A mid-week devotional from Central Presbyterian Church helping us to help prepare our hearts for the day ahead. If you would like to receive these in your inbox, please let us know. Find the complete archive here.
Wednesday, June 9, 2021
Paying Taxes to Caesar
13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
In his letter to French physicist friend Jean-Baptiste Le Roy in 1789 regarding the promising early success of the permanent establishment of the Constitution in the newly formed United States of America, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Not only are they certain, but it is also fair to suggest that nothing is simultaneously universally feared and hated like death and taxes. A mere mentioning of the word “tax” on April 16th is all it takes to produce a visceral, sometimes even physical, negative reaction; causing blood pressure to rise and emotions boil over. No one likes the thought of having what rightfully belongs to them unscrupulously taken without their consent.
Just like the freedom-loving patriots of the late 18th century, the first century Jewish community was overburdened and underrepresented courtesy of a ruthless distant empire. In exchange for pledging allegiance to Caesar, the family of Herod was allowed to retain their—mostly symbolic—authority over the people. As a result, the Herods were largely disdained as traitors of both the temple and the people of God. Not coincidentally, those loyal to Herod and the religious elite were normally on opposite ends of the idealogical and theological spectrum, but in their desperation to discredit the popular rabbi from Nazareth, the temple leaders enlisted the help of these rather unlikely allies.
Hoping to trap Jesus with His own words, a group of Pharisees and Herodians made their way through the crowd and approached Jesus as He taught in the temple courtyard. Luke’s gospel calls the men “spies,” informing us that they merely “pretended to be sincere.” Even their introductory remark to Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion,” was itself only partially true. It is true that Jesus was a teacher, and should be addressed as such. It is also true that He did not alter the answers to His questions based on how He believed they would be received by the audience. But it is not true that they believed He Himself was true.
Because the Pharisees and scribes received the harshest rebukes from Jesus, they believed that He was not really the man of God many claimed Him to be, but actually a duplicitous agent from Satan. They feared that He would use His popularity amongst the uneducated masses to wrestle control of the temple from the intellectual elite and possibly even instigate an armed insurrection that would receive a swift and harsh response from Rome. So they put their minds together and crafted a question that they believed had no truly appropriate answer: Should we pay taxes or not? Jesus’s response would either alienate the vast majority of His audience or earn accusations of sedition.
Of course, Jesus not only saw right through their hypocrisy, He also identified the hole in their logic. Jesus responded by asking to see a Denarius, the equivalent of a single day’s wage and the only form of legal tender found throughout the empire. Holding out the small piece of silver in His hand for all to see, Jesus responded to their unanswerable question with a rather simple one of His own: whose picture was on the coin? When they answered, “Caesar,” Jesus’ response blew them all away: “Give Caesar the things that belong to Him, and God the things that belong to Him.”
Jesus stunned the crowd by revealing that the heart of the question was not really about the legality or burden of taxation, but the design and nature of life itself. Caesar had imprinted the coins with his own likeness, his face was right there staring back at them. Regardless of how they had been received, all denarii unmistakably belonged to him, there could really be no debate. So if Caesar could lay rightful claim to all the money in circulation, what belonged to the people? And what then did Jesus mean when He said to give to God the things that belonged to God?
In the very beginning, Genesis 1 tells us that, just like a Roman coin, all of humanity was originally designed and created in the image of God. Every person who has ever walked the face of the earth, unique among the rest of creation, was imprinted by God after His own likeness. Each of us, regardless of whether or not we understand it or even recognize it, all belong to God. He can form and fashion us in whatever way He chooses, for whatever purpose He desires.
With this in mind, God does not just have first dibs on the contents of our pocketbooks, insisting that as long as we regularly go to church and bring our tithe we can more or less do whatever we want with the rest of our time, talent, and possessions. Scripture reveals, and Jesus reiterates, that all of life is God’s domain. The greatest commandment is not to faithfully bring our checks every Sunday, but to love God with the totality of who we are: our entire heart, our entire mind, our entire soul, our entire strength.
This will not only be demonstrated in our religious practices, but most noticeably in the way we treat our spouses, children, neighbors, and strangers. If our hearts and lives are focused upon loving God above all else, we will not fall into the dangerous trap of believing that the things we hold are the things we own. If we understand the hold that God has on us, rather than being reluctant givers, we will be freed up to live lives of thankfulness and generosity, reflecting the incredible love He has lavished upon us. Just a few days later, Jesus would stretch out His hands and show the world the full length and breath of His heart, even for those of us who least deserve it.
Prayer for Today:
Lord Jesus, You are a marvelous God. As we reflect upon Your perfect wisdom, we are reminded of Your perfect love. You not only created the world and set it into motion, but You stepped down and interceded on our behalf when we were trapped in our own web of sin and self-deception. We thank you for proving Your love to us beyond the shadow of a doubt, and ask that You will help us to live our lives each day in the shadow of Your cross. We ask in Your perfect name, Amen.