There is nothing certain in this world, except death and taxes. That was Benjamin Franklin in 1789. Both death and taxes go back way beyond that though: they have been with us for ever. Death is something we have to live with. But tax is something people often try to resist if they can – look at the outcry about companies said to be avoiding tax, such as Amazon, Google and Starbucks, and then individual people, particularly celebrities like Gary Barlow accused of avoiding tax earlier this year. There was outrage because the people with the most money could afford the accountants to find the loopholes to pay less than their fair share in tax. Tax has often been controversial – remember the opposition to the poll tax in 1989, 25 years ago. We want the benefits of tax – hospitals, schools and roads – but we want someone else to pay for it.
The controversies go all the way back too. Even in Jesus’ time there was bother, and that is reflected in today’s Gospel story.
The religious authorities were trying to trap Jesus. They wanted to get him into a position where they made him say something that put himself in the wrong. They wanted him to show himself up. And so they engineered a situation.
Jesus must have been a bit suspicious when he saw representatives of the Pharisees ad the Herodians coming along together. It was as if a Tory candidate was approached by someone from the Labour Party and someone from UKIP together, pretending to be nice and asking trick questions.
And they ask Jesus: should we pay our taxes?
Now this was a big issue. The taxes went to the Romans and the Romans were the invaders. Imagine Barrack Obama or David Cameron imposing a poll tax on the Afghans in order to finance the cost of the troops. It wouldn’t go down well, would it?
If Jesus had said: don’t pay taxes – they would have shopped him to the Roman authorities. If he had said: OK, pay your taxes, that would have been a really bad move in PR terms. It wouldn’t have gone down well with the Jewish population, who hated having to pay taxes to the invaders.
So Jesus asks for a coin. And they give him a coin.
Here’s a coin. It has a picture on it. Whose picture? It … if you look at a coin, it has Latin round the outside which means “by the grace of God, defender of the Faith”. That title puts the queen very definitely as subject to God.
On the coin Jesus is given, there is also a picture. Whose? And what would it have said round the outside? Something like “son of God, high priest”. So Caesar is setting himself up as a God – you can see why the Jews were not happy. Caesar had invaded God’s country, imposed his authority over God’s people and claimed to be Son of God. It was a mockery of the kingdom of God. The Jewish people hated the coinage – it was a blasphemy.
But did you notice what happened there? Jesus asked them for a coin, and they took one out of their pocket and gave it to him, a coin that proclaims that Caesar is “son of God, high priest”.
So they may have hated the money, but they still had the coins in their pockets. Jesus is showing them their own hypocrisy. They may not like the Roman coins, but they are still using them, which means that they themselves are accepting the very authority they are trying to persuade him to reject.
Jesus replies: OK, pay Caesar back in his own coin. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, as it says in the Authorized Version. Give Caesar his own money back.
Now that could be taken in two ways. It could mean revolution – not having any more to do with the Romans or their money. Or it could mean: pay your taxes like good girls and boys, which sounds like collaborating with the enemy. It’s not altogether clear what Jesus means. He leaves it up to his listeners to sort out.
So the religious authorities are trying to get their heads round the way Jesus has shown them up instead of showing himself up, when he says something else: Give to God the things that are God’s.
Everything belongs to God. Even our Queen recognises that her power and authority comes from God – that’s what it says on our coins. God is the source of everything. God gives us everything. That surely means that we owe God something. And we have to work out what that is.
In this encounter, Jesus was not trying to address for all time the right balance between what we owe God and what we owe the state, what we should give as our religious duty and what we should give to the civic authorities. He was trying to get out of a difficult situation by showing the religious authorities of his day how they were looking at things all wrong. They were not recognising God’s hand in the ministry of Jesus. And they hadn’t got it right about who Jesus was.
For us, the story helps us to see Jesus a little more clearly – that he wasn’t a revolutionary who was coming in to overthrow the Roman invaders. He was a revolutionary, a spiritual revolutionary, who always points us back to God and our relationship with God. The kingdom of God would overthrow the Roman Empire, not by armed conflict, but by overcoming the greater empire of death itself.
Death and taxes – the two certainties. Both of them say something about the way we live in our world and how we live in God’s world. And that’s something we all need to explore.