From the Very Rev. Kristina Maulden
The Gospel for this Sunday tells of how the Jewish authorities tried to entrap Jesus. This is the first of three questions that will be put to Jesus. They are looking for ways to get Jesus to discredit himself. They are thinking that he has grown too powerful and many are listening to his words. Why would good people want to discredit Jesus? And, yes, these are good people. Jesus was destabilizing their comfortable situation. They were afraid of losing their positions and their livelihood. Fear and anxiety transcend time. We who have experienced those same feelings know that fear can cause any of us to react in ways that are harmful to others, to ourselves, to our community. The Jewish authorities were afraid of Jesus and the authority he carried within himself. They also feared the reactions of the crowds if they did anything directly to harm or curtail Jesus’ ministry.
So they pose questions to Jesus. They put before him this little question of paying a tax to Caesar. The particular tax that they have in mind is a poll tax or head tax. It was instituted by the Romans when Judea became a Roman Province in 6 A.D. This was a particularly annoying tax, as taxes go. Most people accepted the customs tax that gave them a permit to transport goods. This poll tax went directly to the emperor’s bank account. They received no benefit from it. To make matters worse, the coin that they were instructed to pay this tax, was a denarius. The denarius had the image of the emperor depicted on it. Jewish law was against the use of graven images and this one had the double insult as to claim that Caesar was divine. All this to say, if Jesus were to tell the people that it was lawful to pay this tax to Caesar, many of his followers would be upset and feel alienated.
What happens if Jesus were to claim it unlawful to pay the tax? His followers would have applauded that answer, but the Roman authorities would likely arrest him. (This particular tax was one of the root causes of Roman-Jewish tension that led to the riots which were the beginning of the Great Revolt in 66 A.D.) This question about the legitimacy of the poll tax was intended to get Jesus in trouble one way or the other. Fortunately, Jesus was all about discernment. He knew what was in the hearts of the Pharisees and Scribes. And his answer was brilliant. One of the amazing facets of his response was that he did not answer their fear with anger. His answer called them into a deeper conversation. Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. That coin bears his image, so give it to him. Now, give to God what is God’s.
If we make the connection of who bears God’s image, we could recall the creation story. God created us in God’s own image. If then, we bear God’s image, we should give back to God all of ourself. That giving back means time in worship and prayer. It means looking at our own treasure horde and helping move the ministry of God’s love forward. It means turning our thoughts in ways that line up with God’s mercy and forgiveness of others. It also means that we allow God to continue to shape us in ways that are more in line with God’s contours and priorities. It also means that we let go of fear, anger and hatred to others. It is a path that is an alternative to what the world offers us. But the outcome is a peace that passes all understanding.