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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 29, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 16, 2011

Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22

Taxing questions’

In our Exodus reading, God promises to accompany God’s people unto freedom, in spite of their idolatry (last week we read about their moulding a golden calf as an object of worship) – God’s glory, we read today, is revealed in passing; is known by what it effects, what it brings about, what it makes possible. God’s glory is present in the world, effective in the world, though elusive – the very/holy Spirit of freedom ... In our Gospel, Matthew tells a story about taxes and illustrates it with an imperial coin. In doing so he confronts three idolatries of his day and ours: money, the state, and religion …

The Jews of Jesus’ day were saddled with heavy taxes. In Matthew 17:24-27 we read about a temple tax. They also paid custom taxes and taxes on land. In today’s Gospel we hear of yet another tax, an annual tribute tax paid to Rome: “Is it lawful to pay tax to the Roman emperor, or not?” Why should poor peasants in Israel send their hard-earned money all the way back to Rome and its emperor? Some scholars think that the tribute tax chiefly funded the Roman military. Why should poor peasants in Israel help fund their own military occupation?

As we might expect, Jews of the day disagreed about how to answer this question. Those whom we might call “realists” collaborated and cooperated with Rome and paid the tax. Maybe they did it out of conscience, or maybe as a survival strategy. Who wanted undue attention from Rome? The “idealists” of a more nationalistic bent resisted, resented and protested Roman economic exploitation out of principle (we might think of 17th-century Quakers).

The Pharisees who despised Rome and the Herodians, as their name implies, who cooperated with Rome, were opposing sects, so it’s no surprise that what they really wanted was not an honest answer to a complicated question but rather “to trap Jesus by his speech”. That seemed easy enough. If Jesus agreed that the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, that sounded like capitulation to the oppressive Romans and a renunciation of Jewish nationalism. He would have lost his audience. But to answer in the negative so as to encourage tax evasion was political sedition that would have jeopardised his ministry and endangered anyone who followed his advice.

In an important aside, we should remember that this was one of the charges that led to Jesus’ execution: “We found this one subverting our nation, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and even claiming to be Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2). It was a charge based on Jesus’ many subversions of money, politics and power. In fact, one of the principal criticisms against the early Christians was that they were “atheists” because they refused to bow down to Caesar, to participate in the imperial cult they made the subversive confession “Jesus is Sovereign” (that is, Caesar is not Sovereign), and practiced what eventually was branded an illegal (that is, non-state) religion. The simplest Christian confession is fraught with economic and political implications.

The trick question elicited a trick answer from Jesus. He asked them for the coin that was used to pay the Roman tax (it’s interesting that he himself did not possess the coin), then asked whose image it bore. Most likely the coin in question bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during the years 14-37CE. One side of the coin would have deified Tiberius as a “son of the divine Augustus”. The other side would have honoured him as the “Pontifex Maximus” or “chief priest” of Roman polytheism – which is to say that the two sides of the coin celebrated absolute religious and civil authority for Tiberius.

To a nationalistic Jew who confessed a radical monotheism, such a graven image was religiously offensive and politically humiliating. Certainly much of the crowd would have been repulsed at the political, religious, and economic implications of honouring a pagan “god” by paying a tax to him. What should a conscientious Jew do? How would Jesus respond to this lose-lose proposition?

(We might think, for a moment, about our own coins. Whose image do they bear? What claims to civil and religious authority? What claims to sovereignty? Ought an Aboriginal community, and Aboriginal persons sensitive to colonial violence – I’m thinking of one young person in particular – take part in mainstream economics?)

When Jesus’ questioners said that the coin bore the image of Caesar, he replied with a cryptic and enigmatic answer: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” Rather than making an obvious and inflammatory political statement by denouncing Rome, Jesus sought to evade their trap by way of satire, and a summons to “constant discernment as to how, within the overall claim of God, they [were] to discharge civic obligations” (Brendan Byrne).

What do we owe to God? Merely a temple or state tax, a tax on carbon pollution or a tax on fatty foods, or everything – far more than money? One scholar concludes: “Thus this text offers little or no guidance for tax season … It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?” (Marcus Borg).

At issue is not merely my economic relationship to the government, but my existential relationship with God and neighbour. On that ancient coin was an image of Caesar, and mere money (arguably) is owed to him. On the other hand, and far more importantly, every human being bears the image of God, implying that I “give to God” – and to others in God’s name – wholly and without condition my entire self.

“All things are under God. That’s the message. It is only then … that there are real political and economic implications” (Ross Langmead).

Most strikingly, Jesus lives the answer to the Pharisees’ pernicious question: he renders unto God all that is God’s, offering his own life for the life of the world. That doesn’t leave much for Caesar, does it? So Caesar takes by violence what is God’s by right. The Good News is this: that Caesar’s violence cannot destroy Jesus’ politics of a new world. The crucified and risen Sovereign welcomes us into this politics of the reign of God – whose rule of love is justice, mercy and forgiveness. Let us pray and live: “May your reign come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven …”

How does our faith shape our economic decisions – our buying, saving, giving, and the rest? What one issue about the relationship between faith and money would you most like to talk about in church?Amen.