I suppose one of the most familiar verses of the Bible is ‘Render unto Caesar..’ But, despite the fact that we know it so well, it’s not really very easy to interpret. I’ve been thinking and pondering. I’ve preached on it before of course.
I’ve often used the occasion to say something worthy about the paying of taxes; that taxes are a sign of a civilized society if they are justly levied etc. I have a whole speech I could give about how if only we got the world’s tax systems sorted then we could go a long way to ending poverty. Did you know that there are companies operating in the world who have more wealth than the GDP of many small countries and yet they go in and make money out of Zambian copper or Tanzanian minerals and pay almost no tax to those countries? When I was at Christian Aid we spent a lot of time talking about tax justice. And rightly so.
But the more I read this passage and what Jesus says – I don’t think it’s really about tax as such at all. It’s not about money, but about who we are and who we belong to.
It looks as though it was part of a discussion designed to trip Jesus up. The Pharisees were the kind of purists who believed in obeying the commandments to the letter and so they hated idols and graven images – and they were not much keen on the Romans. The Herodians on the other hand were big fans of King Herod and were quite happy to collaborate with the Romans. So, despite the fact that they hated each other they put their heads together – to see whether they could trip up the rabbi from Nazareth. They had completely opposing views about the Romans – but they got together this one time to see which of them Jesus would agree with – or at least, that’s how it seems.
They asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay taxes levied by the Roman Emperor. And it’s a strange question from the start because you could comb the Scriptures for years and you won’t find anything about it being unlawful to pay taxes to a foreign ruler. But Jesus decided not to go there. Instead he asked them to show him a coin – and then said, ‘Render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’. And apparently they were amazed.
His answer has been used to justify contradictory things about taxes and church-state relations ever since. Some have used it to justify supporting the state, even some pretty ruthless and oppressive states. And others have used his argument to say that your first duty is always to God and that it’s right to withhold taxes sometimes or to engage in civil disobediance. Some have said Jesus that outwitted his questioners – they presented him with a choice between God and Caesar, but he said you can support both.
And of course there is something very important about the money we spend – and it is true that with the money we spend or withhold we can change the world. When a country is set free from the slavery of debt – God’s will is done. When someone on the streets finds shelter for even one night – God’s will is done. When we pay taxes so that all people can share in the prosperity of our nation – God’s will is done. When economic sanctions topple a cruel regime – God’s will is done.
But I wonder whether even these responses, important though those issues are, are really a kind of distraction from the main point here. I suspect that to understand what’s going on we have to ask what the significance really was of the image of Caesar on the coin. A denarius in the time of Jesus would have carried the image of the Roman Emperor – and Jews were forbidden to create or carry images of people (it’s written up there on our wall – the ten commandments of course!). And this particular image of Caesar was surrounded by text on one side that said that Caesar (whether Tiberius or Augustus) was Son of God and on the other that he was high priest – Pontifex. Notice that Jesus asks them to think about whose title it was on the coin and not just the image. Even to carry such a coin, let alone, to spend it, was, unless you really had to, to say that someone else other than God was God. The kind of coins that the Romans made, the things they said about their Emperors, were idolatry. Therefore Jesus has no qualms at all about returning such idols to the one who made them – to Caesar. So he says, something like that they can give back to Caesar his grotesque idols…
But then he says something else – he says, ‘Give back to God to the things that are God’s’. And they left him and went away. So now the question is, ‘What are the things that belong to God?’.
We all know the ancient text of the Bible that says that we should never make images to make ourselves Gods. But we also know another text that tells us exactly where we can find the image of God, without making a thing, without melting any metal or carving any wood. Where can we find it? We can find the image of God simply by looking into the face of another human being. And there we find what belongs to God. We do. We are those whom God has stamped with God’s image; male and female, children and old people, the healthy and the sick, the rich and the poor, the tax payers and the tax dodgers, the saints and the sinners and all of us who are both, the beautiful and the lived in, all ethnicities and every kind of personality. We are made in the image of God, and we belong to God, even more than any coin stamped with Caesar’s idolatrous image belonged to him.
This, I suggest, this time round at least, is what this passage might be about. Jesus is not giving a lecture about taxes and church-state relations. He is telling the Herodians and the Pharisees and anyone who has ever needed to know since, that we belong to God, that the image of God is on our faces, that we are God’s.
A denarius, in this period at least, bears the image of Caesar and therefore belongs to Caesar. A human being bears the image of God and therefore belongs to God. That’s the simple take home message for today. You belong to God – and not only just that, but you are as good a way for any of us to see the beauty of the God who made you than any stained glass window, gallery painting or statue. Tertullian, a Christian, who was born shortly after the death of the apostles, put it like this, “The image of Caesar which is on the coin is to be given to Caesar, and the image of God which is in humankind is to be given to God. Therefore you must indeed give your money to Caesar, but yourself to God, for what will remain to God if all be given to Caesar?”
It’s strange isn’t it that lots of people, lots of us, worry about our ‘image’, how we are seen, how people think of us. I know that not many of us here are of the Instagram generation where it’s all about how we look and appear, but we may know people who are part of all that, and it is true that none of us are immune from thinking we might not look great or be all we hoped to be. But the good news is that our most important image is the one we bear as children of God. We may feel more like a denarius or a centime or a penny than a guinea or a crown most days, but we have been cast bearing God’s image and no-one can take that away from us. We belong to God.
C.S.Lewis once said, ‘God doesn’t want something from us. He simply wants us.’ We are not things to be used or tools in God’s plan, but we are people who are loved.
What does it mean to belong to God? It means that our lives, our bodies, our souls, are sacred. That’s not a word we use much now, but it is so important… because it tells us who we are and it speaks so powerfully of the inherent dignity and worth of human beings… And it means that the bodies and souls of other human beings have such dignity too and need to be regarded as such by all of us. We are not economic units, we are not to be valued only by our talents or our usefulness, by our health or age or possibilities, but to be treasured and valued for what we are. The human rights legislation and discourse that some sneer at now actually has its beginnings in this very insight from our Christian faith, that life is sacred, that it has inherent dignity and worth, that no human being can belong to anyone else, but ultimately to God, the God whose image is there in all our faces.
So let us give Caesar in all his present day forms what belongs to him – he is welcome to it, but let us never give to anyone else what belongs only to God. Amen.