Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They 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.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Scripture quotations are 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.
Does God want you to be a Trump-supporter? Does God want you to be a Trump-resister? Is there anything more divisive in our country right now? Where is God on this? Believe it or not, that’s what this text in Matthew is asking.
This text describes an admitted attempt to trap Jesus. The Pharisees and the Herodians were working together even though they had virtually nothing in common. They had less in common with each other than today’s Republicans and Democrats. The Pharisees represented the majority of the Jewish people, and the Herodians represented the oppressing Roman government. The only thing they had in common was their desire to get rid of Jesus. Think of Trump-supporters and Trump-resisters joining forces. That’s what’s happening in these verses.
When these two groups banded together against Jesus, they really set an ingenious trap—one into which Jesus shouldn’t get out of. The divisive issue for them is if it’s OK to pay a tax to Rome. If Jesus says “yes,” the Pharisees can turn the Jewish people against him, saying Jesus supports the oppressors and has validated the Roman currency, which would be idolatry and breaking the first commandment, since the denarius declares Caesar to be Son of God (the first Caesar) and High Priest. If, on the other hand, Jesus says “no,” the Herodians can declare him in rebellion to the emperor, and have him jailed or even killed for insurrection. Either way, Jesus will be out of sight, hushed, no longer a threat to anyone. Foolproof.
But Jesus turns the tables. Instead of falling into their trap, he ups the
ante. He raises the stakes and makes their question an even more important one. No longer is this about whether or not to pay a poll tax to Rome, but about the very nature of their relationship with God. Instead of a trap, this is now about who we are and who God is.
Go ahead, Jesus says, and give to the emperor those things that are his, but to do that you have to acknowledge that there are things that do belong to Caesar. Then you have to define what those things are. And in order to do that, you have to know why those things belong to Caesar. Some things might belong to him if you believe him to be the head of the Roman government, but that’s way different than what belongs to him if you believe him to be divine, as all of Rome declares. If he’s divine, Son of god, you’re saying something completely different about what belongs to him, and therefore what ought to be given to him.
Jesus turns this around on them. Now they have to say where their own allegiance lies, they have to define what belongs to the emperor and why? And also what belongs to God and why?
That’s the question we have to answer too. What do we believe belongs to God? The stars? The earth? All the things that live on the earth? Us? The Church? Our gifts and talents? Our checkbooks? Our children? Our next breath? Do we believe everything belongs to God? And what does that even mean?
It starts with admitting that we belong to God. Each one of us. We are created in the very image of God, in God’s love and wonderful creativity, we are uniquely and beautifully made. We are God’s precious and holy creation. We don’t have to try. We don’t have to achieve it. We simply are. We can’t stop it, we can’t change it, we can’t improve it. All we can do is live it. Go ahead and pay taxes, put money in a 401(k), give generously when the offering plates come around. But recognize that you belong completely and totally to God. You will always be surrounded and held in God’s love.
And, therefore, we can live that way. Every time we show compassion, we are giving to God something that already is God’s. Every time we stand up for someone who’s been victimized or hurt, we are giving to God something that already is God’s. Every time we listen without judgment, we are giving to God something that already is God’s. Every time we recognize Christ present in those around us, we are giving to God something that already is God’s.
Is it OK with God to be a Trump-supporter? Is it OK with God to be a Trump-resister? Is it OK with God to be a Democrat? Is it OK with God to be a Republican? Is it OK with God to type #MeToo on your Facebook page? Is it OK with God to be gay or divorced or have an abortion or anything else that we, as imperfect, fallible humans, may think might be divisive?
Give to the emperor the things that are he emperor’s. Give to your own views the things that fall within those views. But give to God the things that are God’s. If everything belongs to God—if we belong to God—then nothing else can get in the way of that. We give unconditional love because it is God’s. We give over-the-top compassion because it is God’s. We give unrestricted forgiveness because it is God’s. We give that which already belongs to God. Those things that divide us come a distant second—if they make the cut at all. We give to God the things that are God’s. When we do that, the rest becomes obvious, doesn’t it?