A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Give to Caesar the Dregs
October 16, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 29 Matt 22:15-22
In the early 1980s the then French Ambassador wrote to the Warden of St John's College, Meadowbank, complaining about the protest actions of certain staff and students. At Mururoa Atoll, Tahiti, the French Government was testing nuclear weapons, violating land, sea, and the health of the indigenous populace. A significant, and ultimately successful, international campaign was underway to stop it. The Church was a part of that campaign.
I remember the Ambassador's letter: “Render unto God what is God's,” he wrote, ”and to Caesar what is Caesar's.” He thought the Church should not meddle in politics, the realm of Caesar. It should keep out - out of Mururoa, out of French jurisdiction, and out of sight. The Ambassador did not want the Church condemning the actions of his State and challenging its power.
The Ambassador's interpretation of Matthew 22:21 is not original. It is one of those gagging texts used by both parliamentarians and other powerful personages when disapproving of religious political action.
Fellow Christians, when you are out marching on the streets, and you hear this verse been quoted against you, take heart. This is the way our forebears in action were criticised. Take heart – for when you hear this verse, you know you are doing something right!
To understand Matthew 22:15 ff we need some background information regarding taxation, coinage and pharisaic debate.
Taxation in the Second Temple Period [500 BCE - 70 CE] was excessive [i], and as is the nature of taxes, seemed to escalate as the period progressed. It is estimated that the sum of these taxes ate up between 40-59% of one's income. Civil taxation [ii] was a primary source of those tensions that fed the revolts in 70 and 132 CE. One of the most hated civil taxes was the poll tax: the annual tribute to Rome. Apart from considering the tax excessive, the tax was interpreted theologically as a form of idolatry.
It was this tax that Matthew 22:15 ff. is referring to. It was a hot issue. Josephus [iii] tells us that sometime, within approximately 25 years of the life of Jesus, more than 6,000 Pharisees were murdered because of their refusal to pay the poll- tax.
Coins were, and to some extent are still today, icons of authority. From approximately 100 BCE Roman coins carried the image [iv] of the Emperor, thus serving to inform the provinces who was in power. It was also the practise for the Emperor to be referred to as a god, and Emperor Worship was practised.
For the righteous Jew [and Christian], to stamp the world and all that is in it, even its currency, with the image of a ruler, or any other symbol which suggests that human power has a claim equal to or greater than God's, is to deface the image of God stamped upon creation, and actively to promote idolatry.
While the Pharisees disagreed among themselves over whether this idolatry was serious enough to justify martyrdom, they apparently did agree that for most of the religious community there was no choice. The only expedient option was to pay the tax so that they could continue to live, all the while focusing on the truth that life belongs only to God, and that the internal commitment of religious people should be to God alone.
The third piece of background information is the nature of Pharisaic scholarly debate. While this passage seems to paint a picture of Jesus being in opposition to the Pharisees, it is more likely that we are witnessing an in-house debate between people who were committed to very similar truths. The questioning by the Pharisees was to see where Jesus stood within the broad range of argument inside the Pharisaic movement itself concerning the tax.
Some of the English words used in the translation such as "trick" [v], and "hypocrite" [vi] are rather misleading. One only seeks rabbinical opinions from those already known to be committed to the rabbinical tradition. Recent scholarship has given us a much clearer picture of Jesus, a devout Jew, who was committed to many of the same understandings as his pharisaic peers.
Well, what was the issue and where did Jesus stand on it? V.17 simply reads "Is it permitted to pay taxes to the Emperor?" The implication of the question is really: "Are we permitted rabbinically to pay the poll-tax, since it implies allegiance to Rome."
Jesus begins his answer with a piece of gamesmanship, which characterized this very Jewish form of debate. He requests a coin and asks whose image it displays. There is an Aramaic word play here between "image" and "idol", making it clear that Jesus had every intention of reminding his listeners that the coinage of Tiberius Caesar was the currency of idolatry.
Then he tells them to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. For those who can hear the level of meaning, what is due to Caesar is nothing. Out of prudence, the tax must be paid, for the way of God is the way of life, and not of death. But all that Caesar believes to be his is no more than Caesar's illusion. The faithful know that neither the idolatrous coins nor the oppressive government have any power or authority at all.
The critical question is what belongs to God? Or rather is there anything that doesn't belong to God? To a Jew or an early Christian there was only one world and it belonged wholly to God. There was only one ruler and that was God - everyone else was, at best, a servant of God. The state was only a dependent and provisional reality - answerable to God. Although Caesar may imagine that he owns this coinage, or this land, or anything... and we Jews, in order to stay alive pay lip service to this illusion of Caesar's... the truth is, as the scriptures have long proclaimed, that everything - every ruler, political system, community, individual... belongs to God and is accountable to God.
The meaning of this passage is therefore that followers of Jesus, while maintaining the appearance of compliant loyalty to the Roman authorities were to hold fast to a higher allegiance that recognised ultimately all earthly forms of government to be exploitative, idolatrous, and deluded.
Jesus, like many of his pharisaic contemporaries, is advocating covert civil disobedience, here taking the form of dramatic illusion: a coin with neither power nor authority is returned to a government with neither power nor authority. The public appearance of obedience is to be maintained only so that the faithful remain free to serve the true source of power and authority, God.
The challenge of this text for us today is to not be content with anything less than God's reign of justice and peace coming in our midst. Yes, at times we are to be ambiguous; at times we are to compromise; and at times we must keep our heads down. But this can never be at the cost of losing our vision and our belief in a changed world – a world that reflects the inclusive love of God.
I am indebted to Philip Culbertson 's A Word Fitly Spoken.
[i] Among the regular taxes mentioned in the sources are the head or capitation tax; the salt tax; the corvee ; the coronation or crown tax; the tax of one third of the grain produced in a field; the tax of one-half of the fruit of a tree; the estate tax; the revenues tax; the tax on movable property; the imperial gifts tax; the buying and selling tax; the crafts tax; the tax on dwellings in Jerusalem; the change of domain tax; the military defence tax; and numerous port duties, road and bridge tolls, not to mention fines and bribes.
[ii] The civil taxes are to be distinguished from the obligatory religious gifts and offerings. These obligatory gifts produced far less controversy within the Jewish community.
[iii] Refer to Josephus' Antiquities 17.32.
[iv] Deuteronomy 5:8 forbids the construction of any image, although there is of course debate regarding what this in fact means.
[v] What we have here is rather the sort of "trick" typical to rabbinic argument, that is, a clever learned argument in which equally matched opponents try to cause each other to falter in their logic. It was a way in which the "academics" of the period behaved with each other.
[vi] Hypocrite is not an adequate translation of the Greek hypokritai. The American Heritage Dictionary carries three possible meanings: a respected person, an impartial person, or a person who seeks simplistic answers.