Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus, High Priest
This passage often leads to a sermon on “separation of church and state” but that is a foreign thought to the text and its original audience. Ironically when the Pharisees and Herodians get together to entrap Jesus, this is church and state getting together to fight back against an egalitarian movement. They probably saw Jesus much like the current Chinese government looks at the protests in Hong Kong. Demonstrators there are protesting for the right to select their own candidates rather than the ones vetted by the Chinese governments. (My sympathies are certainly with the protestors. Imagine, what kind of democracy lets the powerful and status quo pick out the candidates? If you do that people will get cynical and half of them won’t even vote.)
So lets talk about a topic we know something about instead, like people who try to trap you with their questions. We have all been there. The Pharisees needed a good course in focus groups 101, because they didn’t adequately lure Jesus in first.
Here are some good tips for focus group basics. If you want to learn what people think and feel, which is called “qualitative” research, then you ask open-ended questions. Here are some examples: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say green energy? What do you think about product X? What does our organization need more of? These questions invite the responder to think and to express themselves any way they want.
Closed end questions have “yes” or “no” or “this” or “that” answers. Do you buy brand X? Is your organization well-managed? Closed end questions are good for definition, like “Do you want to marry me?” You might start with “What are your thoughts on love and marriage?” first, but at some point you want definition. Closed end questions are also good if you want to steer people to specific answers. For example, “Do you support green energy even though it means a loss of jobs?” vs. “Do you support the green energy “clean air and green jobs” campaign? The way you ask the question forces an assumption on the answer and makes you pick a side.
Let’s look at the Pharisees question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Open or closed end question? Its closed, so they don’t really want to know much about what Jesus thinks. If they really thought Jesus was wise and wonderful as they said when they were “buttering him up”, and they wanted to learn something about his thoughts of an ethical tax system, what might they have asked instead? (What would an ethical tax system look like?)
So this is meant to be a “gotcha” question. This is when most politicians stop the interview and say “Look at the time, no more questions.” It’s a “gotcha” because there is a bait in the question, and if you take it you are in trouble either way. This bait usually has some emotional content. Here are some real life examples: If you really loved me you would do X. Or If you value your job you would do Y. If you don’t want to do X you are in a bind. You either give in and feel like a wimp or you try to defend love or your commitment, and probably end up not being persuasive and arguing for an hour. The terms are against you. Don’t take the bait, or you will lose. You are really under attack, but if you say you feel under attack, you will also lose. You have to completely change the atmosphere. Take your spouses hand and say, “I love you and I believe we can find and answer together.” (Don’t say that to your boss!) Make it open-ended again. Now you have a chance of something good happening. Unless you are married to the Pharisees in Jesus’s parable who really do want to see him crash and burn. For now, just remember this lesson. If a conversation starts with closed-end questions, it is limiting options and really about power and control. If you start open-ended, there are possibilities, and we can work together in mutuality.
Let’s look at how Jesus takes the closed end question and turns it into an open-ended answer. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Nice! He has not opposed the tax, so the Romans are not going to arrest him, but he is still a good Jew who honors God first. He doesn’t opt for either-or, but for a both-and answer. And they could have a whole conversation about what should be given to Caesar and God. But Jesus’s antagonists do not really want that. What did the audience hear? They already knew on a daily basis what they had to give to the Emperor- taxes, martial law, and a lack of citizen’s rights in the Roman Empire.
What do we render unto God? Matthew’s Gospel is going to tell more clearly next week with another confrontation where Jesus states the Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now we have a nice pragmatic solution to our sacred and secular responsibilities. Go ahead and pay your taxes to Caesar and love with all your heart. Right? Wrong! Let’s look a little closer at that coin Jesus asked about:
“The annual payment of this tax to Rome was a painful reminder of being in lands occupied by foreign powers who worshiped false gods. The tax could only be paid with Roman coins which were not just legal tender but also pieces of propaganda. Most of the coins contained an image of the Caesar with inscriptions proclaiming him to be divine or the son of a god. One common phrase on coins during the time of Jesus was: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”
So August = divine, Tiberius = his son. Just by having that coin, the Pharisees are breaking two of the 10 commandments, no graven images and no gods before the true God of Israel. And they are also profiting from money changing Caesar’s money into shekels to pay your pledge at the Temple. Jesus just forced them to declare which side they were on-Hail Caesar! And giving unto Caesar was working out very well for them.
And what are we to render unto God? Everything! Jesus isn’t saying this stuff over here belongs to empire and politics and this stuff over here is God and spiritual stuff. It all belongs to God. This is the subversive little seed buried in Jesus’s answer. Caesar can say anything on his stupid coin, but God has already stamped the divine image on the human soul. That is basic Genesis chapter one, “God created them in the divine image and likeness.”
Rendering unto God requires remembering you are stamped with the image of God on you. It is not a two-sided coin with God on one side and Caesar on the other, because both sides are saying we are a deity who demands your full allegiance. So the subversive message is this: “Power interests like emperors can pressure you to do stuff you don’t believe in, like taxes. They want to stamp their image on you and sometimes you feel like you can’t escape it, and you have to live with closed-end questions and answers. But don’t forget they are false gods and will not triumph if you realize your heart and mind is already minted with the image of God. When your being is filled with God, then love exists, and love brings open spaces and possibilities. Rendering unto Caesar’s demands really means living in a closed end world of closed hearts, closed minds and closed doors. But giving to God my first allegiance means living with an open heart, open mind, opening the doors to others.
So the question for us this week is this: how shall we live as if we are stamped in the divine image and likeness and everything belongs to God? How do I move from a world of closed end questions and answers, (which are really false choices given by false gods), a place of power and control. How do I live into a place that starts with open-ended questions and answers, a place of mutuality and community? Live in a way that opens things up.