What we often lose in the translation of time and culture is that the Pharisees and the Herodians really hated each other. The Herodians were the extended members of King Herod’s family whom the Pharisees and observant Jews likened to traitors. They were Jewish converts and were skilled at playing both sides of the field – loyalty to Rome when it suited them and loyalty to the Torah when necessary. The Pharisees, in their quest for purity, preferred to avoid the Herodians at all costs. But … politics and religion have always made strange bedfellows!
So these two camps, generally representing Rome and the Jewish people, are now out to ensnare Jesus in one of the most controversial issues of the day: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Again, in our current culture and context we just cannot wrap our heads around why this is such a big deal. Nobody likes paying their taxes … but you do it right? Well, of course you do; however, in ancient Rome paying taxes was more than just paying for the roads and the aqueducts. It had a deep religious significance that we don’t normally associate with taxes. The Roman emperor was thought to be an incarnate god and so was to be worshipped among the pantheon of gods. In the eyes of a Jew, to pay taxes to Rome was to support a false religion in violation of the first commandment to have no other gods before the God of Israel. Having coins with Caesar’s image on them was a violation of the second commandment prohibiting graven images. Framing this question as to whether it is “lawful” brings the forces of Torah law to bear. Answer “yes” and you’ve violated Torah so the Pharisees have you on blasphemy. Answer “no” and the Herodians have you on treason. This is the ultimate loaded question!
Jesus, with the crowd around him, sees this sabotage by seduction ploy for what it is! He calls them out as hypocrites and asks for a coin. You can imagine just a bit of irony here when he gets the denarius and examines it closely. “So, whose face is this?” “The emperor’s.” “OK … give it back to him … and give to God what is God’s.” I can imagine the crowd snickering at the elites and religious guys getting their comeuppance.
When we hear the phrase, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things which are God’s” it is tempting to start parsing out what belongs to Caesar versus God. The problem with that is we miss that Jesus is actually using a false dichotomy to flip the question of the Pharisees and the Herodians on its head. He’s really addressing their hypocrisy in this response, not making a statement on where our money should be directed … and here’s why. As a Jew, Jesus believes in the sovereignty of the God of Israel and that there is no distinction between what is of this world and what is of God. After all, God created the world and all that is in it, right? And God, the God of Israel, even created the emperor … right? So what exactly belongs to Caesar and not to God? That’s right … nothing! Absolutely nothing!! It all belongs to God no exceptions.
With this in mind, there are implications for our own stewardship. What if we really lived like absolutely everything belonged to God? Not just our money or possessions, but our bodies, our thoughts, our creative energies and impulses – absolutely everything belonging to God and what has been given is on loan to us temporarily. How would that concept change you? Let me give you a practical example. From time to time, we have to buy a car. Not my favorite activity, I confess, and there are a myriad of options out there. While I can go into debt and purchase a fancy car with all kinds of “bells and whistles.” If I forget that all things belong to God first, I could get caught up in the idea that I can purchase whatever I want just because I want to. This is the mentality of a consumer rather than one centered on God. But when I acknowledge that everything, absolutely everything, comes from God and is only on loan to me, then my duty is to make as light a footprint on the planet and on my finances as I can. No question this will influence my purchase decision.
Stewardship also has implications on our own bodies. If they are on loan from God, how should we take care of them? If my intellect is on loan from God, how do I use it to build up the Body of Christ? If I am engaging in habits that hurt my body or mind, how does this grieve God and how can I commit to change? How do I use my time and where am I giving it to God’s mission – both in the Church and in the world?
Keeping our focus on the reality that God is the source and author of all that we have and all that we are reminds us to place our commitment to God first. This doesn’t mean we don’t “render unto Caesar” … but it does call us to question all the “Caesars” which try to claim our time, energy, and money. If we think about it, we live in a society where there are a myriad of activities and causes which can fill our schedules and cause us to forget our commitment to God. Busyness is a temptation which will present many “Caesars” which will try to claim us. But when we keep our eye on God first and commit to that relationship before all others, it puts us in a position to evaluate all other commitments and prioritize them so they don’t become tyrants which enslave us.
In baptism, we are claimed as Christ’s own forever. Our gratitude for this new life can transform us into people who put God first and, in so doing, find the joy of a life centered in God. Render unto God … first and foremost … and Caesar will take care of itself.