“To God the things that are God’s”
(Luke 20.20-26; 21.1-4)
So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. 21So they asked him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. 22Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 23But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, 24‘Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?’ They said, ‘The emperor’s.’ 25He said to them, ‘Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 26And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.
21 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’
“To God the things that are God’s”
Taxation has always been a controversial subject. Recently in this country, there has been a resurgence of interest in paying tax. It has focussed on corporate giants who seek, by entirely legal means, to avoid paying taxes in Britain. The message has been “tax is good”. It is a privilege to pay our taxes because they fund hospitals, schools and all the features of civilised society.
In first century Judea, taxation was an entirely different business. For one thing, it propped up Rome, the occupying force, handing resources to the enemy with which to oppress us. Paying taxes was treasonous to any patriotic Jew. But it was worse than that.
“Show me a denarius” Jesus says, when asked that thorniest of questions for a Jewish Messiah, “Should we pay taxes…or not?” I have a silver denarius here. It is a little tarnished after 2,000 years and the inscription is rather worn, but originally it would have read:
“Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs]”
“Emperor Tiberius, son of the Most High God.”
The coin was blasphemous to a monotheistic Jew. It proclaimed that God had a son – the very blasphemy for which the authorities were about to condemn Jesus. Yet those very authorities carried it about on their person.
“Whose head is this? And whose title?”
“Whose title?” I imagine there must have been a pause at this moment as the words stuck in the throats of the Jewish authorities.
Who bears the title “Son of the Most High God?”
“Caesar” they admit. They can’t answer otherwise.
“So you are happy to proclaim this gentile as the Son of the Most High God, when all he has done is oppress you, but you will crucify me for being, in truth, the Son of the Most High God, when all I have done is to bless you? You are willing to carry his coin around in your pocket and offer it to him in tribute, but you cannot give me even the smallest corner of your hearts when I ask it of you?
Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But to God the things that are God’s.”
It is a curious effect of that saying that we are left wondering what are the things of God that we should give him. It tells us something about ourselves that we find it obvious what are the things of Caesar. Money for a start, the coin that bears his head and inscription. But what are the things of God?
When I worked in the City, there was a bank that had covered the pavement with a portico. It looked like a benevolent act, but as you passed through the portico you read these words: “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.” In other words, “Give us your money. God says so!” This passage has been used by authorities countless times, to demand taxes, allegiance to government and, particularly during the First World War, our willingness to fight for our country. But that couldn’t be what Jesus meant. If you think Caesar is god, give him the things he requires. But Jesus calls us to honour the true God by giving to him the things that are his.
What belongs to God? Everything. Give it all to God, because God gives it all to you. Yesterday, we thought about giving ourselves to God as being like accepting a proposal of marriage, and in the marriage service, the bride and groom enter into a covenant relationship. They do it by exchanging rings and, as they do so, they say “all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.”
That is the nature of the covenant relationship God wants with us – the complete sharing of everything. The widow, giving to God everything she had to live on, was entering into that covenant. What about us?
For his part, he is holding the ring at the end of our finger, saying “all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.” Will you share with me everything you are? What are the things of God? Above all, we are. However broken and poor we might be, we belong to God, and are of infinite value to him. And we find our true selves when we can find it in our hearts to say back to him: “all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.”
“Give to God the things that are God’s”