Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.”

One of the things worth thinking about in the Gospel that we just heard is this dynamic of entrapment and the clever way Jesus springs the trap without getting caught. It speaks to the narrative of Jesus’ ministry and its consequences.   It speaks to Jesus’ resistance to spoon-feeding morality and ethics to those who would follow him – or to those who would not. It speaks to our own desires to force straightforward answers out of God.

But one of the other things worth thinking about in this Gospel – and there are very many other things – is the question those hypocritical schemers ask. While their motives may have been bad, their question was good and Jesus’ feint should not be used to allow us to dodge it.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

The reason this question was a trap for Jesus is the same reason it’s a trap for us – there’s no good answer.

Paying the tribute to Caesar involved a number of what could reasonably be called sins: using coins that amounted to graven images of a false God in the person of the emperor; acknowledging the authority of the emperor over the territory of Israel and the livelihoods of the Jews; accommodating oneself to an oppressive and violent system; giving God second rank in the ordering of your life.

But not paying the tribute would be to opt out of civic life in favour of a much more radical form of religious life; not paying the tribute would mean risking criminal charges with sentences up to and including execution; not paying the tribute would endanger you, your family, your livelihood, and your community.

I think Jesus would have been happy to engage this question if it had been asked in good faith because it is an important question and one that is in keeping with much of the thrust of his teaching – how do we live in the Kingdom of Heaven in the context of the world around us; how do we engage religious law faithfully and fully; how do we handle power and wealth in a Godly way?

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

However, even if Jesus would have engaged the question if it was asked by one of his disciples, I suspect his opening lines would not have been any different.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.

It’s an answer that simply rephrases the question – or rather – and better- it’s an answer that makes us uncover the deeper question hidden under the first. Jesus really was a master teacher.

What is Caesar’s relationship to God? What is the relationship between our political lives and our religious lives?

Folks of just about every political stripe have claimed Jesus’ answer to defend their own position – Christian anarchists who maintain that because everything is God’s, nothing can be Caesar’s all the way through to lovers of law and order who see it as an endorsement of private religion and public civic mindedness.

In each case, they answer the question Jesus provokes and then assume that, because he provoked the question, he must agree with their answer. They are wrong. All he did was provoke the question. How he might have answered it has to be worked out independently of this story.

So what do we know?

We know Jesus was willing to interpret religious law in a spacious way, prioritizing the spirit of the law rather than the letter in order to allow compassion a roll in judgement and righteousness.

We also know that Jesus took religious law very seriously, prioritizing the spirit of the law rather than the letter in such a way as to require attention to our very thoughts and not simply our actions and extending social and moral obligations very farther outward into the world until the meaning of neighbour becomes synonymous with “an other person”.

We know Jesus had little patience for split loyalty: “no one can serve two masters”, he said; and “let the dead bury their own dead but as for you, proclaim the Kingdom of God”.

But we also know that he did not preach a message of earthly political revolution, in the sense of violent uprisings or even peaceful and polite protests in the streets à la the activists in Hong Kong or of social isolation.

What Jesus consistently and clearly taught was that, in the Kingdom of God, every human action should be a response to God’s steadfast loving kindness. This is not a political philosophy that lends itself to political ideology – to grand prescriptive narratives or to partisan loyalties or to gut reactions. Which is why there are faithful Christians on opposite sides of many political debates.

It seems to me that Jesus lived a life that in many way resembles mine and yours. A life that navigated the particular social and political realities of his world and his time, attempting to make each decision in accordance with this central commitment while responding to the various people and situations he encountered. I can imagine him asking himself – what does God’s steadfast loving kindness require in this situation? How can I best contribute to the furthering of God’s reign? What does this person need from me in order to experience God in this moment; what does the world need in order to experience God in this time?

If these questions form the basis of our political and social actions, our political lives become expressions of our religious lives – they become an offering to God.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.

Giving the emperor what is his – whether you conclude that means paying your taxes or storming the palace – is simply another way to give God the offering of our whole lives- personal, spiritual, intellectual, social, political.

These questions have different answers depending not only on who answers them but on when and where they are asked – What Jesus actually thought about paying taxes to the emperor in 1st century occupied Palestine may well have been different than what he would think about any given political action in Germany in 1940 or South Africa in 1980 or Canada in 2014.

I’m not pretending these are easy questions or that I have suddenly made all of your ethical and political decisions straightforward. Maybe Jesus found is easy to discern how best to serve the reign of God (and I have my doubts about even that) but it is certainly not easy for us.

And I am not saying that I think all the answers are equally right if they are made in good faith – but if Jesus isn’t going to tell us what he thinks I’m certainly not going to tell you what I think.

The point of the exercise is not to debate the answers but to learn how to think about the questions.

And this, I think, is why Jesus provoked the underlying question rather than simply answering the surface one, requiring us to revisit it, over and over again, in prayer and in community and in deep humility, seeking the best answer in each context and spending time in reflection on the nature of God and our role in God’s desire for creation, inviting us to root our politics in the heart of our faith as we strive to follow Jesus – as we strive, even, to do what Jesus would do.

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