Text: Matthew 22:19-21
Jesus said, “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.”
What shall I do?
A nine year old girl returned from Sunday School and as her father was sitting down with the Sunday Mail after lunch, she asked,
“Daddy, why did God make all the leaves green?” He thought a moment and replied, “I don’t know.”
Then she asked, “Daddy, if God made the world and everything else who made God?” Again he said, “I don’t know.”
Again she asked, “Daddy, how did Noah catch the two snakes and put them in the ark?” He put down the newspaper and said with a smile, “Honey, I don’t know.”
Like many children, this little girl was asking her dad some very important questions. Dad was right in answering, “I don’t know” because there are certain questions for which we have no answers, at least until that day when we can ask God face to face (and most likely they won’t be important to us any more).
The Pharisees had a question for Jesus. It’s one about religion and politics. They asked, “Is it right, according to God’s will, to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” This was no minor matter. The Jews were taxed heavily by the Romans – not only were grain, oil and wine taxed but every male from age of fourteen and every female from the age of twelve had to pay a tax for just being alive. This was a trick question. Whichever way Jesus answered he would get into trouble.
If he said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor,” he would be in trouble with his own Jewish countrymen who deeply resented the oppression Rome had imposed on their nation. Paying taxes to the Emperor was tantamount to kneeling at his feet – a posture reserved only for the worship of God. Clearly, Jesus would be a traitor to his own people and to God, if he answered yes.
On the other hand, if he said, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor,” he would be a traitor to Rome. Whether they liked it or not, the Roman Empire had now taken control of Palestine. If Jesus spoke against paying taxes, he would be arrested and imprisoned. Make no mistake about it; the Pharisees were out to get Jesus.
And how does Jesus answer? He asks for a coin. “Whose picture is stamped on the coin? The emperor’s! Well then it’s simple. He must own it if he’s got his picture stamped on it. You give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. But be careful! Don’t give to Caesar what belongs to God”. End of discussion.
Jesus cleverly states there are those things that belong to the state and those that belong to God.
Someone summarised Jesus’ words saying, “The coin bears Caesar’s image; man bears God’s image, so give the coin to Caesar” – meaning pay tax – “but give yourself wholly to God.” Serving God covers all of life. It also includes serving Caesar in a way that brings honour to God.
In his answer Jesus is giving some broad principles but notice he doesn’t give any slick answers about how we are to carry out this responsibility. Jesus leaves the details wide open. He refuses to give two neatly divided lists of duties relating to God and those relating to Caesar that leave no doubt about what we are to do. (Something that the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law would have liked – they liked rules that were black and white).
However in Jesus’ answer, the question about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God remains open. You and I must decide that for ourselves – struggle with and assess each new situation.
Making a choice between two options that are appealing, logical and where there are arguments both for and against is not an easy task. We might wish that there were some black and white guidelines that would make the decision for us. It is true there may be some general rules, or principles, like the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount, that make matters look simple and clear, but when it comes to applying these to the individual circumstance that we are faced with in our lives making a decision isn’t all that clear.
Why doesn’t Jesus make things so much easier for us? Why doesn’t he make a decision once and for all in this whole matter of paying taxes and giving to God, and with authority set up percentages and limits, say something about tithing, talk about our responsibility to God, and our responsibility to the government and so on? We long for a clear ruling, one that is binding, one that will relieve us all the headache of making a decision. But Jesus doesn’t make the decision for us. He doesn’t want us to blindly follow a set of rules.
He challenges us to find out again in each new situation what action we ought to take.
whether to reveal to a very sick friend that he/she will soon die or to say nothing;
whether to turn off a life support system or hope for a miracle;
whether to join an IVF program or remain childless;
whether to protest about a government policy or to remain silent;
whether to stay in an unhappy marriage and hope for a change or to get out,
whether to accept this new job or not because of the impact it will have on family life,
whether to be tough on a drug-addicted child or show tenderness, love and support to bring him to his senses.
Everywhere in life – in our marriage, in visiting the sick, as a teacher in a school, as an executive doing his tax return, as a mother or father – we have to discover what is the will of God for us at this time and in this place and in this set of circumstances.
Often we can’t answer the questions that confront us, by thumbing through the Bible to find crisp, clear answers. Or referring to an answer found on Schedule C. There is no dictionary we can look up what we have to do here and now to be in tune with the will of God. Again, the burden of making responsible decisions falls on us. We know how difficult that can be because we are sinners. We are biased and critical; we prefer to take the easier path; we avoid going against the crowd and simply sidestep making hard choices.
As Christians we are joined with Jesus and we share in his love and take on his way of looking at the moral dilemmas that challenge us and so for us the issue always is, “What would Jesus do if he were in my situation?” And sometimes we might not like the answer that we get back.
You see, Jesus was always shocking people in the choices he made as he reflected the will of his Father.
When he came across a prostitute, instead of quoting the Ten Commandments to her, he befriended her and said, “Your sins are forgiven”.
When he met the white-collar cheat Zacchaeus, he loved him and went to dinner with him.
To those who were exiled from their community because of a dreadful disease, he showed compassion and gave them healing. The word that summarises Jesus ministry is “love”.
You see God doesn’t give us a list of laws and detailed instructions for carrying them out. He doesn’t lead us around by the nose in every detail of our lives. Rather he desires to make us mature sons and daughters, confident of his love, confident of our relationship with Jesus our Saviour and in his love we discover what is the right thing to do that reflects the love of Jesus that is in us.
We need to be diligent in coming to know God’s mind ever better through studying the Scriptures.
We need to be unceasing in our prayers asking for the Spirit’s guidance.
We need to listen to the prompting of the Spirit as he shows us the way of love in the choices we make.
Some years ago a man talked about the tough decision he and his wife had made when they decided to terminate a pregnancy. They had three daughters and their unborn child was the son they had wanted so much, however, doctors told them that something was terribly wrong and that if the pregnancy continued the mother’s life was in danger and if the baby survived he would most likely be severely brain damaged.
The father said something like this, “I had such strong opinions about abortion – no unborn life should be terminated. I firmly believed God would always take charge and if the baby was born as a result of rape or was disabled that God would provide a way.
But now what was God thinking? This wasn’t fair. This didn’t fit into any of my ideas. To think of terminating the life of our son was unbearable. And the possible death of my wife, June, was just as unbearable. Our girls needed their mother. June and I prayed. We wrestled with the decision. The doctor, a member of our church, prayed with us. We decided. And I don’t know if what we decided was the right thing but our pastor assured us that God knows what was in our hearts and how we wrestled with this situation and if we chose wrongly, his love burns even stronger for us. It is precisely for the wrong choices we make that Jesus died on the cross. At the funeral he admitted he didn’t understand God’s ways but he did say that Jesus loved our son as much as we did”.
I’m sure that many of us have made and will make many mistakes as we search for the right answers to many of life’s perplexing problems. It’s ever so hard at times to know what God wants and to make a decision confidently knowing we have done the right thing.
We make decisions about some of those tough questions in life in the knowledge that he forgives us when we do blunder and bungle. It is a comfort to know of the forgiving love of God, otherwise we would be frightened to make any decisions at all. Let’s remember that God can still bless us through those decisions that are poorly made.
In today’s gospel Jesus doesn’t give us rules but the permission to struggle with the question of what is appropriate for us to do in the world that God created. Jesus gives us an assignment to seek out the will of God as best we can and go forward entrusting the choices we make into the hands of our loving and forgiving God.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy