Our scripture for this morning tells how Jesus is confronted one day by two groups of people—an act of deliberate collusion—and the subject of their question is allegiance. Their immediate intent is more basic, however: to discredit Jesus.
One group is made up of Pharisees, those zealous adherents of the Jewish Law. In their determination to bring about perfect compliance to the Law, they were particularly disturbed by any movements or leaders advocating anything less than the strict interpretation they espoused. Jesus, in their eyes, was such a leader.
The other partner in the inquisition team was the Herodians. Unlike the strongly anti-Roman Pharisees, the Herodians gained their name as supporters of Herod Antipas, the puppet king installed by Rome in the area around Galilee. They were largely opportunists who attempted to attach themselves to the person in power and so win favor and reward. Two most unlikely groups to look past their differences and collaborate, but whose tie was the common desire to force Jesus into a no-win situation.
And so the question to trip Jesus up, well thought out and, no doubt, well rehearsed: "Teacher, we know that you teach the truth about God's will without worrying about what people think, because you pay no attention to a person's status." (That's the complimentary part, not here comes the barb) "Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?"
This question was indeed cleverly worded and sought to put Jesus into a bind so that either way he responded he would lose. If he answered "no" to the question of paying the tax, the Romans would get wind of it and accuse him of sedition. Advocating such blatant disobedience couldn't be tolerated and he would be immediately arrested.
If he said "Yes, pay the tax," then the Pharisees could then portray him as being a traitor to his faith. Would saying to pay not affirm the claim of the Emperor who regarded himself as a god?
And so a clever question leading into a foolproof trap. There appeared to be no way that the response wouldn't damn Jesus. Even if he should attempt to avoid controversy by not answering the question, his credibility would be seriously damaged with the people. They had him in a bind, and they knew it; so much so that a certain amount of smugness could hardly be missed in their presenting of the question.
It is, you see, not so much a question of paying taxes; though, outwardly that is the subject. The real question here is the matter of allegiance: who has the power and to whom is one's loyalty owed?
A movie from 1979 also dealt with a similar question of loyalties, though the context is far removed from ancient Palestine. In The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Alan Alda portrays a young, popular U.S. Senator—an effective man, a champion of liberal causes. As the movie begins he is helping to lead the opposition to a conservative Supreme Court nominee. (Maybe it's time to see this film again!) Joe's unashamedly an idealist but, all in all, we have the picture of a pretty good person in leadership.
As the story develops, though, either our initial impression of Joe begins to change, or he himself begins to change. We see him operating in the heavy pressures of the Washington arena. It's a world filled with bargaining, trade-offs, favoritism, and compromise.
The title, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, tips the hand that somewhere, somehow, he is going to be taken in by someone or something. The plot keeps twisting around and it takes us through a maze of people and situations while it heightens the suspense.
Who will it be, or what will it be, that lures him away from the straight and narrow? What tempter might undo this man of principles? What insidious force could lurk in the dark recesses of his character? In Joe's case it turns out to be none other than that ancient nemesis, power: the desire to acquire it and the desire to expand it. Conversely, it also becomes the fear of losing it.
Can it be a secret that he is flattered with the suggestion that he is Presidential material? How can he not be influenced by a staff who boost him up at every turn? Can he not be affected by a press corps which hangs on his every word? Does he not feel superhuman when he walks to the convention podium through a corridor of cheering party regulars?
And yet, even here, power is essentially neutral; intrinsically it is neither good nor bad. Everything hinges on its application. The desire for personal power can cause people to change their loyalties and alter their allegiances. Power at any cost can corrupt and priorities can be confused, whether it be in the movies or in real life.
"Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?"
"Show me the coin for paying the Tax." They brought him the coin, and he asked them, "Whose face and name are these?"
"The Emperor's," they answered.
So Jesus said to them, "Well, then, pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God."
This is really quite an extraordinary reply. First of all, because it so completely turns the tables on the questioners. You can almost see those self-assured smiles drop on their faces. They were totally confident that they had Jesus trapped. There would be no way he could slide out of the question trap they had concocted. And yet he comes up with such a perfect response that, as the account continues, "When they heard it they were amazed; and they left him and went away."
What else could they do in that situation? Their amazement was perhaps not so much with the answer itself, but that they had allowed themselves to be outsmarted. Jesus' response left them without anything they could say. How ironic this reversal of circumstances!
Most of us aren't vengeful people, but I don't think that we're unhappy to see folks such as these get what they deserve. So there's a sense of justice in this story which we like. But the real importance here is not the cleverness of the answer, not Jesus one-upping the opposition, but the truth to which he points.
The question, as posed, asks ultimately, "Who has a claim upon my life? " Is it the government who has a claim? Is it my family? My job? Could it be my ambitions or personal fulfillment? Is it God?... Which one claims me? To whom do I owe my loyalty?
Surprisingly, perhaps, Jesus replies that they all have claim upon us—the government, family, job, personal aspirations, God. The challenge for each person is how to sort out all those allegiances so that they are kept in perspective and given their proper place.
In the play You Can't Take It with You, Grandpa Vanderhof is visited by an Internal Revenue Service agent. The agent demands of Grandpa why he hasn't paid any income tax for the last 22 years. To which the old man replies, "I didn't figure I owed the government anything!"
Well, of course, he does and we all do. Despite our consternation with how it operates sometimes, we realize that life without some governing structures would be nothing short of chaos. So we owe our nation something. Our country does have its rightful claim upon us. Does that claim, however, extend to a blind obedience to whatever we are told? Does it still allow us to seek a change in policies or even a change in politicians?
No doubt our employer has a legitimate claim upon us, for after all we are being paid to do a certain job. Does that mean, however, that we should leave our ethics at the business door either for our personal advancement or because the company encourages us to do so?
Surely our families have a natural claim upon us. They should; we ought to take those basic responsibilities very seriously. And yet, even here, might there be times when the need of a friend or neighbor ought to take precedence over those more immediate to us?
And then where do we fit God into this complexity? What area is now left over to give?
The answer of Jesus to all this was "Give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor. Give to God what belongs to God." The question as posed asked about allegiance: who has the power and to whom is one's ultimate loyalty owed?
What Jesus tells the questioners is to go and give the emperor the coin, for his likeness is upon it. "Give him back what is his; it is but a small claim upon you, almost insignificant. Instead, consider what you owe to the one who has given you life itself. Then do accordingly. Start with God, and let all your other obligations follow naturally from this point."
The lure of power is seductive and the likelihood to mistake the real from the illusion is great. Jesus knew that. The claims on us in life are many and confusing.
"To give to God what belongs to God" means no less than to give one's supreme loyalty to the Creator's claim upon us and to prioritize everything else accordingly... above job, above country, above family, above personal ambitions. They each have their claims on us, rightful ones, but God's claim on us is the defining priority.
To "give to God what belongs to God" is to understand the world in its proper relationships. And it is also to know that when we pray, "For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory," that the power we acknowledge here as God will also be the source of our power as well.
Our lesson for today encourages us to give to others what is due to them, but reminds us to first give to God what belongs to God.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church