Today we find ourselves back in the showdown we’ve been following for four weeks now. If you remember, Jesus has come to the temple in the last week of his life; he overturns some tables and offers some teachings. And then a long parade of authorities challenges Jesus right there in the temple. First high priests and elders, then Pharisees, then Herodians, then Sadducees, and finally the scribes come to test Jesus, to see if they can get him to slip up. But Jesus triumphs every time.
So it is with today’s challenge. Unable to get Jesus to inadvertently commit blasphemy, the Pharisees see if they can get him to commit treason, enlisting a couple Herodians in their scheme.
Now we don’t know much about the Herodians. But we can assume by their name that they are in some way loyal to Herod, who, in turn, is loyal to Rome. The Herodians, therefore, represent the government and political structure of Rome and Israel.
Since the Pharisees hated Rome for conquering Israel, the Pharisees also hated the Herodians. But, the Pharisees hated Jesus even more. So Pharisees and Herodians teamed up. This would be like Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer teaming up, or Eagles fans and Steelers fans, if you prefer.
With their Herodian friends nearby, the Pharisees spring their trap, asking Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” This question is more controversial than it may appear. The Pharisees are referring to the pole tax, a tax on everyone in the empire that could only be paid with a particular Roman coin. If Jesus supports the tax, then he will alienate a large portion of his own following who strongly oppose the tax; if Jesus speaks against the tax, then the Herodians will arrest him for tax evasion, sedition, and maybe even treason. It’s the perfect trap, right?
But this isn’t Jesus’ first rodeo. Standing there in the temple, Jesus asks the Pharisees to produce the coin necessary for the pole tax; they do, and Jesus has them beat. In their hands the Pharisees hold a small coin with the face of Emperor Tiberius on it. Under his face lies the emperor’s inscription, which reads: “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of the divine Augustus.”
Why is this a big deal? Well, according to the second commandment, it was unlawful for the Jewish people to create graven images or idols, that is, pictures of people or things. Here in the temple, the Pharisees are holding a graven image of the emperor. What’s worse, the first commandment states that they are to acknowledge no other gods but God. And here, in the temple, the Pharisees are holding a coin claiming that Caesar Augustus is divine. The Pharisees commit blasphemy simply by allowing that coin in the temple. Despite all their attempts to indict Jesus on blasphemy, they have just indicted themselves.
So then Jesus sums it all up with his famous line: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This of course begs a first question: “what exactly belongs to the emperor?” we can probably come up with a list: the coins with his face on them, the Roman road system, the aqueducts, the palaces, the arenas, the amphitheaters, the forums… The emperor owns the empire and everything in it, we might say. Therefore, Jesus says, pay your taxes…they belong to the emperor.
But there's a second question: “what exactly belongs to God?” This is not a rhetorical question: “What belongs to God?”
Everything. Everything belongs to God. John chapter 1:3 says of Jesus: “All things were created by him, and without him not one thing was created” (paraphrase). God created everything, the very fabric of the universe and everything it; therefore, everything belongs to God without exception.
The other night Ezra was trying to wrap his mind around the idea that God has created everything. He asked me if God made the sky.
“Yes.” I said.
“And what about the moon?”
“And God even made the floor!” he exclaimed pointing at the carpet in this bedroom.
I pondered this for a moment and then said, “Yeah! Sure!” In a way, God even made the floor of Ezra’s room (in conjunction with a contractor, a few trees, and some synthetic fibers, of course).
Everything belongs to God because God has made everything and God lives in, with, and under everything. So while the emperors of this world may feel they are entitled to some things and we may be forced to go along with them, we know that at the end of the day, everything really belongs to God.
So when Jesus makes this statement: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” I think that Jesus is asking his listeners to evaluate their loyalties: Do you belong to God, or the emperor? And when I say “emperor” here, I mean any government or political body.
Throughout history some have argued that Christians should be involved in politics and government while others have argued that Christians should stay out of politics and government. But here I think that Jesus is saying that we don’t really have a choice. We are going to be involved in government and politics whether we like it or not. I can pretend like I live above or outside the law, but if I rob a convenience store, I am going to feel the full weight of the law of the United States of America come crashing down on me. I don’t have a choice, I belong to the law of the U.S.A. And if I didn’t live here, I’d belong to the laws of some other nation.
Indeed, Martin Luther argued that as long as rulers acted with justice, truth, and mercy, the law could be a good thing; not just a good thing, but a godly thing, a way in which God provides for us. Because the purpose of the law is to protect us, to keep us safe, and to help us thrive. This is one of the main themes of the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament.
So when Jesus says that we are to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, I think Jesus is acknowledging that to be alive is to be under the power of some government or other. And maybe that’s not always a bad thing.
But when Jesus says that we are to give to God things that are God’s, Jesus is reminding us that, more than any government or ruler or politician, we belong first and foremost to God. Because if God created everything, and everything that God has created belongs to God, then you belong to God and I belong to God.
Jesus’ statement is a question of loyalty. As the Pharisees stand there in the temple, their enemies the Herodians by their side, a coin of the emperor in their hands, Jesus is asking them: “who do you really belong to: the emperor, or God?”
It’s no secret that our country is more divided now than it has been in a long time. At this time of year, and in an election cycle like this one, it is easy to start defining ourselves and each other by our political affiliations. I’m a republican, or I’m a democrat; or I’m a Trump supporter, or I’m a Biden supporter. We do this most often through lawn signs, flags, bumper stickers, and Facebook posts. But in today’s story, Jesus reminds us that we belong ultimately to God. Yes, we are citizens of the United States; yes, we have to pay our taxes; yes, we have to obey the law; yes, we have to go vote; yes, we should be concerned with politics, but we are citizens of the kingdom of God first. And God’s kingdom is bigger than any government.
So, when Jesus asks us today where our loyalty lies, he’s not telling us that we have to choose between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the emperor. He’s telling us that as we participate in the kingdom of the emperor, which is to say the various governments and politics of this world, we must not forget our true identity as citizens of God’s kingdom. Whatever we do or think or say about our government or politics must always be checked against what God desires of us for the kingdom of heaven.
So, as we move through this election season, as our country continues to experience great division, I invite you to explore and examine for yourself, what it means to be a citizen of God’s Kingdom first. The sermon on the mount in Matthew chapters 5-7 is a great place to start.
Though we live in a world controlled and dominated by various emperors, and though they may require much of us, let us always remember that we belong first and foremost to God So, let us give to God the things that are God’s, starting with our very selves.