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Is it Really About Taxes or is it About Who We Serve…

October 17, 2020

Once again, the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. (Matthew 22:15) I am frankly surprised by how slow the Pharisees are to see that every trap they attempt to set for Jesus fails. This could almost be a Road Runner Cartoon where the Pharisees end up much like Wile E. Coyote with his ACME tricks that he bought to trap the Roadrunner. Each episode would end with the Road Runner sticking out his tongue and saying “meep, meep” as he sped off into the sunset. While Jesus didn’t stick out his tongue (maybe he did in his mind only, I know I would have done that) he still left the Pharisees with another painful lesson in don’t try to outsmart him. Yet as I sit here smugly thinking how much better I am as a pastor than those silly Pharisees were as faith leaders, I find myself holding the wrong end of the ACME device with a dazed look as it blows up in my face. Who am I to say that I am better than the Pharisees? We each have our own faults and heaven knows that the church has done more of its share of acting the Pharisee only to be out maneuvered by Jesus. As we used to say in the Air Force—Been there, done that. Got the t-shirt, don’t wear it. Even though I should know better, I continue to slip and fall on this journey called faith and life. 

So, on to the answer that Jesus gave the Pharisees (and the Herodians) in response to their question about taxes. The taxes in question were only part of what the common, ordinary citizen was expected to pay out of their meager earnings. The Temple Tax was expected, along with the cost of ritual sacrifices, by the religious elite but that is a story for another day (turning the tables on the “den of thieves” in his Father’s house). When they asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, there were several things in play. First was the fact that the Roman coins had the image of the emperor on them and since the emperor considered himself a god, it was breaking the second Commandment concerning idols. On the face of the coin of the realm of that time you would find the face of the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar. On the flip side of the coin were these words in Latin: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” Every time an observant Jew picked up that silver denarius, they would hear the voice of the Lord s saying—I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God… (Exodus 20:4-5a)

Jesus asked the Pharisees and Herodians (who were actually a political party that supported Herod the Great and his sons) who’s head was on the coin. Well Jesus, that seems like an easy answer. Of course, they said it was the emperor’s head. Left unsaid was the fact that it was also a coin minted by the Empire, the occupying forces! The Pharisees and the Herodians would never say that because they were in cahoots with the empire and had abandoned the very people of God they were supposed to be serving along with serving the one who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and broken the bonds of oppression.

After Jesus replied to their answer (Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.) they left him, sort of like Wile E Coyote covered in the soot of his latest ACME disaster. Well, that’s all well and good, Padre, but what does it have to do with us today? Is it about the images engraved on our own money or the images on coins around the world?

In my own study and reflection, I have a slightly different take on this story from Scripture. First of all, everything above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth belongs to the Creator of us all. In an old offering hymn, we sing the following: We give thee but thine own, Whate’er the gift may be, for all we have is thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from thee.

So, it really isn’t a question of ownership as I see it. It is a question of loyalty, whom do we serve? In the words of Joshua–…choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River  or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)

At various points in human history the church has gotten itself into trouble by “getting in bed with the empire” so to speak. The Protestant Reformation came as a result of the church becoming internally and externally corrupt. In 1930’s Germany, the “official” state church (German Christian Movement–Reich Church) became a pawn of the Nazi movement. Nationalism (not patriotism) was wedded to the church and if you didn’t agree with them you could find yourself in a concentration camp like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many others. The Confessing Church (Lutheran, Reformed, and United Christian churches) responded to Hitler’s National Church with the Theological Declaration of Barmen. This Declaration is a part of the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA). This document and the movement of the Confessing Church challenged the so-called German Christian Movement’s ties to the Nazi party and being a mouthpiece for the Third Reich. This movement had put government (empire) before Christ. 

This brings us back to the question… whom will you serve? God or the emperor in whatever form the empire takes. In the words of Joshua, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

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