Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so the saying goes. If today’s Gospel passage is anything to go by, those in authority in Jerusalem were getting rather desperate. Jesus was growing into a more obvious threat to their peace of mind. After riding into Jerusalem in triumph to the acclaim of the crowds, Jesus had cleared the Temple of the traders there. The challenge of the priests had had no effect. Even worse, when Jesus was in the Temple the next day he had humiliated the chief priests and leaders by leaving them unable to decide how to answer him when he asked if John the Baptist was sent from God. Jesus went on to tell parables which were obviously directed at the leaders. It’s easy to understand why the leaders of the Jews were becoming more and more angry and desperate to get rid of Jesus.
As you might expect, the Pharisees were the ones who tried to find a way to finally deal with Jesus. They came up with the perfect question to ask, or so they thought: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” You really have to admire their persistence after the previous question about John the Baptist led to them being unable to answer Jesus’ own question. This time, in order to make the question as effective as possible, the Pharisees enlisted the help of others. So it is that we find a set of unlikely allies coming together to finally deal with Jesus.
The Pharisees were religious people, very keen to follow all rules in order to serve God. They were totally opposed to the Roman occupation. The Herodians were a political party made up of Jews who supported Herod Antipas and the Roman policies. They worked to increase the influence of the Herodian family. As you can imagine, the two groups were normally enemies due to their different views, but on this occasion they worked together. Both groups had reason to believe that their political influence and status was threatened by Jesus.
The Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees went together to Jesus. Perhaps by sending only their disciples, the Pharisees hoped to make Jesus relax a little and so be easier to trap. Maybe beginning with flattery was also designed to do the same thing. The words of their flattery seem to me to be designed to encourage Jesus to say that it would be wrong to pay tax to the Romans: “we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one.” The poll tax was resented by all patriotic Jews because it symbolised their subjection by Rome. It was also hated because the money from heavy taxation went to support pagan temples and support the lavish lifestyles of the Roman aristocracy. To the Pharisees, paying the tax suggested opposition to God, the only King over their nation that they recognised. The flattery seemed to suggest that if Jesus was teaching the way of God, he could not possibly show deference to Caesar.
However, opposing the tax was a very dangerous thing to do. When the tax was introduced it caused a riot in 6AD led by the Galilean popular leader, Judas. It was he who inspired the founding of the Zealots. He was killed and his sons continued his rebellion; they were crucified around 48AD. It would be particularly dangerous for Jesus, another Galilean leader, to take the same approach.
So, Jesus was faced with a seemingly impossible choice of answers. If he said that it was right to pay the tax, the disciples of the Pharisees were there to hear him, and the Pharisees would denounce him to the people as a person who was unpatriotic and certainly not a man of God. I’m not sure that would have lost him all his followers, but it certainly might have lost him some. Even better, if Jesus said not to pay the tax, the Herodians who were supporters of Rome would hear what he said. They could report him to the Roman governor who would have Jesus executed for treason – the perfect, definitive solution to the problem of Jesus.
Jesus, of course, was not so easily trapped. In asking to see a coin Jesus might have proved the disciples of the Pharisees to be disloyal to their country by carrying it. However, the wording here suggests that someone had to go and actually get a coin to bring to show Jesus.
Jesus had a habit of answering a question with a question and this occasion is no exception. “Whose head is this, and whose inscription?” he asked. On the coin, a silver denarius, was a portrait of Tiberius Caesar with “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” inscribed around the circumference. On the other side was the Roman goddess Pax (some think this was actually a portrait of Tiberius’ mother) with the words “High Priest”. In designating Tiberius the “son of the divine Augustus” it was the equivalent to calling him the son of god. That is how he saw himself.
Jesus was then ready to give an answer to the question he had been asked. Instead of choosing one option or the other, Jesus showed that it was possible to do the right thing as a citizen of a Roman protectorate while still serving God as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus hadn’t set out to create a rival political kingdom against Rome, though many of the hopes about a Messiah suggested this would be the case. The state had (and still has) a claim on its citizens for the benefits it provides. Therefore, taxes should be paid. However, by making a clear separation between what was Caesar’s and what was God’s, Jesus made it absolutely clear that God and Caesar were not one and the same. Caesar might have claimed to be the son of the divine, but he was not a god in Jesus’ eyes.
God also has a claim on his people as he is Lord of the whole universe including of Caesar and other pagan leaders such as Cyrus who is mentioned in the reading from Isaiah and of present day leaders. Jesus didn’t say what he considered to be the things of God which we should give him. However, the rest of Scripture helps us with this. We are to be obedient to God’s laws, loving him and our neighbour. We can do this while still being good citizens of the nation in which we live.
Of course, there could be times when doing what the state requires might be in conflict with what God seems to require. Jesus did not address this point. Even if he had done so, there is no way he could possibly have addressed all issues that might crop up. It’s up to us to keep close to God by reading the Bible and praying, so that if conflict comes along we have the channels of communication open and can thus be guided by God through the Holy Spirit as to which is the right course of action. The best time to develop those habits is before the challenges come along.
Next week we will celebrate Bible Sunday when we acknowledge just how powerful the word of God is and how fortunate most of us are to have access to the Bible freely.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor