Summary: A stewardship sermon Jesus’ words on paying taxes to Caesar
You know, Nelson and I talked about it, and we almost skipped doing stewardship sermons these next two Sundays. Instead, we were going to make a deal with you all. If you meet the stewardship goal, we were going to put a clock on the pulpit. If you exceeded the goal by $5,000, we were going to look at it. And if you exceeded it by $10,000 we were going to plug it in.
“Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” For some of us, that truly is the $64,000 question! OK, maybe the $6400 question. But it’s an important question! Wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus had said, “No way, keep that money!” About the middle of every April I reread this passage just to make sure I didn’t misunderstand it.
But he couldn’t say, “No, don’t pay taxes,” or else he would have been arrested as a traitor to Caesar. But he also couldn’t say, “Yes, pay taxes,” or he would have been seen as loyal to Caesar and would have lost all his popular support. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t.
And don’t think the Pharisees didn’t know this. They’ve been trying for weeks to devise this kind of trap for Jesus, a trick question that would cause him to either lose popular support or draw the wrath of the Roman government. He kept slipping out of them, but this time they had him! They even conspired with the Herodians, who were their political archenemies, to help them, proving that politics does makes for strange bedfellows. Their question was airtight with no loopholes. They’ve got Jesus this time!
But, of course, they don’t. Instead of directly answering their question, Jesus asks to see one of the coins that would be used to pay the tax. This coin was a Roman denarius, worth about a day’s wage. On it was the picture of the emperor and the inscription: Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest. So right away, this coin violated two commandments: do not have any other gods before me, and do not worship graven images or idols. The very existence of this coin was blasphemous to God-fearing Jews.
So when Jesus asks for one of these coins, where does it come from? From the pocket of a Pharisee, a holy leader standing in the temple, the most holy place in the Holy Land! Holy cow! Jesus says, “Can anyone show me one of these idolatrous, blasphemous, God-mocking coins?” And a Pharisee says, “Sure, got one right here.” The Pharisees deserve to be called hypocrites.
But Jesus’ main point in this passage is his answer to their trick question. After looking over the coin, Jesus gives them their answer: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” It’s the perfect answer to the perfect trick question. Jesus takes their small-minded perspective and explodes it to reveal the workings of God in our lives.
Now, some people have contorted Jesus’ words to say he is advocating for a separation of church and state. They say that Jesus proves there are two realms in the world – the political one and the spiritual one – and we should do our best to keep them separate, giving each their proper time and priority in our lives. But our faith in God is not a part-time commitment to be shared with allegiance to our country any more than our marriage vows represent a part-time commitment to our spouse. Jesus isn’t talking about the separation of church and state here; he’s talking about something so much bigger.
As Christians, we carry two passports in this world because we have dual citizenship. A real Christian is both a good citizen of her country and a good citizen of the Kingdom of God. This is not universally the case, of course. When these two things conflict, we have to decide which is more important to us. Sometimes the kingdom of Caesar goes against the kingdom of God, and then it’s appropriate to turn over some tables and drive out some money changers. But for the most part, because Christians are people of honor, we must also be good citizens; failure to be good citizens is also a failure in Christian duty
So let’s look at the answer again. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Other translations say, “Render to Caesar,” which means to “give back.” So what is Caesar’s? What do we have that belongs to our government? Well, certainly, a portion of our money. Like it or not, it’s a reality that our ancestors created a kind of government that relies on a portion of its citizens’ income to function. A good Christian has a duty to the government in return for the privileges the government provides. If you enjoy Caesar’s benefits, you should pay Caesar’s taxes. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like having paved roads to drive on, my neighborhood protected by the police and fire department, and the security of knowing that my money in the bank will be there when I want to get it. Jesus says, plain and simple, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.