Just Who is this Caesar?
A Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head [Greek: image ikon] is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Who is this Caesar?
What's happening in this confrontation in the temple? Well…
if Jesus says it is wrong to pay taxes to Caesar, he can be charged with inciting insurrection— the Pharisees even brought some government stooges along just in case he did! (That's the Herodians.)
But of course if Jesus says you should pay taxes to Caesar… then all the religious folks will be upset because… well, that means he's saying that God is not God, but that Caesar is more important. And then the Pharisees can say (only not when the Herodians are around) that you should only give money to God so, clearly then, you shouldn't listen to this Jesus, because he thinks you should pay taxes to Caesar.
It's a very clever setup. But Jesus outsmarts them. He says, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." So the Herodians can't complain. But then he says, "And give to God what is God's." So, neither can the Pharisees complain, because that's actually what they think, and what they want him to say.
But… … have you ever been somewhere when someone tells a joke and then, after a second or two there's a single laugh as it dawns on somebody what the person really said… and then, a couple more laughs, and then… slowly, as people cotton on, everyone starts laughing?
Well, something like that is happening here. Slowly, everyone starts to smile as they get the joke. Everything belongs to God so… what is there to give to Caesar?
And by that time, even if the government agents want to find fault with Jesus, it's too late. The crowd is on Jesus' side.
Just to be clear: at that time in history there was no such thing as secular versus religious; that's a very modern idea. If you were loyal to Caesar you were loyal to his God, who just happened to be… Him. You would find things like, "Tiberius, Emperor, son of God" stamped on Caesar's coins. So one thing was very clear that day in the temple: everyone understood that, ultimately, you worshipped the God of Israel, or you worshipped Caesar. Only one could really have your ultimate allegiance.
Which all meant, in practice, if you were one of Jesus' people… that you hoped no one asked you whose side you were on. It was a dangerous question.
So, today, who… is Caesar?
We might think that Caesar today is the Government. And we might think that this story means that God is God… even of the government, and that therefore there will be times and places where, to be faithful to God, we have to refuse the government's claim on our allegiance.
And that is true, as far as it goes, and we hope that we can "dodge between the powers"— as one of my colleagues puts it— as we seek to follow Jesus, rather than having to answer the dangerous question from someone who has the power to harm us about who is really God. Because… in the end, there is still no such thing as secular vs religious; God is God.
But I don't think that saying "the government is Caesar" goes deeply enough.
Caesar was simply a man— certainly very powerful— but in the end, just one more man at the top of a hierarchy… which used exclusion and violence in order to maintain itself. Caesar was the figurehead of a society which kept itself safe, ordered, and well governed, by using violence against those who were different.
Note that I have not said "by using violence against those who were morally wrong or sinful" but… that I said "which kept itself safe, ordered, and well governed by using violence against those who were different."
The system of Caesar uses violence against those who are different and who are powerless to argue back and protect themselves. Caesar is the human system which organises itself by violence.
So although we do direct hatred and exclusion against people we think are morally wrong; paedophiles, for example…
we (increasingly) in this time of anxiety,
direct exclusion and hatred towards people who are unemployed, for we judge and condemn them even though there are not enough jobs to go around. It is not their fault they are unemployed;
we demonise refugees, we even condemn the ones we made refugees by invading their country! It is not their fault they are refugees;
we say sick people don't deserve support, we judge them unworthy, and are cutting disability benefits, even though it is not their fault they are sick;
it is also clear that the government is inviting the country's support to cut back on the aged pension…
All this exclusion and hatred helps those of us who are, so far, more privileged… to feel like we are in control and still closer to the top of the heap, and a bit better off, than everybody else. It also keeps us in line… because we fear that someone will pick on us if we speak out. We are invited to hate those Caesar hates, which means it pays to keep a low profile.
But God… loves all people. Jesus died for all people. God excludes… no one. God hates… no one. Indeed, the church is slowing learning that God… condemns no one. Judgement and condemnation always comes from us… and we have pretended it was from God.
when we hate,
when we exclude,
when we are racist,
when we are sexist,
when we are homophobic,
when we condemn the young— or the old—
… we are making Caesar Lord.
Indeed, we are so much "giving to Caesar what is Caesar's" when we exclude and hate and judge… that we are being Caesar…. We are ceasing to give God what is God's… which is the worship that loves all people, and which supports all people in the way Jesus did; that is, the worship of loving our neighbour as we love ourselves.
And when we will not be little Caesars, when we will not join the way of the world, and if we speak the love of our Lord, then the world may turn against us just as it turned against our Lord.
So is it lawful to pay taxes to the government? Of course it is, if the government is using the taxes for the flourishing of all people. But to give Caesar what is Caesars!? Let Caesar be what he is. Don’t add to it. Don't be Caesar. Rather, give to God what is God's.
Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also from 2017: But Everything Belongs to God