I don’t think anyone likes paying taxes. And I don’t know of any government that doesn’t mind if you refuse to pay them. This is true today, and it’s true in Jesus’ day. Our world and Jesus’ world have major differences but share similarities. For example, then as now, most cultures assume the state or government has some obligation to preserve and improve the welfare of its citizens. In our culture, the motivator is guilt, legally understood. We ask who is legally responsible for the care of the vulnerable. In Jesus’ day, the motivator is honor and shame. The presence of vulnerable people—orphans, widows, beggars, etc.—brought shame to the government. Then and now, culture develops ways of pretending the vulnerable aren’t there so we don’t have to deal with them. And, then and now, culture expects the government to use at least some of its resources to help. In Rome, as in America, it came through taxes. Rome’s tax system dealt more with duties and tariffs than with income.
When the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus if Torah permits paying taxes, it’s a trap on multiple levels. Obviously, no one likes paying them, but if Jesus says it is not permitted, he opens himself to attack by Rome. There’s a related sense: If Jesus opposes taxes, how, then, does he propose to care for the vulnerable? And, if he favors paying taxes to Rome, how can he say he is on the side of the Hebrews? After all, Rome is a conqueror, an imperial power over subject Hebrews. The permanent freedom and eternal bliss that the prophets promised upon return from Exile has hit a major snag thanks to the Romans. The people of Judah remember they were once free. They once collected the taxes themselves. Chances are pretty good that a fair percentage of those gathered to hear Jesus think Jesus is going to restore Judean independence.
Jesus responds with a profound epigram, prefaced with a clever trick. He asks for a denarius. Jesus is in the Temple. There are no idols allowed in the Temple. In the Book of First Maccabees, the Judean War of Independence begins when the evil king installs an idol in the Temple. It’s worth going to war over. So, to ensure there are no idols in the Temple, you cannot bring in anything that could be construed as an idol. Since a denarius has a picture of the Emperor—who claims to be a god and the supreme bridge between God and humans—you cannot bring a denarius into the Temple. You have to exchange your denarii for half shekels. (This is the work of the money changers whose tables Jesus flipped the other day.) So, Jesus asks for a denarius, and someone in the Pharisee-Herodian delegation has a denarius! He’s got an idol in the Temple! According to the independence movement, he is the one who should be overthrown. That’s damning enough for some. It’s Jesus’ way of prefacing his response to the tax question, by saying, “Just so we’re clear, you guys are not coming at me from some place of righteousness.” From this position proceeds the heart and soul of the passage, Jesus’ profound epigram.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Two powerful statements delivered as one. Apparently, there’s no getting out of paying your taxes to Rome. Why? You exist in human society. Despite Margaret Thatcher’s infamous assertion to the contrary, there is such a thing as society, and you cannot escape it. However imperfectly the secular powers are caring for the vulnerable, that’s their job and it’s our job to support it. It’s our job as Christians because Christ claims everything. God created the world, and the Son of God is not teaching in the Temple so he can help people escape; he’s calling us to live fully as God’s people. God claims us. God claims our world. God even claims the emperor. When Jesus the Son of God asks, “Whose image is this on the coin?”, it’s not merely the emperor, but a human being created in the image of God. That would’ve rankled some of Jesus’ listeners every bit as much as saying, “Yes, you have to pay taxes.” As biblical as it is, the notion that God is present regardless of who is in government does not play well even with biblical people. After all, as I said, these are people who know they were once independent.
The First Reading today is delivered to people on the cusp of freedom. It purports to be addressed to Cyrus of Persia, but he never read it. The words assure the exiles in Babylon that Cyrus, who destroys the Babylonian empire, is God’s instrument. The people of Judah will be going home, where God will be with them and they will live and worship God free forever. These words are spoken roughly 550 years before Jesus stands in the Temple answering tax questions. Between those two points in time, Persia would rule, then Alexander the Great, then his generals and their successors, and then would follow a century of independence for the city of Jerusalem, before Rome conquered. I’m pretty sure the golden age these Pharisees want back never existed.
Furthermore, what it has meant to be one of God’s people has changed a lot. On the Bible’s own terms, being God’s people has meant: wealth, poverty, emigration, slavery, liberation from slavery, wandering, conquest, defeat, unity, disunity, freedom, exile, realizing we don’t need a temple, deciding that we actually do, liking our foreign overlords, disliking our foreign overlords, independence, and subjugation.
Likewise, the specifics, the details, of the mission of the Church change, though it remains God’s mission. On Thursday we said goodbye to Eva Harbeck. I mentioned that when she was born the Church was still amid the Sunday School Movement, when Bible classes would be hundreds strong. But the schools were struggling because the basic instruction they offered was being offered for free in the newfangled public schools. The Church had to discern if it needed to continue its schools (which were at most a little over a century old), and, if so, what they would teach. A century later, we’re still asking that. In the 1950s, the Church found itself near the center of power in this country. America was facing the Soviets, and Churches saw themselves standing up for God against tyranny. By the middle of the 1960s, mainline Churches were becoming uncomfortable with some of the things they were being asked to say on behalf of the state, and began asking instead if the war in Vietnam was ethical, and if there were good reasons why women were not allowed to be pastors and children weren’t received at communion. In more recent decades, the Church has asked how on Earth malaria is still a thing, has advocated for the homeless and for day laborers, for LGBT rights and for better ecological stewardship. The details of the mission change, but it remains God’s mission.
At its heart, God’s mission is solidarity with the most vulnerable. Whether they were working class children, Eastern Europeans under dictatorships, racial minorities or gender minorities, sick, homeless, lesbian, or drinking poisoned water, there were vulnerable people, people either produced by society as vulnerable, or made vulnerable by the world’s sinful need to make someone be vulnerable. When the Son of God stands in the Temple and tells the Pharisee-Herodian coalition members that they shall give to the Emperor and to God, he drives home God’s care for the vulnerable. The Son of God says, in the Temple, that the God who created the stars and planets, the galaxies and the unfathomable spaces between them, and filled this world and who knows how many with life—this God chooses to be with those who are vulnerable. This God becomes human and goes to the weak, the sick, and the marginalized. This God dies to break the power of death, and rises to open the way of life for the least among us. That is our confession. That is the gist of the Creed. That’s what lies behind our declaration at the Table: Christ has died, Christ is rise, Christ will come again.
This universe is God’s creation—every little piece of it. God wants us to understand this, and to treat the universe like we understand this. God frees us from Sin, Death, and the Power of the Devil so that we will treat the vulnerable like they belong here. For all are created in God’s image, be they the emperor whose likeness is on that out of place denarius, be they an anonymous person in a back alley on a world on the other side of the Milky Way, be they, well, you, or me. The times and specifics of the mission change, but the mission to the vulnerable remains. Is it permitted to give to the care of the vulnerable? I kind of feel compelled to!