Preaching on the text "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" puts the preacher in a difficult hermeneutical position. You can't simply ignore your own political principles, convictions and opinions. Depending on where we find ourselves on the political spectrum, the interpretation is likely to be influenced by those political presuppositions. Even if you are aware of them, try to make allowances for them, some have the force of conviction and are tied up with other life commitments.
But neither can the preacher be silent, take refuge in being "non political" as if that were remotely possible, or give an even-handed interpetation of a text that itself is a polarising ultimatum about where the line in the sand is drawn. So today and tomorrow I'll share my own attempt to preach with integrity and faithfulness to the text, acknowledging from the start that my own faith commitment and experience shape and inform my dialogue with this troublesome and troublemaking text. The following is an expanded text from my preaching notes.
The text I chose was from Mark 12.12-17. The same story is with small variations in Matthew and Luke.
Contactless cards, phone apps, and credit cards, tend to mean many of us no longer regularly handle hard cash money. A visit to Oxford reinforced the faith people have, or don.t have, in money. A Clydesdale bank £20 note offered in two bookshops had one blank refusal, and one careful scrutiny of the offending note before reluctantly agreeing to take it. My offendedness was largely due to the social assumption that handing over money is an act of social conformity. Money enables buying and selling. The metal or paper is worthless, but it represents a set value, and a social contract. Money is about power, influence, ability to buy a cappuccino, to get things done, like painting our hall and stairway. You can’t eat money but it does buy food. The idea of food banks is for those not enough purchasing power for food. Note those linked words, purchasing power.
Back in imagination 2000 years. For hundreds of years Judah has been occupied. Emperor Tiberias is a familiar image, every engraved coin is a reminder of who has the power. Subjugation is written into every money transaction, every day’s work. On reverse side Pontifex Maximus – high priest of Rome, the mediator with the Gods. The slippage towards the Imperial cult and worship of Caesar, who has the favour, the ear and influence with the gods. Pious Jews didn’t handle Roman money – but taxes had to be paid in Roman coin, hence the temple tax paid in Jewish coins, hence money changers. The imperial denarius flooded the Empire with the propaganda of power, woven into everyday life. Coins advertised, confirmed, carried the stamp of the power of Caesar. Such coins were hated as instruments of oppression. Paying tax and tribute was a regular required act of compliance, submission.
So, the question. "Is it lawful, according to God’s commands, to pay taxes to Caesar" was a trapdoor question. Jesus asks "Why are you testing me", in Mark's Gospel an echo of Satan’s temptations about power. This once again was a moment when Jesus answer could spark a revolt, or show he’s a collaborator and not Messiah. “Whose image, and whose inscription?” These righteous testers of Jesus, who hated the Roman coin, had to touch and look at the very coin they paid their taxes with – and despised as an image of Imperial religion.
The question isn’t about money, it’s about taxes, and taxes are about power, and power is ultimately about whoever or whatever is God in our lives. Who or what has the highest, final, defining, claim on our allegiance? Who ultimately says what is right and wrong? Who has the right to require our obedience and say our disobedience is treason.
This coin isn’t about secular or sacred, or state or church. This coin has become a flashpoint of ultimates. What ultimately matters in life? Who ultimately has power over our lives? Caesar or God; the powers that be or the power of God? Who commands our conscience? Is it the state, the party, the employer, or God? “Give back to Caesar what belongs to him, and give back to God what belongs to God.” Which kingdom do we belong to? As followers of Jesus we are children of the Kingdom of God. We pray "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven...." Those are the words of a community of contradiction, whose ultimate loyalty is not to no one, no entity, no institution, but to God.
We are living through a time when this passage may well become once again a flashpoint of ultimates. Here are two caesar-like statements.
“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.”
“But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don't understand what citizenship means."
The use of absolute terms like “total allegiance” “citizen of nowhere”, take these words beyond the legitimate claims of any political power. The State detects a threat when its citizens refuse to make allegiance to the State an absolute. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's”. Jesus didn’t call for violent revolution; he gave no permission for witholding money. He called for a reorientation of the heart, mind, will and strength towards God, and a refusal to make any other power Lord of the soul.
Christians nowe live in a globalised world of powerful corporate interests, where there are thickening lines of separation between borders, as we witness the re-emergence of nationalist ambitions and fears and the rise of rhetoric of confrontations, fears, self-interest and rejection of the other. It is a world of realigning economic markets, calls for increased military readiness, rising perceptions of threat and hostility and polarisation. In such a world those words of Jesus become a line in the sand – “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is Gods.”
(How this can be thought through in practice will be the second part of these reflections on Jesus saying, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."