Season 2 - Week 5
“Integrity in the wider culture”
It is hard to get excited about tax. Indeed the late fantasy author Terry Pratchett once had one of his characters exclaim “there was death and taxes, and taxes was worse, because at least death didn’t happen to you every year.” For Jesus, tax became a question of life and death when two rival groups questioned him in an attempt to catch him out and upend his integrity.
It seems the entrapment of an interviewee in a public debate is not an invention of the era of mass communications. Had Jesus answered that tax should not be paid to Caesar then he would have upset the Herodians who had some form of association to King Herod and relied on Rome’s support in order to stay in power. If on the other hand Jesus had replied that tax should be paid then this would have infuriated the Pharisees who saw Rome’s rule as an offense to God. Even more importantly if Jesus had publically stated that Jews should not pay taxes then although he would have won popular support from his audience he would also have risked incurring the wrath of the Romans for insurgency. But had he encouraged tax paying he could have been written off as a Roman collaborator. It was a very clever and cunning catch 22 question.
When the Pharisees and Herodians challenged Jesus’ integrity, he called out their hypocrisy. Jesus demonstrates great wisdom and skill in giving an answer that no one could refute. In a deft rhetorical jujitsu-like move Jesus turns the force of the attack question into an opportunity to teach something positive about the nature of Christian citizenship.
Jesus's answer is to give the image-bearer his due, which as all Jewish religious leaders would have known, could also be understood as a command to give God his due.
As every human being is made in God's image, therefore God deserves the lives of each and every one of us.
I would be cautious about trying to build an entire theology of church and state on this intense and under pressure interchange. Yet we can deduct from Jesus' words that it is not inappropriate for Christians to pay taxes even to regimes who do not abide by our principles. However, Jesus's brilliant response also shows that as believers we have a more basic responsibility - to offer up to God lives of consecrated service. Caesar’s poll tax demanded a denari (about a day's wages) but God should rightfully receive, not a tithe, a portion or a segment of our wealth, but all that we are.
When it comes to living lives of integrity in a culture no longer ruled by authorities that share Christian beliefs and values Jesus shows us that there are some responsibilities we have to fulfill towards the state but there is a higher call to offer God all all that he has entrusted to us to steward.
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?’
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’
And they were amazed at him.
At the time, Jesus was questioned about taxes. If this scenario happened today, it's just as likely that he'd be asked whether or not we should shop with companies who don't pay tax. Or whether it's better to buy music from an online service which doesn't pay the artists, or to buy direct from the artist, or just find it somewhere online and download it for free? Or perhaps whether the ads we endure on the free apps cover the developer costs enough to warrant our refusal to pay to upgrade to the full version?
Think back over all the things you've bought in the last month. How did you choose the retailer? What influences your choice of product or seller? Who is benefitting from your purchase? Are you convinced you're making the right choices?
There aren't any easy answers in this - it's a question of finding your own line of integrity in what you do. But that means knowing your values and making some decisions based on those values.
Krish points out that if the people who question Jesus in this passage stay focussed on money and taxes, they've missed the point.
You are made in the image of God.
Not just physically, but your character, your skills, your very being all demonstrate something of who God is.
Take some time to reflect on that now. How is God's image reflected in you? What does it mean to offer him your life?