Clever questions can catch people out. There’s the old chestnut: “Have you stopped cheating on your wife?” To answer “Yes” implies that you were and you have stopped, to answer “No” implies that you have been and you still are. The is apparently no answer that does not leave you in a bad light, unless you step outside the confines of the question and answer it in your own way – just as politicians do in a radio or TV interview: “I have never cheated on my wife and never will.”
Trick questions that put people on the spot have been around for a long time. So it’s not surprising that Jesus faced some in his time. There’s one in Matthew 22:15-22, the Pharisees question has a very definite double edge. The issue of paying tax to the Roman emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle East in Jesus’ day.
Israel was an occupied land. There were taxes on agricultural yield and a personal ‘poll tax’. That’s why the Romans took a census to count how much tax they could levy. Paying tax in Roman coin was a threefold burden to the people of Israel: no-one liked paying taxes, Israel hated foreign rule and this tax reminded them of their invaders, and the image of Caesar on the coin was regarded as idolatry, breaking the command about graven images in Exodus.
Jesus appears to be in a ‘lose-lose’ situation when he is asked whether people should pay taxes to the Emperor or not. If he supported paying tax he would be accused of being unpatriotic. If he opposed tax-paying, he could be reported as a trouble-maker and rebel. The question has no right answer. Either reply is wrong. ‘Yes’ is religiously offensive. ‘No’ is politically dangerous.
Incidentally, this is all part of an honour/shame conflict being played out between Jesus and the religious leaders – please read some of my other posts to find out more.
Jesus asks whose head is on the coin he is given. Caesar’s, of course. So Jesus responds, the coin is Caesar’s property, it bears his image, so people should give to him what is his. It is all right to give back to Caesar what belongs to him. It is his money – so pay your taxes in the normal way. That is half of Jesus’ answer.
The other side of the matter is that God should receive his due. Israel must offer God the worship and service he deserves. In this case there is no limited tax bill, but a completely open account. There is only one proper way of responding to God’s generosity – with the worship, love and service of our whole lives. That’s the other half of Jesus’ answer.
So Jesus neatly turns the question back on his questioners. What are they giving to God of themselves, their devotion and their obedience? But his response raises a bigger question – and that is ‘how does one’s civic duty weigh up against one’s duty to God?’
Where do we stand in this? Should we as Christians be obedient citizens and pay our taxes with an honest and ready heart? ‘In general, yes, we should’ comes the answer from this passage – unless and until it clashes with our commitment to God. We’ve seen Christians throughout history who’ve put their commitment to God before their civic duty, and we remember some of those people as saints and martyrs.
There are Christians who openly confess Christ in lands where that is a crime, who defy unjust public policies, who support human rights, and who resist tyranny. They do it because they believe that Caesar’s rights are limited and that God’s are not.
There are times too when we will have to examine our conscience about issues where our society’s ways and God’s ways diverge. The financial crisis in the banking system is a case in point. Even if we didn’t really understand the details, it affected us all.
And what might God have to say about the part that society has played in building up the now failing financial systems, or about the actions that bankers have taken on our behalf. It’s easy to say that it’s the fault of ‘the City’, but maybe we have to look a little closer to home for some of the reasons.
Might people – or even we ourselves – have become too greedy? Might people – or even we ourselves – have become too caught up in wanting to improve our own financial situation without thinking about the impact on others? Might people – or even we ourselves – have become too impatient, wanting everything now even if we can’t afford it – and becoming too used to being in debt?
Perhaps we need to reassess our duty to God. Perhaps we need to continue to say that banks need to be fairer, that they need to be modelled on God’s values. Perhaps we have to be wise where we invest – looking for ethical banking practices; maybe we have to think twice before taking out loans; making investments that serve the good of all not just a few; maybe we have to remember that God is present in all aspects of our lives including our money and that our decisions over money need to be bound up in our desire to live his ways.
Jesus used a single coin to help people think about their relationship with the state and with God. As we handle the coins in our pockets or our purses, may they be a constant reminder that God is present in all parts of our lives – and that definitely includes our finances.