People of faith are called by God and “armed” by God (see Isaiah 45:5) with the power to live mercifully and honestly. How we are to do that when so many forces ask us to adhere to conflicting values is the problem we confront daily. What is Caesar’s? What belongs to God? How are we to reconcile these divergent worlds that can pull a person’s loyalty to pieces?
Jesus’ answer to those who would tear him down instructs us in the way of cunning. Give to the emperor. It’s his picture on that coin.
It’s a straightforward answer but one that can rouse the hackles of anyone who finds commonwealth an affront to liberty. Taxes in our time are not the same as taxes in the time of Rome’s imperial power. At this point in history, foreign soldiers do not occupy many countries of our world with far-away rulers determining taxation policy. Most of us elect our own leaders and debate openly the amounts that we should apportion for the needs of the communities.
Yet, the question of loyalties still nags at us. The nation compels our giving. The church, in many cases, does not.
The question we might need to ask ourselves is not about what is lawful but about what is true. To whom do you and I belong? Whose name is written on us?
To those of us who routinely pay taxes to the secular authority, the strength of the emotions involved in the question of “rendering to Caesar” may seem strange. This is not just the sort of reluctance that we all feel about paying taxes. Jewish nationalists were deeply offended by the requirement to pay taxes to Rome; the Herodians and Pharisees, supportive of Roman rule, would have considered refusal to pay the tax treasonous. Perhaps we can get a better sense of the intensity of feelings about this issue when we realize that the poll tax provoked the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in 66 (Josephus, War 2.118). His opponents thought they had Jesus trapped. But asking to see the coin used for tribute (which had to be paid in Roman currency), with its image of Emperor Tiberius, Jesus tells them to give the coin to Caesar, while not neglecting to give to God what is God's.
– Joseph McHugh is a freelance writer who writes on scripture and other religious topics.
Notice that Jesus was asked the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” The answer he gives is to a different question: What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? There was no such thing as dual citizenship in the eyes of faithful Jews. So Jesus' answer forced a crisis for his questioners instead of a trap for him.
Many members (and preachers) likewise ask the wrong question at pledging time. We ask, “What is deserving of my money?” We spread out all the requests from charities (and in this scenario the church is one more charity) and make some choices, informed or emotional or both. Yet the question we might ask in the fall and all year long is, “Am I willing to truly give—to let go—to trust God?” Working on our giving style may change our whole lives and incidentally nurture a more generous congregation.
– Stephen C. Kolderup is a pastor serving South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church in Florida.
Isaiah speaks of Cyrus whose great tolerance brought the exiles of Judea home and authorized the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. He ruled in the sixth century B.C.E. over the largest empire anyone had amassed to that point in history. He was a military victor. And yet he is reminded by YHWH that all of Cyrus’s accomplishments are by YHWH’s own hand.
YHWH says to Cyrus: “I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.” It is in that sense that McHugh (below) refers to Cyrus as a pagan.
Let these texts about allegiance speak to each other to inform you in your preaching this week.
Cyrus II, founder of the Persian dynasty, attributed his success in conquering many nations to his pagan god. But the prophet Second Isaiah knows that it is YAHWEH who is the cause of Cyrus' success. We should not minimize the impact of the first sentence: Cyrus, a pagan king, is the Lord's anointed, his “messiah.” This is the only time that scripture bestows the title on a pagan. The prophet calls upon his people to look behind the secular history of his day and see that the Lord has called Cyrus to conquer Babylon and other nations on behalf of Israel: “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by name” (v 4). Nor does it matter whether Cyrus recognizes his calling: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me” (v 5). To borrow the wording in the Gospel, in conquering Babylon, Cyrus will be giving to God what belongs to God.
– Joseph McHugh
Homily Service 41, no. 4 (21 July 2008): 80-89.