While it’s not absolutely essential for the understanding of Jesus’ encounter in Matthew in 22:15-22, it’s kind of interesting to engage in a little historical contextual exploration.
If you think America’s political body is fractious and fragmented then picture the state of Roman Palestine in the time of Jesus. Jewish body politic in the 1st-century shows us a nation suffering under the enormous pressures of conquest and occupation.
Five major Jewish factions contented with one another. Between them lay acute differences regarding the status and interpretation of the religious tradition. However, the main point of sharp conflict between them concerned the appropriate response to the Roman occupation. Two choices presented – collaborate or resist. Resistance involved another question: how violently?
The Sadducees, the religiously conservative, hereditary priestly caste, collaborated with the Romans in order to preserve their power base in the Temple. A functioning Temple was important for the Romans who used it as the Inland Revenue Service for their Palestinian provinces. The Sadducees lived in terror of any social unrest that might jeopardize their privilege and bring the Romans down on their priestly heads. Thus, Jesus’ power over the crowds made him a target for Sadducee enmity.
The Herodians, the aristocracy of the Hasmonean Dynasty of Herod the Great and his depraved sons provided another focus for collaboration. Herod had been the last ruler of an independent Jewish State. The Romans subdivided Israel into provinces, appointing three of Herod’s sons as puppet rulers. The Herodians were more than collaborators. Unlike the Sadducees, they were also assimilationists. They constituted a Greek-speaking, culturally cosmopolitan, designer wearing, fast living, pleasure-seeking 1st-century elite. If the Herodians had such a thing as an economic philosophy it would have resembled trickledown economics. They didn’t care about fidelity to God. As people living at the apex of the pyramid, insulated from the concerns of lesser mortals, God was simply a primitive artifact of a superstitious past. Religion could be useful but not in a way that mattered to the Herodians personally, but only as a tool for the political manipulation of the masses.
The Pharisees were the religiously progressive party, careful to oppose the occupation through keeping themselves apart from any involvement in governing. They formed the main party of political moderation. Their influence lay outside Jerusalem in the synagogues of the countryside. They promoted their progressive religious interpretation through widespread sponsorship of education. It’s interesting to speculate that a Pharisee school probably provided Jesus with his education. Staunchly opposed to the occupation, they nevertheless, firmly rejected violence as a tool of resistance.
The Zealots or Sicario were a first century equivalent to the Taliban. They engaged in widespread campaigns of assassination against Roman officials and Jewish collaborators. Committed to the violent overthrow of Rome they also violently intimidated local Jewish populations as it suited their interests.
The Essenes, the fifth faction, are known to us principally through the excavation of one of their settlements at Qumran. It’s here that archeologists unearthed the treasure trove known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes were separatist survivalists who refused to have anything to do with both the Romans as well as their fellow Jews. Hold-up in communities in isolated parts of the country – they waited for the day of God’s liberation of Israel with the coming of the Messiah.
Matthew 32:15-22 paints a startling picture of Pharisees and Herodians consorting together to entrap Jesus. Matthew’s account is startling because no Pharisee would have let a Herodian’s shadow fall across his path, let alone be seen in public together. We are familiar with political necessity at times making for strange bedfellows. When Jesus asked for a coin, it would have been a Herodian who produced it. It was blasphemy for a Pharisee to possess a coin with the head of a foreign God (Caesar) imprinted on it.
The Pharisees get a bad press in the Gospels, esp. in Matthew. This is less a reflection of Jesus’ conflict with them, for in most ways Jesus’ teaching and politics were strikingly similar to that of the Pharisees. Matthew singles-out the Pharisees because in his own day the principal contention lay between his second-generation Christian Community and the emergent Rabbinic Movement of a reconstructed Judaism. Matthew projects much of his conflict with the rabbis back into the time of Jesus where he depicts a relationship of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, who were the rabbis’ religious forebears.
The gist of this encounter between Jesus and his interlocutors relates to the thorny problem of taxation. In this context, the question concerned the dispute between Jews about whether it was breaking the Covenant with God to pay taxes to Caesar, who claimed the divine status of a god.
The Pharisees and Herodians seemed to have found common cause together in mounting a two-pronged assault on Jesus, attempting to box him in. If Jesus answered in the affirmative that it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he committed blasphemy. If he rejected paying taxes, he committed treason. So the strategy was to flatter him with the title of teacher and watch which way he jumped.
Jesus jumps out of the trap, startlingly suggesting a separation between church and state. His answer offends both groups while depriving them of the satisfaction of hearing the jaws of their trap snap closed. Jesus’ answer thus angered the Herodians, while offending the Pharisees.
Render to Caesar the things belonging to Caesar and to God the things belonging to God seems a simple solution, but as we know all too well, one that requires a complex negotiation of dual and competing allegiances? How much is owed to Caesar and how much to God?
Applying the text in a new context
For preachers in communities where the fall pledge drive is a challenging, reoccurring, yearly tradition, Matthew’s text is a gift offered by the compilers of the lectionary. The crude interpretation of this text would lead me to say, hey folks, you pay your taxes so pay-up on your church pledge! In more authoritarian traditions some preachers even suggest that there is a rough parity between the amount of tax you pay to the government and the quota of your hard earned wealth the church has a claim on. To my mind, this is a dangerous approach because it invites people to infect their attitude towards God with the same level of resentment and cynicism they feel towards the IRS.
It’s human nature not to want to pay taxes or at least to not want to pay too much in tax. But in the US, the resentment about paying tax is unique in the Western World. Everyone assumes that current proposals for tax reform mean lower, not higher taxes, irrespective of which group becomes the main beneficiary of the reductions.
The quality of our lives is seriously impacted by the chronic underfunding of public services in the forms of roads, bridges, railways, and the national grid. Yet, at the same time, we believe we should be paying less tax. Isn’t there an inconsistency in our thinking here?
I have come to the conclusion that the deep resentment Americans feel about paying taxes is rooted in two related factors. In this last week’s E-news epistle I wrote about the discrepancy between a year-on-year rising GDP and a plummeting sense of national wellbeing. Actually, 1979 was the last year that the GDP and our sense of national wellbeing mirrored each other.
The other problem is that we feel we don’t experience any benefit from the taxes we pay. We all know that taxes pay for infrastructure, but when you live in Providence, which is a typical example in the NE Corridor, we see our taxes disappearing while the infrastructure continues to crumble around us.
I was listening to an NPR reporter asking a group of Danes why they didn’t mind paying a tax rate that seems to Americans an abuse of government. They replied, No, we don’t mind at all because look at what we get for our taxes: free healthcare, free maternity support, free childcare, free education from preschool to university graduation. I believe that if Americans experienced such benefits, they might consider a higher tax rate an acceptable price to pay for such benefits. Imagine, no childcare, no healthcare, no children’s education or college expenses. How rich would you feel then?
Ideally, our taxes should be an expression of our gratitude for living in this wonderful country. We face many real problems as we transition from the Pax Americana of the post-1945 period during which the US enjoyed the lion’s share of global prosperity. we now face a future in which we too, are subject to the whims and capriciousness of trans-global capitalism. However, the insecurity of an unpredictable future is something not to be feared but welcomed as a catalyst for unleashing new national resourcefulness and energy.
It’s important, however, that our energies are guided by sound and unchanging values and principles. Whether it be income tax or church pledge, Jesus’ words render under Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God the things which belong to God would suggest we start out from a place of gratitude for the good things we enjoy. Our lives remain incomparably rich by any measuring.
We’re all in this together. Bonds of affection tie us to one another. Be it at the level of personal, family or community relationships, together we share a common life. We’ve been reminded in this last week by George W. Bush, Barak Obama, and John McCain that our concept of nationhood and good government lie in the enduring values and ideals that have made America such a bright beacon for the world. That we fail to live up to these ideals is to be expected, but we must never retreat from them just because the going gets rocky. We have a great deal to be thankful for.
The Pharisees rightly understood that all things belong to God. Jesus was not challenging this, but asking what does it mean for all things to belong to God? God is not a tyrant busily collecting and banking our dues, muttering mine, mine, all mine. That all things to belong to God – is to recognize our debt of gratitude for life, and to express that gratitude in our own generous living.
Gratitude for life imposes the responsibilities of generous living upon us. Whether it’s in the form of taxes in our civic life or working to realize kingdom expectations in the world through our participation in the life of the Church, through both we render to God our debt of personal gratitude for the love we share in our relationships together.
Popular culture poses the question: can you feel the love? When you consider your membership of this community, can you feel the love? Underneath the fears that threaten to divide us from one another, can you sense the love? This fall, as you conduct your spiritual inventory in order to reconnect with the values that matter to you, can you feel the love? You don’t, I hear you say. Then there’s only one remedy. Act generously today, and I promise you, you’ll begin to feel love’s burn.