Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” They brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give, therefore, to the emperor things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Please join me in prayer:
Holy One, in this time calm, our restless hearts and our busy minds so that we might hear no voice but your own, and be strengthened to follow your Spirit, and do your work. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
I almost never read the King James Version of the Bible, but as I was studying the text this week, I kept thinking of it as the “render” text: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” Somewhere in my life I absorbed that translation, with its “renders” and “untos.” I suspect I’m not the only one. Some texts are sticky that way — they stick in our minds and hearts in particular forms or with particular meanings attached.
This Matthew text also appears in a sticky time of the year — even when there’s not a major election, these verses about politics and money and loyalty to God always come up in October’s lectionary, during stewardship season. Those preachers out there who aren’t wrestling with the political implications of this text two weeks before our presidential election are likely making a pitch to their hearers that “Everything belongs to God, so please fill out the 2021 pledge form and stick it in the mail in time for the stewardship committee meeting.”
Of course, we do affirm that everything does belong to God — the earth and all those who dwell within it, as the psalmist says. And I assume your stewardship committee would love for you to let them know what you plan to give in 2021.
But I realized this week that in my familiarity with this text, I forgot the context in which Jesus’ words about rendering were offered. This isn’t a straightforward teaching of Jesus, because the Pharisees and Herodians are not asking him for an honest interpretation of the law. They don’t really want to know what he thinks about taxes. They are trying to trap him, trying to indict him with his own words in order to destroy him. The whole thing is a setup.
In fact, the Pharisees and the Herodians are on opposite sides of the question they ask. We don’t know much about the Herodians, but their names implies they were supporters of Herod Antipas, and therefore would have been just fine with the Roman tax in question. The Pharisees, by contrast, would have rejected the tax, not least because it was paid with a denarius inscribed with idolatry: the head of the emperor, and the statement, “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.” So the Herodians and the Pharisees are in cahoots, and not to find out what Jesus really thinks. They want to ensnare him by his words. It’s as if the dog and the cat got together to ask the mouse for an opinion on leash laws. The dog and the cat don’t really care what the mouse thinks, but the mouse would be wise to be wary of the two of them sauntering up like old pals.