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.
For Jesus, any straightforward answer to the question will put him at odds with somebody. Speaking in favor of the tax would be tantamount to idolatry, and speaking against is rebellion against the empire. But none of it matters: this isn’t a litmus test for Jesus to pass or fail. It’s a trap designed to prove Jesus worthy of arrest, and even death.
We had the chance this week to watch a group of senators ask judge Amy Coney Barrett a bunch of questions in hearings. I’ll admit I didn’t listen to much of it live — I mostly caught the summaries at the end of the day. A large part of my avoidance of the hearings was that they felt both predictable and perfunctory, an exercise of wills and traps between senators hoping to score points or make a point, and a nominee determined to give away as little as possible. My own frustration with the process of Judge Barrett’s nomination and the powerlessness I feel in the face of this appointment didn’t help me want to listen. But to be honest, little of the proceedings was about actually hearing anything. With the outcome all but assured, there was not much left to do but perform the motions of procedure and decorum.
I wonder what Jesus thought when he saw the Pharisees and Herodians coming his way. Did he roll his eyes when they started in with their false flattery, or tap his foot impatiently as he waited for them to get to the point? Regardless, he’s not fooled for a hot second. His first words shut down the play acting: “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” He knows their game, and he’s not interested. To expose their hypocrisy outright, he asks them for a coin. The fact that any of them has a coin at all would have been embarrassing. If a Herodian pulls one from a pocket, the Pharisees would be offended by the idolatrous object. If — God forbid — a Pharisee produced the coin, it would be nothing less than scandal. At a minimum, by asking for the coin Jesus has laid bare the sham of their collusion.
But this is where things get interesting. Jesus could have simply exposed the fakery and the hypocrisy and left things there. He could have evaded or obfuscated any further response. He knows it’s a trick with no winning answer, designed turn listeners against him.
Jesus knows it’s a trick, and he answers anyway. “Give to the emperor things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It is not a clear yes or no. It is a both/and. It is a “Think about it some more.” His answer is to prompt more, and deeper, questions.
Over the years, many scholars and interpreters tried to make definitive claims about what Jesus means. Some argue that Jesus’ response is a clear delineation of “two kingdoms” — the emperor’s and God’s, church and state. Others claim that because everything belongs to God, nothing should be offered to the emperor. Still others note that the likeness of the emperor on the coin means the empire has a right to taxes, but that the image of God in all of us means that what matters is not money but human life, which is God’s purview.
All of these interpretations are reasonable, but I’m not sure any of them is a once-and-for-all word on what Jesus meant. If Jesus had intended to make an absolute statement about taxation or governance, he could have done that. He certainly makes definitive assertions in other sticky situations. But here, he refuses to take a stand that would pit Pharisees against Herodians, while also exposing their plot for the playacting hypocrisy it is. Instead of taking the bait, Jesus makes them think harder about what they’re asking. What does belong to the emperor? What does belong to God? How do we know?
My uncle John is a retired Methodist minister. For years, he and my aunt have been peace activists and military tax resisters. They are not against paying taxes. But like conscientious objectors, they don’t want their resources to be used for warfare. Their conviction comes from this text in Matthew. Jesus is encouraging his followers to discern what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and that’s what they’re trying to do. As my uncle puts it, taxes can be used for the common good, but Caesar does not “have permission to tax people to pay for activities that include…killing other children of God.” Over the decades, my aunt and uncle have lived out their commitment to nonviolence in different ways: sometimes by requesting salaries low enough to avoid paying taxes, sometimes by choosing to not pay the portion of their federal tax that would go to the military, and giving it instead to non-profits or local governments for schools and social programs. They take the consequences that come with their convictions. And in each new season, they discern again what belongs to God.
Many times in the gospels, Jesus teaches a plain truth, or takes a stand — including in the very next chapter, where he calls out the hypocrisy of the teachers of the law who have neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. But here, whenJesus knows he’s being set up, he gives an open-ended, both/and answer that prompts more questions. Jesus opens the door for the hearers to ponder the meaning for themselves. I’m just intrigued by this idea: they came with a trap, and Jesus turned around and asked them think harder about their question.
Matthew tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians are “amazed” by Jesus’ answer. Not angry, not disappointed, not frustrated. Amazed. The Greek implies that they were left wondering, marveling at what he said. Jesus not only subverts the trap they laid for him, he responds in such a way that they are caught up short. They arrived with a scheme, and they left…surprised. Maybe even —dare we hope it — thoughtful, reconsidering. We don’t know. The Herodians don’t make another appearance. Groups of Sadducees and Pharisees keep testing Jesus in an attempt to ruin his reputation. But in that moment, Jesus opened the door for them to think in new ways, and to be drawn into something deeper, greater, and they are amazed.
When I was in my first semester at SFTS, I found myself feeling disillusioned and even angry about the Bible. One day, I stormed into Marv Chaney’s office — some of you may remember Marv, who taught Old Testament — I stormed into his office and said, “We keep learning about how all these writers in the Old Testament were changing the text to achieve their own ends or to prop up some king. How can we possibly believe anything in the Bible if it’s mere political propaganda?” In response to my either/or proposition, Marv smiled at me and then said something that made me think harder about what I was asking: “Scripture isn’t merely any one thing. Yes, some of it was propaganda or written for political gain. Some of it is history rewritten or reimagined. Some of it is poetry and song. But even the political parts can be spiritual and faithful at the same time.”
I’ve remembered that answer often in the years since, and have recounted the story many times — especially with others who find themselves in similar frustrations with scripture. That unexpected answer sent me off amazed, pondering what this new idea would mean. Scripture isn’t merely any one thing.
The senate hearings over Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination and the presidential and vice presidential debates in the past couple of weeks have felt disheartening to me. It’s not that I expected them to be something different — for a long time, these exercises have been something less than genuine opportunities to get to know candidates and their positions. But so much of our public discourse feels like a trap right now. We can all name the disingenuous posturing, from the mild hypocrisy to the outright lies. Acquiescing to the disingenuous and deceitful has become such a way of life we almost don’t remember any other way to respond. And the worse it gets, the more disheartened I feel.
But Jesus charts another way with the Pharisees and Herodians. He calls out their deceit, but gives a genuine and nuanced answer to their question anyway — an answer that speaks truth and complexity at once, and invites hearers to ponder what he means.
In the early 1990s, I remember being with my high school youth group talking about our fears of a war with Iraq under the first Bush administration. Among other things, some of the boys were talking about what it would mean if there were a draft and they were called to fight. Some of them were already talking about conscientious objection. But one guy I remember, Dan, said, “I don’t believe in war, and I don’t want to go fight. But I also know that if I don’t go — if I find a way to get out of it — someone else will have to go in my place. So maybe if I go, someone else won’t have to.” His answer amazed me. It was complex, and it was simple, and at its heart, was Jesus, calling us to go deeper, and letting us ponder his meaning.
In a time when so many of the words around us seem to be mere traps, more conspiracies, unending lies, Jesus’ words still have the power to draw us into something new, something greater, something more faithful. Maybe the Pharisees and Herodians were amazed but unchanged by Jesus’ words.
But we are left with a reminder: that we follow One who can still surprise us with a life-giving both/and when we’re preparing for an artificial yes or no. We follow One who sees the trap coming, unmasks the hypocrisy, and still sends the questioners away with new things to think about. And, to our amazement, a story about Jesus from 2,000 years ago, with no once-and-done interpretation, is still calling forth faithful discernment from his followers who believe that everything belongs to God, but that we still live here — in this world of taxes and empires and complicated choices that shift with the passage of time.
I, for one, am immensely grateful to be reminded in this dark and difficult season that amazement and wonder are still possible, and that the Resurrected One has the power to turn our traps and tricks into astonishment and newness. It’s a relief to be reminded of that. Take courage, friends, and make space for hope. And may Christ’s spirit of creativity and possibility, and the surprisingly tenacious promise of resurrection and new life, strengthen and comfort us in these coming weeks.
© 2020 Aimee Moiso, shared by First Presbyterian San Anselmo with permission.
 John T. Schwiebert, Resistance and Redirection: Our First Forty Years: A Memoir, (Grief Watch, 2015), 69.
Photo by Dino Reichmuth, shared with permission via Unsplash.