"Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are Gods" (RCL Matthew 22:21) has entered the popular vernacular. But do we really want to know what it means? For everything belongs to God and therefore there is no neat or convenient distinction between the sacred and the secular, the religious and the political, or what is the Emperor's and the Lord's. It is all one: the successful and the endangered, the safe and the violated, the rock solid and the swept away. And so with those who were disciples of Christ we choose to feed on the word and share our bread; to risk ourselves and to be vulnerable with others; to worship and serve God seeing the face of Christ in everyone who we meet.
This week we have one of those moments I wish I’d witnessed in person – this ancient text, many times translated, still sparkles with the brilliance of the repartee, the sharpness of the retort. It has become part of popular culture quoted well beyond the walls of churches and theological colleges. “ 'Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?' But Jesus, aware of their malice, said ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered him, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor those things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ ”
“Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” has become as much part of popular rhetoric as “I think therefore I am”, or “To be or not to be, that is the question”, or “Play it again Sam”, or “I had a dream”. I don’t presume to understand entirely why these sayings and not others have become part of our everyday vocabulary. They are all snappy, they are all succinct and yet convey volumes, and I suspect that they are somewhat paradoxical and carry great tension. They have become archetypal, that is, they speak at many levels, including those beyond easy conscious access.
All of these sayings have “come adrift” from their original location and therefore meaning. And have probably, maybe because of their paradox, always been prone to misinterpretation. There are many people at the moment, particularly some politicians, who would use this to mean that those in the church should keep their opinions to themselves when it comes to social, or industrial, or environmental matters. That the state and the church must never meet. Others would see a distinction between the body and the soul, the eternal and the temporary. Etc. This and other texts taken in isolation have been understood and misunderstood to describe all sorts of schisms.
St Matthew would have been bemused if not horrified by this interpretation. He has, after all, just finished giving a very strongly worded theological commentary on the social and political events that had rocked his community – the sacking of Jerusalem. And the actions and teachings of the historical Jesus which Matthew relays to us are filled with strongly worded judgements about the social, religious and political issues of his day.
So if that’s not what is being said, what is meant? Well let’s work our way through, or down through the layers. It might be worth beginning our search by thinking about how we approach paradox itself. Paradox involves the tension between supposed opposites, two simultaneous truths that create a dissonance that is ultimately creative. For example Moses recognised the presence of God in the bush that burned and yet was not consumed. To experience the sacred one must often endure this tension between competing realities. If you have ever had a mystical experience you will know that one reality is interrupted by another experience which we also acknowledge as reality. If the mystical experience is to be more than just a strange internal channel of an entertainment streaming service, a psychic aberration, then you need to live in the knowledge of the two realities.
It is also worth noting the storytelling and rhetorical tradition that Jesus and Matthew would have been familiar with, that of the twist in the tale, the contrast between the first half and the second half of a story. The point of the story, the “truth” was in the contrast, the tension, in the sting in the tale. So we know from the outset then that the truth, or truths, of this saying is not going to be in the separation of what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God.
Our reading from Isaiah states in very clear triumphant language that God is the god of all, even those who do not know him! God is so much in charge of everything that even Cyrus, who does not know or acknowledge the Holy one of Israel, will do God’s will. In the light of this tradition there is no way we can read “Give unto Caesar” as somehow being separate from giving unto God that which is God’s, for everything is of God. And of course other readings such as Psalm 24:1 states very clearly that the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it!
And yet this world view brings no comfort, indeed great discomfort, in the light of the evening news. If we understand God’s power as being absolute then how do we understand an earth which quakes and causes tens of thousands of children to die? How do we understand the existence of leaders who instruct their troops to carpet bomb civilians or to strap explosives to themselves and to seek their own death to promote their vision?
We need to go a little deeper. What sort of power do emperor’s have? The power to control, to order, to enforce, to extract payment from the people. What sort of power does Jesus portray God as having? The power to love, to suffer with, to suffer for, to make the payment for the people.
Before Jesus began his ministry he went into the wilderness and was tempted. He was tempted to be useful and to turn stones into bread but chose instead to feed upon the word of God; he was tempted to save himself but chose instead not to tempt God to spare him; he was tempted to rule all that he saw but chose instead to worship and serve only God.
Part of the painful and yet potentially life giving paradox that we live with is the tension between these two truths. That God is the all powerful creator of all and yet God made god’s self known in the life of one who was a vulnerable, self giving, servant – true God of true God and fully human. Able to still the waves and yet not prepared to save himself.
‘Give therefore to the emperor those things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ ” All things are God’s! There is no area of life that is not God’s. Surely therefore we are to live all of our life knowing that it is God’s. And to live in the world knowing that this too is God’s. Sometimes that means paying our taxes like everyone else and sometimes that might mean with-holding our taxes with the knowledge that our allegiance to God is greater and first. And that as a companion of Christ we choose to stand with those who are not favoured by the emperor. And bare the consequences!
There is both joy and fear, strength and vulnerability, in knowing that we live in a world that is all God’s, that is not conveniently separated in to secular and spiritual, political and religious, the emperor’s and the Lord’s. It is all one: the successful and the endangered, the safe and the violated, the rock solid and the swept away. And so with those who were disciples of Christ we choose to feed on the word and share our bread; to risk ourselves and to be vulnerable with others; to worship and serve only God seeing the face of Christ in everyone who we meet.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come and make yourself known to us in every part of life.