Either - Or
We are often divided over what belongs to whom. Nations fight over borders, divorcing parents fight over the children, families fight over inheritance, kids fight over toys. And when two groups of people come together and plot against another, they can cause harm and even destroy lives. That’s what appears to happen in Sunday’s Gospel.
Dear Brothers and Sisters
Taxation has never been a very popular topic. If you work, you pay annual taxes. Here in Switzerland, even if you don’t work you have to pay a flat rate tax. Whenever you buy something, there is a value added tax. There is even a saying “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” We do everything we can to reduce our taxes. But taxes are necessary. Tax money goes to supporting our infrastructure. We have to pay taxes. As members of Good Shepherd’s you know we pay church taxes in Switzerland. Your church taxes make the ministry of Good Shepherd’s possible. Compared to the other taxes we pay, church taxes are meager.
In Jesus' Time
During the time of Jesus’ ministry, Palestine was occupied by the Romans and they placed a heavy tax burden on its citizens. Paying taxes was one thing but paying it to a foreign power, especially one that the Jews hated, caused resentment and anger. They lived in a “theocracy” which is a system of government where priests rule in the name of God or a god. For the Jews, the idea of paying tax or any other sign of submission to an earthly ruler was an insult to God and to their religion. Submission was to God and taxes were paid to the Temple. To top it off, the Jews hated the Romans for their brutality, their moral corruption and their arrogant godliness.
The Gospel Reading
In our Gospel passage from Matthew (22:15-21) there is a serious plot against Jesus, which is nothing new. It’s his final week in Jerusalem and tension is mounting. Two very different groups of religious leaders collaborate to trap him. On one side are the nationalistic Pharisees who were strongly against paying taxes to Rome. On the other side were the Herodians. The Herodians were from the Hellenistic party of Jews who followed King Herod, the Roman ruler in Palestine. For them, collaboration with the Romans gave them a political and personal advantage. They supported paying taxes to Rome. So here you have two groups with differing opinions and views, but both were in agreement when it came to Jesus. They came up with a double edged question, one that would surely get him into trouble. It was a question that would require a “yes” or “no”. Or at least that’s what they thought. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” “Either” – “Or” – Either you pay it or you don’t.
Is or Isn't
You can ask your son or daughter, “Did you do your homework?” Yes or no. Either the homework is done or it is not. Is Jesus the center of your life? Either he is or he isn’t. The question they pose is obviously a trick and pretty straight forward, but Jesus’ answer is not. If Jesus agrees with paying Caesar the tax then he runs the risk of älienating himself from his Jewish folk who suffer under the Romans. If Jesus disagrees however, it will bring him into trouble with the Roman authorities. It would appear that there is no way out of this “either” – “or” question. And then? Jesus asks for a coin. This reveals the hypocrisy of those questioning Him. The coin that is used for paying the taxes is a special one that is marked with the image of Caesar. Jews hated this coin so much that they refused to carry it. When the Pharisees reached into their pocket and pulled it out, everyone around them was shocked. Here were people who publicly preached against the tax and yet carried the hated coin in their pocket. Who were they kidding? They had fallen into the trap of their own two-faced approach to Jesus. And Jesus stared at them! He looked at the coin and then he came up with one of his greatest one-liners: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Touché!. Give to Caesar what is marked with Caesar’s image and give to God all that is marked with His image. The coins imprinted with Caesar belong to Caesar; human beings, imprinted with God’s image belong to God. Jesus’ words have nothing to do with taxes. Instead they have everything to do with how we live our lives.
In Today's World
We should all understand and respect the role of government in our lives. We can give Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But when government asks us to overlook what belongs to God, then we need to stop for a minute and think about how we should respond. We are all citizens of a country or a nation that is governed by a set of laws. But we are citizens in the world first. And we have a responsibility to each other, for each other and to all of mankind.
Pope John Paul the Second once stated clearly that priests shouldn’t be directly involved in government, yet he spoke out against the communist regime of his home country. We have to take a stand, just like he did! We have to take a stand just like Jesus did! You cannot separate church and politics! The Pharisees wanted to set up Jesus in an act of hatred – they wanted to destroy him. They had their own set of rules that they followed, they had their own agenda, that you can’t serve the God of love by hating people and neglecting his creation or our environment. There are world leaders on both hemispheres and other influential individuals who should take exactly this advice.
Living The Gospel
My dear friends, this Gospel should be a reminder that while government has a rightful and important place in our lives it should never force us to neglect the truth that each and every one of us is marked by God, made in his own image. Everything in the world belongs to God. Even Caesar. Amen.