Summary: The Inland Revenue says take, God says give.
Sermon: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The tax inspector brought Mr Gudgeon [Churchwarden] in for his tax assessment interview: "I’m going to say to you what I say to every taxpayer who sits in that chair: you should realise that it’s a privilege to live in this country and you should pay your taxes with a smile."
"Thank goodness," said a visibly relieved Bob, "I thought you were going to ask me for money."
This particular passage from Matthew is unusual in that we are told immediately that the encounter is a plot to trick Our Lord.
The Romans, contrary I think to popular belief these days were not an invading army in Judea. They had been invited into the country to make peace. They decided to stay and it is now a province. Certain parts of the Jewish leadership believed they needed the Romans and should pay taxes and go about their business. Others thought that the Romans could not be tolerated. They were idolaters, and brought their images with them, and they were gentiles and were polluting the holy land by even being there.
So the Pharisees went to Jesus to trap him. They asked him a yes or no question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? If he says yes, they think then that the people will desert him. If he says no, they think they can get him in trouble with the Romans. That’s why the Roman-toadying followers of Herod are there also: it is an unholy alliance between two extremes of Jesus’ opposition. But the response is more than a simple yes or no answer. The response is far more complex and more theological: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s."
This is a difficult answer because it leaves open the question what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? You can’t trust Caesar to tell you what’s Caesar’s. Because Caesar’s answer is always the same: more.
Jesus has been portrayed in recent times as a political subversive and a counter-cultural icon: the first century Che Guavara. In fact, a couple of years ago an advertising campaign to get people across the threshold of a church for Easter showed a picture of Christ modelled upon that of Che, as seen on a thousand Student’s T-Shirts in the sixties. Christ was indeed subversive, radical and counter cultural. But he was not rebellious. The law was authoritative for Christ, and he came not to wipe away a letter of it, but he taught that the letter of the law and its spirit can be quite different: that was indeed subversive, radical and counter-cultural and remains a challenge to us today. We are challenged by this reading to reject the letter of the law and to go with the Spirit.
But which things are Caesar’s and which things are God’s? We can’t let Caesar decide. So how do you determine what things are God’s?
The film Jerry Maguire brought us an immortal phrase which can be applied to greed and avarice the world over: “Show me the money”. In fact “Show me the money” is what Christ says also, but to make an entirely different point.