Sunday, 19 October 2014

'Render Unto Caesar': A sermon that isn't really about taxes at all

For those of you who invest your money into stocks and bonds, I might be inclined to urge you to “Put all your money in taxes. It's the only sure thing to go up.”

The passage we’ve heard from Matthew’s Gospel, which includes those famous words ‘render unto Caesar’, is very often used to affirm that as members of our communities, we must pay our taxes. It’s also often used to argue that the secular and the spiritual need to be kept well apart from each other, the state and the church separated with the grubby world of finance and governance on the one side, and the ethereal other-world of the spirit on the other.

Yes, we must pay our taxes, however galling that experience might be – as one wag put it, there are only two definites, death and taxes, but at least death doesn’t become more expensive every April.
And we might have some interesting things to say about the relationship between the scared and the secular, between the church and the state, especially as members of the established Church of England.  I am fairly sure that not all of us gathered here his evening would be in complete agreement about what that means and what it should mean, both for the life of our country and for the life of our national church.

However, I’m not sure that this clever little moment from the life of Jesus, one that is recorded in the Gospels of Mark, Mathew and Luke, is getting at. Rather, it seems to me to be hinting at something more along the lines of this question: how can we, as believers, live in an unbelieving world without compromising our integrity? This is a question which has confronted Christians, and indeed members of all religions, down through history and continues to influence the way we live now. Let’s have a think about this business of rendering unto Caesar, then we’ll return to the question of how we as Christians do what the Psalm describes as keeping our hands clean and our hearts pure in a messy, murky world.  

If paying HRMC does stick in your throat, it may or may not be of comfort to you to know that Jews in the first century paid quite a lot of taxes: tithes to the Temple, averaging about 21% of their annual income, customs taxes, and land taxes. The Pharisees and Herodians were not questioning these taxes. Their question was very specific: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"

They were talking about the annual tax to Rome, the ruling power in first century Palestine. This tax could only be paid with Roman coins which, as well as being legal tender, were also propaganda. In the first century, most citizens of the Roman Empire had never actually seen the Emperor, not even from afar – Imperial tours were very few and far between – so coins were one of the ways to remind peoples under Imperial control whose subjects they were.  

These days we are used to the idea that in any given country, there is one currency that is legal tender, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in first century Palestine – at least three different types of currency are mentioned in the Gospels – Greek drachmas, which are talked about as a different type of tax just a few chapters earlier on in Matthew’s Gospel, shekels, the currency of the Judean people and the thirty pieces of silver which are the currency used to pay off Judas Iscariot, and finally the Roman denarius.

You can see from this that the people of the New Testament moved between three different cultures, Greek, Roman and Judean, each with their own currencies. It’s easy to imagine a first century Palestinian Jew with three different currencies in his purse. And it’s easy to see how to some Jews, even the very Roman coins themselves would be blasphemous; most of the coins contained an image of the Caesar with an inscription proclaiming him to be divine. One coin used during the time of Jesus had inscribed on it: "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest." This was called the ‘tribute penny.’

This tribute penny was seen, therefore, by some Jews as a currency with which it could not possibly be lawful to dirty one’s hands; Jewish priests did not touch Roman coins, which is why the offerings at the Jerusalem temple needed to be changed in the outer court – hence the money changers whose table Jesus overturns.  On the other hand, many Jews had become so used to the face of Tiberius on their coins that the shocking blasphemy of being complicit in a currency which calls him God barely even registered.
As trick questions go, this one was a stroke of genius. If Jesus had said yes, you must pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisaic spin doctors would be able to say that Jesus is no true son of David; he endorses a system which calls the Emperor Divine. If Jesus had said no, you Jews must keep your hands clean and your hearts pure from these blasphemies – you can’t use these coins - then he could be arrested for inciting rebellion. Jesus was cornered, condemned either as a blasphemer or a zealot, either one of which charge could quickly dispose of this man who had made himself an enemy of the Pharisees with his very pointed parables and his accusations of their hypocrisy.

And yet, the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ genius was just the foil to Jesus’ masterstroke. Jesus, as we know, bypasses the presenting problem of blasphemy altogether, and instead talks about ownership. Whose face is this? He asks. And yes, if a coin has someone’s face on it, it belongs to them; it is no problem to give it back to its rightful owner. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. There’s a challenge in that answer; money isn’t really yours, you know, Jesus seems to be implying. If anyone’s, surely it belongs to the person whose face is imprinted on it. For those of us steeped in a culture based on private ownership, this really is a challenge.

It gets more challenging, and more liberating still, though. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s – and unto God that which is God’s. The impact of this answer would not have been lost on the Pharisees and Herodians; this man, whose face is known throughout the Empire, printed on coin and commemorated in Roman triumphs; this man is not God. God is God, and Caesar is Caesar. In this short, pithy answer, Jesus ducks the perils of being condemned either as a rebel who incites non-compliance with the occupying forces of Rome, or as a blasphemer who denies the one true God.
So it’s not so much that this little vignette is about the separation of the church and state, the spiritual and secular, or about the necessity of paying taxes, but rather, the separation of the one true God and false gods.  

It’s about living in a world in which all sorts of people and things are elevated to the status of God, and moving among them whilst remaining true to the one true God. If that sounds arcane, juts think for a moment:  if a god is that which we worship, and if worship is the giving of the very best of ourselves, giving our time, our energy, our money, our allegiance and loyalty, then we can see that we live in a world which has just as many gods as the ancient Romans.  It’s easy to say that our celebrity-obsessed, materialistic culture makes gods out of football players and pop singers, but if we are honest, a false god is anything which commands a higher place in our lives than the one true God himself.  

So how do we move among the myriad false gods of our world without getting sucked into false worship and a very modern sort of blasphemy? Jesus gives us a clear steer: give to the world that which is of the world. Yes, that includes taxes. But it also includes our wisdom, our insight, our honesty and our prayerful response to the complex needs of the world. It means recognising that none of what passes for divine in our contemporary society is, actually, God. But also, give to God that which is God’s. Find out who the one true God is, the one who alone is worthy of our loyalty, our allegiance, our energy, and our love, and give to him that which is already his – ourselves. We do that now as we meet that one true God in the Eucharist. Amen.


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