Two Christians were discussing the problem of a lack of interest
in government. One of them said, "The main problems in our
nation today are ignorance and apathy. Don't you agree?"
His friend said, "I don't know, and I don't care."
I think one of the things that make this reading harder to
understand is that part of it is so well known. How many people
don't know the saying "Render unto Caesar"? And I think it is
this familiarity that keeps us from seeing the deeper meaning in
The story starts with the Jewish Church leaders looking for
some way to get rid of Jesus. They know that they do not have
any power to do anything to him themselves, except perhaps
flog him, and that might just have made Jesus even more
So they tried to find a way to get him to say something against
the Romans, so that they could take over and use their
considerable power to keep Jesus quiet.
So they came up with a plan that, if it worked, and they saw no
reason why it wouldn't, whatever Jesus did would upset one
side or the other. As is often the case, these leaders are not
willing to take a chance themselves or to show which side they
are on and they get others to do their dirty work.
They thought they had a question, that no matter what Jesus
answered, he would condemn himself. The question was "Is it
right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" The conspirators thought
that there were only two possible answers. Yes, it is right to pay
taxes or No it is not right. Either answer would condemn Jesus.
If Jesus said it was right to pay taxes, he would be accused of
being a traitor to the Jews and of being in favour of the Roman
Occupation. This would alienate him from all his supporters.
If Jesus were to say it was wrong to pay taxes, then he would
prove he was against Rome. The Jewish leaders would be able
to say Jesus had shown himself to be a revolutionary and he
could be handed over for trial and execution.
Either result would please those who put this plan in action.
Whatever happened, Jesus would be out of the way and they
would not get the blame for it. They must have felt really
pleased with their cunning plan.
Have you ever been asked a "trick question," a question which
was meant to "trip you up"?
I spent last Wednesday watching the final (and when I say final,
what I mean is.... Thank goodness!) debate of what has been
the nastiest US Presidential campaign in living memory. And
that evening, indeed the entire electoral process, was all about
trick questions: All about two people trying to trip each other
up or catch the other in a lie.
The issue of paying tax to the Roman Emperor was one of the
"hot button issues" in the Middle East in Jesus' day. Imagine
how you'd feel if you woke up one morning and discovered that
people from the other end of the world had marched into your
country and demanded that you pay them tax as a reward for
having your land stolen!!!
If Jesus had been on the big debate stage on CNN on
Wednesday, you can imagine the audience's excitement and
the producer's glee when someone asked about this taxation.
So.... the Jewish leaders sent off their team to try to set Jesus
up: Their first action was to try and flatter Jesus and lull him
into a false sense of security. They said that they know Jesus to
be a man of integrity. They said that they knew he would speak
fairly and honestly.
Then they asked their question
I bet they smiled to themselves and thought "Gotcha!" as they
waited for an answer. But I also bet they did not laugh for long.
Before he gave an answer, he asked to see a Roman coin, a
denarius. These were the silver coins, with an image of the
Caesar of the day, Tiberius, on them. He then asked whose
image and inscription was on it.
This was a good question, because at that time, any item with a
man's stamp or inscription on it belonged to that man.
Therefore, following this logic, the coin belonged to Caesar. So,
Jesus said, if it belongs to Caesar then give it to him.
But there was another part to the answer: Also give to God
what is God's.
It seemed like a very succinct and simple answer and it certainly
put paid to the Pharisees and Herodians' plans.
This is the bit that is usually left out when people quote from
this passage. "Render unto Caesar...." is what they say, and
then they forget the rest, "..And what is God's to God."
That is where we have our choice. This is where we can decide
whether or not we pay. In some ways, it might seem that God
has a harsher tax regime than anyone else. Our government
may have many tax rates. 20%, 35%, 50% and all varying year
God only has one rate: 100%
When we give ourselves to God, we have to give ourselves
100%. 10%, 90% or maybe just on Sundays doesn't count. We
have to give ourselves totally to him, all day, and every day.
But there is one major difference in what we pay in taxes and
what we pay to God. If we find that we cannot find the money
to pay our taxes, or if we forget, then we face a punishment.
If we forget to give God his due, he doesn't send in the bailiffs,
he forgives us the debt, he allows us to start again. You might
want to cheat on a government you hated, but do you want to
cheat on someone that you love utterly and whom what you
give does not even begin to repay what they have done for
For many people the worship of money and possessions is a
profound and deadly spiritual problem: The more we have, the
less we seem able to give. The more things we own, the
greater the temptation to allow things to own us.
Remember the movie, "Oh God!" with George Burns? In that
movie the idea was mentioned that the reason God gave Adam
and Eve no clothes to wear was because God knew that once
they had clothes, they would want pockets. Once they had
pockets, they would want money.
It's kind of like the man caught being creative with his taxes
after an audit. He sent a check to the government for his back
taxes with a note attached that said: "I felt so guilty for
cheating on my taxes I had to send you this check........................... If I still
don't feel any better, I'll send you the rest."
But through all this, in all this talk of government and taxes and
what is Caesar, it is essential that we remember the second
part of Jesus' message: We need to give ourselves to God.
Like the Jews, we don't seem to have much choice over the
government and the way it runs our country. Often, especially
recently, it seems as far away as ancient Rome: An
underhanded, partisan, unscrupulous government.
And while we get little choice on paying taxes, we do have a
totally free choice in is in what we give to God.
Please don't misunderstand. As you know, the Scriptures do
not say that money is the root of all evil. And it isn't. We can
agree with Joe Louis' famous words. "I don't like money,
actually," he said, "but it quiets my nerves." It is the love of
money that is the root of all evil. It is the worship of money
that puts it into competition with God.
No, we don't have any trouble rendering to Caesar the things
that are Caesar's. It's straightforward (at least that's what my
accountant tells me), but how can we become more willing and
able to render to God the things that are God's?
The first thing we need to realize is that everything we have,
everything we are, and everything we hope to be is first and
foremost a gift from God. When we understand the magnitude
of this reality, our hearts become captivated by the love and
grace that God has lavished upon us. We then soon discover
our bodies, our minds, and most importantly of all, our hearts
truly belong to God. It's when God takes possession of our
hearts and sends the spirit to live there that we find it not only
easier to render to God the things that are God's, but it
becomes a great privilege and joy to do so.
When we say to someone, "I love you with all my heart," what
do we mean? We are saying, "I am committed to you. All that I
have is yours. I trust you enough that I am willing to share with
you everything I have, everything I am, and everything I hope to
be." That kind of commitment is what God asks of us. Truly it's
all God's in the first place. Render to God the things that are
So what, again, does God want from us? Giving ourselves to
God can sound vague and woolly: Just what does he want,
I think that Jesus gave us the answer when he was asked what
the most important commandment was. He told us that the
most important commandment was to love God with all our
hearts, all our souls, all our minds and all our strength. The
second commandment was to love one another.
We take the commandment to love one another as one of the
basic ways to live as a Christian. But there is no way we can live
this way if the very foundation of the way we live is not based
on having the love of God at the heart of who we are and in
everything we do.
With the love of God as the centre of our beings, then things on
this world become less important, passing, and transitory as we
learn that God's love is forever. We can still support and pay
taxes to a government that provides the framework of modern
life. We can still oppose that same government when it works
unfairly or unjustly, by raising our voices in peaceful protest.
We can still obey the laws of the land when they work with
God's law and oppose them, with humility and grace, when
But, again, don't forget that there's another message here:
While we give to Caesar what is his, we must also give to God
that which is his.
But what do we give to God? What is it that has the Stamp or
mark of God on it?
The answer is that WE do. We are made in the image of God
and we all bear his mark.
When a child is born what people often say is that the child
looks like the father or mother. They immediately notice the
family likeness. Similarly it was God's intention from the
beginning that we should bear the likeness of our heavenly
Father. God intended our relationship with Him to remain
unbroken so that we could grow up to bear the imprint of His
So we give our taxes to the government and ourselves to God.
Yet when did Jesus ever say something that did not have one or
many lessons or messages in it? This passage was no different.
The messages in his answer were valid then and are still valid
today: First, that Government and Church is not necessarily
incompatible. There is no reason why that cannot work
alongside each other to improve the lives of those they serve.
Indeed they should. When we have a structure, such as
government, to administer and run the laws of the land, then it
is right that we pay for that support and protection. Israel, at
that time, was under Roman rule; but it was not all bad. They
had lost their independence, but they had also made some
gains. They had roads, peace and security. The Jewish church
was allowed to keep going and people could still worship as
they wanted. So it was right for people to pay taxes, using the
coin with the government's stamp on it.
This story happened over 2000 years ago. What could it mean
today when so much has changed? But has it? In many ways
nothing has changed and the answer Jesus gave still applies.
We cannot act as a society without some form of law or
government. We could not possible manage to support the frail
and the vulnerable without some system in place. Yet while the
laws of the land should serve to protect our human lives and
human future, it does not and cannot support our spiritual life
and spiritual future. That is the job of the church: To support
God's people and to teach them about him. To work alongside
the government to ensure it acts fairly, justly and in accordance
with God's laws.
It is also right that we should pay for the service that
government provides: If no-one paid anything, where would
the hospitals, doctors, teachers and all the other things needed
to make life run smoothly come from?
We can still do all this as long, and only as long, as God comes
Remember Jesus' complete answer: "Give to Caesar what is
Caesar's and what is God's to God." We have to do both, but
God's law comes first.
The question Jesus was asked could have been, "Whose side
are you on? Israel, or Rome?" Jesus' reply was not Israel, it was
not Rome. His answer was "on God's side"
It could also have been "Who do you love?
How would you answer that? Whose side are YOU on? Who do
you love? This world, a place of growing discontent, a place
where people put themselves, money and power before the
care for others, a place where more and more people seek
gratification just for the moment? Or God's world, a place
where love grows, a place where you are just as valued as your
neighbour, a place where we can live in peace and forgive our
enemies and be forgiven when we fall.
What would your answer be?