The things that belong to God
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10
Last week, we pondered Paul’s words from the latter to the Philippian church:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Recall that things were pretty hot for Paul when he wrote these words: he was in jail. and he didn’t know whether he’d live or die.
Things are heating up for Jesus in our reading today. Jesus is in the last week of his life, the week we call Holy Week. He has entered Jerusalem on a donkey; he has driven the money-changers out of the Temple. He is a ‘person of interest’ to the authorities, and they are trying to bring him down.
That’s why, in today’s reading, the Pharisees and the Herodians come together to trap Jesus. Now they are very strange bedfellows indeed… The Pharisees were actually quite a popular and well-respected religious group who stood up for righteousness and obedience to the law. They couldn’t stand the Herodians; it seems the Herodians were aristocrats who were in cahoots with the Roman occupiers and who thought nothing of plotting and scheming to gain advantage for themselves.
The Pharisees and the Herodians joining forces would be like Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott joining together to bury the hatchet in a third person’s back rather than in each other’s. It just didn’t happen.
So the Pharisees and Herodians, these natural enemies, unite against Jesus. He must have posed a real threat to them.
And they have a beauty of a question. A real poser. However Jesus answered, they’d have him. Or so they thought.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
Gotcha Jesus! Let’s see you get out of that one…
This tax was a poll tax, that is a flat tax on all people. A tax that was little burden to the wealthy, but which could cripple the poor. The opposite of income tax, where—in theory—the rich pay a higher rate.
So if Jesus had said, Yes, pay the poll tax to Caesar, the Pharisees could have told the people he was a Roman stooge.
And if he had said, No, don’t pay any poll tax to Caesar, the Herodians could have denounced him to the Romans as a terrorist.
They had him either way.
So they thought.
But Jesus was too quick for them. He asked for a coin, and they gave him a coin with Caesar’s image on it. But do you remember where they were? They were standing in the grounds of the Temple. These pillars of the community had brought a coin with the emperor’s image on it into the Temple. These coins were considered to be blasphemous! Jesus had already won by exposing their hypocrisy. He could have walked away there and then.
But Jesus had more! Asking whose image was on the coin, he said,
Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
We can’t get any guidance about the ‘carbon tax’ or mining super-taxes from these words. So can we get any guidance about anything?
Yes, we can! In this story, Jesus tells us who we are and whose we are. Just as the coin bears the image of Caesar, we bear the image of God within us. As human beings, we are made in God’s image. And from the day we are baptised, the image of the cross is always upon our heads.
Just as the coin belongs ultimately to Caesar, we belong to God.
So when Jesus says, Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s, he is not saying some things belong to caesar and some to God—and we choose which is which. We’re used to a secular society, in which state and church are separate. There was no such separation in the time of Jesus. Caesar was everywhere; equally, God was everywhere.
So sometimes we cooperate with Caesar. We we pay taxes. After all, civilisation is expensive. If we want decent health care, good education and smooth roads, taxes are necessary. If the standards of our public hospitals or schools aren’t what we think they should be, perhaps we should pay more.
Sometimes, Caesar wants things that we don’t want to give. We need to decide how to respond. There are times in history when the churches have resisted the powers that be, because they have discerned that Caesar wants things that are against the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’m thinking for example of the churches in Germany in the 1930s; many of them cooperated with Hitler and the rise of fascism. Others—a few—resisted, sometimes at great cost. We’re thankfully not in that position in our country.
Sometimes we cooperate with Caesar, sometimes we question Caesar, sometimes we resist Caesar. What about God? We have a different relationship with our creator and Father in heaven. God gives us all things; we owe our lives to God.
So what shall we give to God? That’s the question in our stewardship season. What do we owe to God? David will help us there soon.
Whatever we decide, we belong to God and we bear God’s image. We are called to show the family likeness as brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus.
So the question remains:
Do I give to God the things that belong to God?