Several years ago I drove with my friend Bruce Bayne from upstate New York to Indiana. It was pretty much toll roads and turnpikes the whole way. This was in the pre-Easy Pass days, so at each state line we would have to stop and pay the toll in cash. Every time we did this, Bruce would say, “Gosh, I don’t seem to have any cash on me. Would you get the toll?” I didn’t wise up to this practice until we got through Ohio, and by then it was almost too late.
In all other respects, Bruce is a generous and thoughtful guy. But to this day he never carries cash. I couldn’t help thinking of him when I read today’s Gospel (Matt. 22:15-22) in which Jesus is asked about paying one’s taxes. He doesn’t seem to have any cash on him either and says, according to Matthew, “‘Show me the coin used for the tax.’” And then Matthew tells us, “They brought him a denarius,” the Roman coin bearing the image of Caesar. Hence the famous saying, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22.21).
October is the time when we tend to talk about supporting the church through stewardship, so I can’t help being a little suspicious that this teaching about money finds its way into our readings smack in the middle of the month. Luckily for you, the money in this story is more symbolic than real. So relax: I will not be putting the bite on you this morning. You can ease yourselves out of the spirit of pocketbook protection. But something important is going on here.
When the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in a logical error, they did well to use tax money as their example. Remember that Jewish Palestine was a Roman occupied territory. Taxes were odious not only because they were expensive but also because they continually reminded the Jews that they were paying tribute to a foreign power. So the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” is not an innocent question. It is loaded. If Jesus says yes, he’s endorsing Roman occupation. If he says no, he’s inciting sedition. What to do?
We all know what Jesus does. He asks to see the coin used for the tax. Pointing to Caesar’s image on the denarius, Jesus famously splits the difference: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Countless generations of Christian preachers have seen this saying as a warrant for Christian obedience to civil authority. But before we go there, I do find it interesting that Jesus has to ask somebody to bring him some money. Indeed, the great New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan says that’s the most important feature of the story: Jesus has to ask for a coin.
We are so used to projecting our own values and habits onto Jesus that sometimes we need to step back and see just how different from us he is. He was, as Crossan reminds us, a Palestinian Jewish peasant. He did not live in affluent Western culture. Life in Roman occupied Jewish Palestine was hard. Taxes were high, food was scarce, and the state was not your friend. Survival in that world required a measure of shrewdness that most of us don’t have to exercise on a daily level. Keeping going from day to day was in itself a kind of victory.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Should I cooperate with established authority or resist it? For first-century Palestinian Jews, this was a serious and vexing question. In traditional Jewish thought, there was no separation of church and state. The religious and political establishments were supposed to be one and the same, and so the question of paying taxes to Caesar never raised itself when Israel was ruled by a Jewish king. But now the Jews found themselves in a new world: the political and religious establishments were under separate authority. Should I give money to support a non-Jewish occupying power? The Torah teaches that everything belongs to God. Is it right to give some of God’s money to those who worship somebody other than Israel’s God?
These questions are neither innocent nor easy. And when we translate them into our own moment they don’t lighten up much. As a Christian, just how much allegiance do I owe the state? The easy answer is to read Jesus literally and see him as providing an early version of the First Amendment. But Jesus’ teachings are never innocent or easy either, and this one outlines the dilemmas for us fairly starkly.
Most of us unthinkingly say that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishes the principle of the “separation of church and state.” Here is what it actually says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When the U.S. Constitution separates church and state it says that our nation will have no one, official religion. It does not say that religion has no role in public life. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” The radical thing in Jesus’ teaching this morning is not that he endorses allegiance to civil authority. The radical thing in this statement is that he gives us a way to be both citizens and people of faith.
Some people do not find the citizen-faith tension a problem. They say, “America was founded as a Christian nation.” Well, not precisely. Half of those guys were Deists, a group who denied both the divinity of Jesus and the reliability of scripture. Others solve this tension by going the other direction, arguing that the founders wanted preachers to stay away from politics. Why, then, do we have chaplains in the House and Senate? Why, indeed, do we have a national cathedral?
When Jesus tells us that we must render to God and Caesar the things that are their own, he is offering us the opportunity to be faithful citizens. Given the great prophetic traditions of Christian witness, being a citizen of faith means neither unthinking obedience nor hermetic detachment. A faithful citizen is one who holds both God and Caesar in critical tension with each other. The best way for me, as a Christian, to “render unto Caesar” is not only to pay my taxes but also to hold Caesar accountable to God.
The First Amendment does not absolve us from caring about the nation. It is not a free pass out of the obligations of citizenship. And if it does nothing else, our baptism impels us toward engagement with the Gospel dimension of public life. Separation of church and state does not mean that people of faith have nothing to say about public policy. It means that you and I, as followers of Jesus, don’t have a special privilege when we come to the table. But come to the table we must, if we are to “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Like my friend Bruce, Jesus did not carry money. Bruce is not poor, but Jesus was, and his poverty reminds us what we who follow him must first demand of our governments. What are we doing collectively to serve and help the poor? And, beyond the poor, what are we doing to serve and help all those Jesus publicly and privately consorted with: the sorrowful, the sick, the oppressed, those at the margins of society? How are we bringing Gospel values to bear on the concerns of our common life? How can we work together, in the interests of the common good, to make the blessings and opportunities of our shared heritage available to all? These are the concerns of the faithful citizen. They were the concerns of Jesus. And even though all of them were not Christian, I believe they were on the minds and hearts of the Founders, too. They should be ours as we enter the voting booth next month.
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” What would Jesus tell us about income inequality? About the war against ISIS? About Ebola? What would Jesus think about urban policing, public education policy, and yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Texas Voter I.D. Law? The Gospel calls us neither to unquestioning obedience nor cynical disregard. There is no one Christian position on these issues, but they are all of concern to those who follow Jesus. The Gospel calls us to stand where he stood, in the hard tension between faith and freedom. It’s a tricky and difficult place to be—both a Christian and an American—but the Gospel allows us no other.
So if you do carry cash, when the collection plate comes your way take out that dollar bill and look at the picture of George Washington (or Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant) and ask yourself the question they put to Jesus. God or Caesar? Jesus or the state? We are tied inexorably to both. There is no easy answer. That’s why following Jesus is never dull. Amen.