Caesar without compromising what I owe to God?
In 2 Corinthians 5:20, St. Paul calls us Ambassadors for Christ’s reconciliation. Doesn’t that include reconciliation of our racial divisions? Doesn’t that mean we should be agents of establishing equity and bringing healing? Is there a way for me to vote for that? I there a candidate who is working for reconciliation?
In Genesis we read that we were created male and female in God’s image, equal before God in our creation. Throughout the Bible we see repeated instances of women in leadership, but in our society we still see women denigrated all too often. In Galatians St. Paul said There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Isn’t misogyny a gospel issue for followers of Jesus? Is there a way to vote that improves the status and protection of women? Is there a candidate who has a better record in that area?
In both testaments of our scriptures we read that we are supposed to welcome strangers (Matt. 25) and that aliens in our land are supposed to be treated as citizens (Lev.19:33). Is there a way to vote that moves more us in that direction?
The Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus a politically loaded question. Instead of giving an answer that would satisfy either party, he gave them an answer that required them to go back and think not only about his response, but also about what had motivated them to ask their question in the first place. Their question was political and so was his answer, but not in a way they were expecting. He made them take responsibility for their own stance and their own answers to their own question.
That’s what Jesus asks from us as his followers: to think about what our stance means, to think about what our faith means, to think about how it affects our vote, and to think about how our vote affects the rest of the world. Jesus asks us to take responsibility.
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner asked an interesting question in Sojourners magazine: How Would Jesus Vote? In answer to her question she came up with
“Four Guidelines for Voting While Christian.
- PURPOSE: Jesus would begin by understanding his purpose. Jesus began his ministry announcing his purpose saying, “He has sent me to change your life, God’s kingdom is here.” Being God’s agent means placing priority on God’s higher spiritual kingdom or commandments than on natural earthly laws or human desires.
- POWER: Jesus would use his power to act on behalf of the vulnerable.
- PEACEMAKER: Jesus would be a bridge-builder and peacemaker between opposing sides on issues. Jesus blessed peacemakers, and called his followers to be salt in a decaying earth, and light in a dark and divided world. He defined disciples and followers, saying, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” He taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and others as oneself.
- PRAYER: Jesus would pray before he voted.
Jesus prayed about everything. Before every challenge, like feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:13); bringing the dead back to life (John 11:41, 42); before crucifixion (Matthew 26:42); and even on the cross experiencing a brutal execution, (Luke 23:34), Jesus prayed. The moral and spiritual transformation of America and the election of high-character leaders in every sphere of influence will be produced by prayer. Christ-followers should pray for the wisdom of God in choosing leaders and policies that reflect God’s values. Most of all they should pray for leaders on opposing sides, that they will follow God’s word in all decisions.”
This is a time for all of us to be in deep thought and deep prayer about what comes next. With God’s help and with people following sensible guidelines, this pandemic will end, and then it will be time to rebuild. We’ll need to rebuild our economy. We’ll need to rebuild a good deal of infrastructure. We’ll need to rebuild social structures and connections. We’ll need to rebuild much of Christ’s church. And all these things may emerge in a shape don’t yet know or understand. We’ll need wise, thoughtful, and responsible people in positions of leadership. We’ll need wise, thoughtful, and responsible laws and policies. We’ll need the leading of the Spirit and the Grace of Christ.
Now is the time for us to trust that God has a vision for that rebuilding. Now is the time to ask God to guide us in the first step of that rebuilding. Now is the time to pray. Now is the time to vote.
In Jesus’ name.