“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Lk 20:25)
Taxes have always been controversial. Some people hate taxes, and thus love Mark Twain’s joke about them; “What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin.” Other people, however, actually like taxes, and so might love Billionaire business Mark Cuban’s words on taxes “While some people might find it distasteful to pay taxes, I don’t. I find it patriotic.” I actually identify a little bit with both Marks, Cuban and Twain. Wherever your sympathies lie, taxation has been a part of life since the dawn of civilization and has always been controversial.
Taxes were also very controversial in Jesus’ time. In today’s chosen reading, the Pharisees are again trying to catch Jesus up in a no win controversy by asking him, is it right for the Jewish people to pay taxes to Rome. If he said it is not right to pay taxes, the Roman and Jewish leaders would call him an anarchist revolutionary. If he said it is right to pay taxes, the Jewish people would think him a sell-out to the unjust Roman occupiers of Israel, whose foot was on the throat of this proud people.
Jesus, as always, finds a third way which puts both parties in their place, and raises God to His proper place. He also provides us with a profound teaching on stewardship which is timely today, just one week before Thanksgiving and Stewardship Sunday. But first let’s get back to what happened in Jesus’ confrontation with the authorities. Jesus answers their question about if it is right to pay taxes, with another question. Holding out a Roman coin he asks them ‘Whose image and likeness is this?” they answer “Caesar’s.” Then, says Jesus, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The power of Jesus’ famous statement endures even today, but his teaching is all the more powerful if we recall the context of Old Testament theology on which it is based.
Jesus is taking us back to the beginning, the very first chapters of Genesis, where God creates the world and everything in it from nothing. At the peak of His creation, God creates humankind in His own image and likeness, male and female He created them. Can you see where we are going here? Thousands of years before the Roman empire decided to create money stamped with the image and likeness of its creator, the emperor; God decided to create human beings stamped with the image and likeness of our creator.
So in Jesus’ response “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” he is both affirming the legitimacy of government taxation, while at the same time revealing it to be all but irrelevant. Ceasar’s image and likeness is on money. It’s his coin anyway, so give it back to him. It’s just a shiny piece of metal which spreads Roman commerce and power. But you and I, him and her, we are made and stamped with the image and likeness of God. You belong to God. Not just a little part of you, but all of you, and as we heard in today’s reading from the first Sunday of advent, we are infinitely more precious than silver or gold or anything in creation!
So give back to God what is God’s means, give your whole lives, your time, your wealth, your heart to God, for it is his to begin with. Everything we have and everything we are is God’s already. What will make us joyful and bring glory to God is to give ourselves daily back to him, as stewards of all we have and all we are.
Yes, governments and businesses need money to function. Churches and church goers need money to function, for taxes, groceries, insurance and clothes; everything we need to survive and thrive. God acknowledges these needs, but God is not just another line in our budget, or a fee for service, where we give some time and money so that we stay in His good graces. It is true that God does want a generous portion of our wealth and time given in stewardship, but first, he wants all of our hearts and lives offered to him. ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God,’ we heard today, ‘and all these (other) things will be given to you as well.’ For while all tithes and taxes are temporary, in giving back to God what is God’s we invest our very lives into His eternal trust. This Christ-centered stewardship pays dividends throughout our lives in this world, and stores up treasures in heaven unto the next, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal, now and always, amen