Would you believe that President Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan have decided to work with Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton on how to deal with Kim Jong-un of North Korea? What? You don’t believe it? Would you believe that Fox News and CNN have decided to work together on covering the next year’s election cycle? What you don’t believe it again? Hmm, well the reason I suspect you don’t believe it is because you know how much those different groups do NOT get along with each other. When we read our gospel today we see two such groups coming to Jesus to trap him. We see the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were a group of religious people who were very extreme on following the letter of the law. The Herodians were a group of people who were politicians working with political establishment within Palestine. They worked therefore hand in glove with the Romans and Gentile family of Herod just like the tax-collectors. Normally these groups would not speak to each other. However, both groups hated and feared Jesus enough to partner together for this question. With this question, they figured that they had him in a corner, it was a “Tails I win or a Heads you lose” situation. The question they brought to Jesus was about taxes. Some scholars have estimated that the Jews in the 1st century Palestine paid almost 50% of their earnings in taxes. There were three taxes the Romans extracted from the Jewish people. The first two taxes went to the general government, local and otherwise. The 3rd went to Caesar. 1. A ground tax – a man must pay to the government a given percentage of the oil and wine which he produced. 2. An income tax and 3. A poll tax – every male person from age fourteen to 65 and every female from age twelve to 75 must pay this which amounted to one denarius or one day’s wages. The tax here in question was this poll tax – one denarius, one day’s wages a year. The Jews resented the tax, not just because we all hate taxes, but because to a few, God was the only king. To pay taxes to an earthly king was to admit the validity of his kingship and thus insult God.
The question was whether this poll tax was lawful, now lawful means here was it in accordance with God’s law, was God in favor of giving this tax to the emperor? We already pay taxes on our produce, we already pay taxes on our incomes, is it even moral to give HIM tax for just being alive? It was a tough question. If Jesus said, “No” then he would be reported to the Romans for sedition and promoting rebellion and the Herodians were right there to hand carry this message. If Jesus said, “Yes” then all the crowds would despise him for being a Roman sympathizer, for giving in to the establishment, and the Pharisees were right there to stir up the crowds.
Jesus of course is aware of their maliciousness and he calls them out on it. He tells them to show him coin used for the tax. It was a denarius. This is what the Roman soldiers received for their day’s wage. This is also what a day-laborer would receive. It is the coin everyone had to use to pay their tax.
Jesus asks who image is on the coin. It is the image of Caesar. And Jesus tells them to give to Caesar, actually to give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The word Jesus uses is different than the one Pharisees and Herodians use. They use the word ‘give.’ Jesus uses the word to pay back or return as in the idea of paying back a loan. Jesus’ point is that the image on the coin indicates ownership therefore the coin is Caesar’s coin.
Jesus then adds on something beyond their question. He says to pay back Caesar but then he says to pay back to God the things that are God’s. If image indicates ownership the meaning of Jesus is subtle but clear. The image on the coin indicates the coin is Caesar’s but we are made in the image of God. Every Jew was very aware of that—therefore Jesus is telling these guys, “Give the coin to Caesar—but give yourselves to God.” You are God’s possession because His image is stamped upon you! Your life, your being belongs to God.
Yes they were amazed—both groups of people got zinged. Jesus pointed out and confirmed that we do have an obligation to our rulers—if we are using their money, well then, we owe them their taxes. But if we are alive, if we are breathing and moving, we owe God. What does God want from us? What are we required to give back to God? The Pharisees and Herodians were afraid to ask Jesus that question.
What does this little story have to say to us today? Well quite a bit as it turns out. First, we are under obligation here in our country. Unlike the Jews in the first century, we have a say on what goes on in our country. We have a vote. We are to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Our Caesar [in the United States] is a government of the people by the people for the people. One of our primary obligations is to vote. And one vote may make the difference. Did you know that ONE VOTE made Oliver Cromwell Lord Protector of the Commonwealth and gave him control of England? (1645) ONE VOTE caused Charles I to be executed. (1649) ONE VOTE kept Aaron Burr – later charged with treason – from becoming President. (1800) ONE VOTE made Texas part of the United States. (1845) ONE VOTE saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment. (1868) ONE VOTE changed France from a monarchy to a republic. (1875) ONE VOTE admitted California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho into the Union. (1850, 1850, 1889, 1890) ONE VOTE made Adolf Hitler head of the Nazi Party. (1923) ONE VOTE maintained the Selective Service System only 12 weeks before Pearl Harbor. (1941) I’m only one person but I am one. I can’t do everything but I can do something and what I can do I ought to do. So one take-away from Jesus’ message is that we are obligated to the society in which we live. We have taxes as well but we also have a responsibility to take an intelligent part in our country by voting and then by praying. It is not someone else; it is me. Just complaining about our country is not an option as a Christian.
We are not only under obligation to our country; we are under obligation to God. We owe God our existence, our lives. In return Jesus told us to love God with all our hearts and to love each other as ourselves. He and then the Apostles tell us how that looks more specifically throughout Scriptures as we hear them every week.
We are in our stewardship month. And so the message of Jesus today about repaying the One whose image we are made in is very appropriate. We give back to God through our service and through our money. Both are important. Both are necessary. But did you know that when we do what God wants us to do there are actually benefits beyond the knowing that we are doing what is right? Benefit #1, according to health research funding, people who tithe regularly typically have less debt than other demographics – 8 out of 10 have zero credit card debt and 28% of them are completely debt free, including not having a mortgage! How can this be when these people are giving away 10 percent of their income? Apparently God has a hand in the matter. Another benefit according to the Cleveland Clinic, the scientifically-proven benefits of giving include: lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem, less depression, lower stress levels, longer life, and greater happiness. Further, people who give to others tend to score much higher on feelings of joy and contentment than individuals who did not give to others. So apparently when we give back to God out of obedience, God touches our lives in return.
Jesus tells us that we are to give back to Caesar, our government what we owe, but we are to give back to God what we owe as well. I encourage you to give 10 percent of your income back to God. If you feel unable to do this, I encourage you to give 10 percent more than what you gave last year to God. I encourage us to do this frankly because all of us need to be able to give. It is not only good for us psychologically and physically, but it is necessary for us spiritually. If we cannot give, we have a spiritual problem.
Give back to Caesar what is his and give back to God what is his. We are God’s. Let us indeed give ourselves through service and giving. Amen