Based on Matthew 22.15-22
One of my all-time favorite movies is called “Stranger Than Fiction,” and it stars Will Farrell as a much-reserved and extremely obsessive-compulsive man who works as a tax-fraud auditor for the Internal Revenue Service.
In the movie, Farrell’s character, named Harold Crick, must investigate a woman named Ana Pascal, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
And Ana Pascal is his antithesis:
She’s a fiery and outspoken anarchist who owns a boutique bakery where she has refused to pay her taxes for several years.
Not because she can’t pay the taxes — her business is doing quite well — but she’s protesting the entire concept as governmental bullying.
And, as you can imagine, these two personalities clash.
The IRS auditor sees her protest as irresponsible, if not criminal.
And she sees the IRS auditor as an uptight man with no conviction, let alone spine.
Of course, the agent represents the government, and like it or not, paying taxes is not negotiable.
In other words, just like the account we read today as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, we must give to the government what is the government’s.
The obvious difference between this movie plot and Jesus’s account is that in the movie, no one is trying to convince anyone of what is right or wrong.
Each does what he or she believes in, and it creates a wonderful tension that results in an unlikely love story of two people from two very different worlds.
But the Gospel story is different:
The motive is to force Jesus to answer the question one way or the other in order to entrap him and take him out of the world — at any cost.
Those who want to kill Jesus, we read in Matthew, are the Pharisees — a group of Jewish religious elite who do not believe Jesus is the Son of God.
He is disruptive to their authority, so they want him gone.
And there are the Herodians in this reading — those whose allegiance is to the Roman Empire, which has occupied all of Judea and are looking to spread their power.
This is a clash between those factions and Jesus, and also present are the disciples and others.
The last character — if we can call it that — is that coin that Jesus asks for.
The coin does more than pay the taxes to Rome;
Upon it is Emperor Caesar’s image.
And the message is clear to the Jews: Submit to Rome.
Already, the Jews see Rome as the evil empire.
But add to that the fact that Caesar himself has ordered everyone to serve and worship him as a god.
And refusing to pay the emperor was failing to honor him as not only king, but as god.
As you could imagine, the Jews had a very hard time with this, since there was only one God, and that was Yahweh.
So not paying ones taxes to the empire didn’t just result in an audit or a fine; it meant death.
The question put to Jesus by the Pharisees was to be a way to make Jesus choose between being a good Jew, which would result in death by the Roman Empire; or being a good servant to Rome, which would mean blasphemy against God, and would result in death by the Jewish leaders.
And here is the question:
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Lawful doesn’t mean legal; it means agains the 10 Commandments — the Mosaic Law.
And everyone thinks Jesus is cornered.
But Jesus comes out swinging beginning in Verse 20 and calls them hypocrites for trying to entrap him, and then asks “whose image is on the coin?”
And they answer “the emperor’s.”
Then Jesus tells them:
Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
There’s a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., whom I have the utmost respect for.
His name is Dr. Asa Lee.
He taught me at the beginning of my seminary education to not “bifurcate” anything in my life from my ministry.
In other words, everything I do is related and is a part of my ministry.
And that helped put the often unbearable reality of juggling the responsibilities of church, family, seminary, social life and well-being into a manageable perspective that without, I might have not gotten this far…
Because in this way of thinking, everything I do is related to one thing: God.
Without one of those things being given equal attention, the whole house of cards falls apart.
And when they are held in a tension through Christ, they are one single path that leads to doing God’s will for me.
And if all I’m doing must point to God, where does Caesar’s coin come into play?
Heads or tails?
We have to remember who Caesar was.
It was Augustus Caesar’s head on the coin.
By the time of Jesus’s ministry, it would have been four generations of Caesars ruling at the time, and the vassal king of Judea under the Roman Empire was Herod (who, remember, ordered the death of all the male children when Jesus was born).
It’s a long line of harsh and increasingly Jewish- and Christian-persecuting dictators who claimed to be gods.
If God says “You shall have no other gods before me” as we learn in Exodus 20:3, then how can one claim Caesar as his or her god at the same time?
This is what the so-called tribute tax was that all of those in the Roman Empire were ordered to pay.
It wasn’t just that the heavy burden of a senseless tax went to fund the coffers of the elite at the expense of the poor;
it was a sacrilege.
It was a sin in Jewish eyes.
Well, that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?
But let’s imagine the year was 1941, and those coins had Adolph Hitler’s head on them. Or the image of a Swastika?
And that when you were told to pay tribute to Hitler, it was in the form of giving him a portion of your hard-earned money to fund his concentration camps?
Does that change things?
And what about today?
What if paying our taxes today meant funding something we’re diametrically opposed to as Christians?
We’ve mentioned here what the United Methodist Church calls us as members to resist: Racism, hate, oppression, social injustices, discrimination, terror and torture, among other things.
What happens when our taxes — that we have to pay — finance agendas that propagate these vey things?
Do we just stop paying them on those very Christian principles?
See, this is what Jesus was called to answer.
Only with much greater consequences…
So how do we answer this today with even lesser consequences than our deaths?
Or better: How does Jesus call us to answer this very challenging question?
The first thing we must understand is what Jesus is not saying in his response to “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s.”
The emperor and God are not equal opposites.
The image of the emperor may stamped be on the coins, but the image of God is stamped on our hearts.
We are made in the image of God, not in the image of the emperor, whoever that emperor is.
Emperors and empires rise and fall;
God is everlasting.
We might pay our taxes to the empire, but we pay our lives to God.
And if our Christian convictions — that is, what God asks and demands of us — is in contrast with the empire, then we must ask how can we practice our faith and politics in a way that reflect what God wills for us?
We can say we’re good Christians because we show up to church here on Sundays and read our Bibles.
And we can say we’re also good Americans because we salute the flag and pay our taxes on time.
But if we’re not working toward the peace and love that Jesus calls us to do — by our social awareness, our contributions, our educated votes, and our willingness to risk what God asks us through our solidarity with our brothers and sisters all around the globe — then we’re honoring the empire and dishonoring God.
There’s just no other way around that.
If we’re giving to the empire what is the empire’s, but we’re not giving to God what is God’s, then we might be enjoying life here on earth just fine…
…but as Christians, there’s a lot more than just what happens while we’re here on earth.
Jesus’s resurrection points exactly to that.
We live to honor God and bring love and light to the world here today; and we live in God’s glory and light for all of eternity.
Jesus’s response is exactly this, and that’s why he calls those factions hypocrites.
Because it would be nothing short of hypocrisy to believe we are righteous when, in fact, we’re doing the very things that make us unrighteous.
And it doesn’t matter our intention — done in innocence or malice:
* When we keep systems in place that oppress people.
* When we destroy what God has given us.
* When we finance hate.
* When we make decisions to buy things produced in sweat shops;
* When we make uninformed votes even in local races or for legislation that doesn’t promote love and light, but hate and darkness.
When we ignore those who are suffering — from Third World starvation to the guy sitting in a local jail cell because of the color of his skin.
There are so many decisions we have to make each day.
And they can seem overwhelming.
But if we keep in our hearts and minds what Jesus is telling us — to give to God’s what is God’s, then it’s not so overbearing.
This is what the Apostle Paul means when he says to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (Thess. 5.16.)
We were given a heart like God’s — don’t ever forget that.
We’re built to seek God first, and to love first, as Jesus tells us.
The more we are aware of what God wants from us, the more we can live more closely to what Paul is saying.
We do this by reading the word, by praying and by listening to that still, small voice within us that tells us what we do is what God wants — or doesn’t want.
Tap into that heart of God’s through your own heart.
Love is the litmus test
Like in the movie, “Stranger Than Fiction,” we neither have to act righteously toward a system we don’t even understand enough to believe in,
but we also don’t need to protest simply because of that fact.
God allows us to be informed, because the Holy Spirit informs us.
But if we’re not listening, we’ll just continue to pay whatever emperor blindly.
Or we’ll revolt for fear of everything.
Remember: The litmus test is love.
It’s simple: Does this help or hurt?
Is this love or hate?
And if we don’t know or we can’t control that, then don’t just be passive about it;
Instead, find out how we can love to make a difference and to end systems that promote hate.
We live the way God made us to live.
We remember whose image that we are made in.
And remember, that image is nothing short of love.
Debie Thomas writes in this week’s Christian Century about how God calls us to live in this way. She says:
“When I look to Jesus to think about how to practice my faith in the political realm, I see no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. I see no permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another’s suffering, no evidence that truth-telling is optional. I see no kingdom that favors the contemptuous over the brokenhearted and no church that thrives for long when it aligns itself with power.”
I can’t say that any better. But I can say this:
Earthly things go to the earthly minded.
Heavenly things go to the heavenly-minded.
Give to God what is God’s.