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Give Back to God What Belongs to God

When it comes to understanding the interaction between Jesus Christ and his opponents, it’s important to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the cultural setting surrounding the events of the Gospel accounts.

In today’s reading from Matthew, we find ourselves amongst Jesus and two (2) groups of people, the Pharisees and the Herodians, who are unlikely allies.

We’re more familiar with the Pharisees, who show up frequently throughout the gospel accounts. These were deeply religious Jewish leaders of their day and ardent nationalists. They deeply resented their Roman occupiers and despised the fact that they were obligated to pay taxes to support a secular government.

Alongside of them, we find the Herodians. This was a loosely organized group of people whose goal was to promote the political and economic influence of the Herod family, who ruled over Galilee and Perea within the Roman Empire at the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry.

On the surface, this passage from Matthew’s gospel seems to be about taxes, specifically, if Jesus thought the religious community should honor a civil government by supporting it with their tax dollars.

Their question was straightforward: “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

After attempting to disarm Jesus by flattering him, a representative from the Pharisees put the question to him.

The purpose of the question is clearly an attempt to force Jesus into a compromised position either with the Jewish people or with the Roman authorities.

On the one hand, if Jesus says the people should pay taxes, then he would risk losing the favor of the people, his own people.

On the other hand, if he says the people should not pay taxes, then he risks offending the sensibilities of the Herodians, who would report him to the civil authorities. Jesus would surely be executed for treason.

This was a classic verbal trap framed as an honest question.

Of course, Jesus saw right through the attempted trap and offered a response that stunned and amazed both the Pharisees and the Herodians.

Jesus response was simply, “Give (back) to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give (back) to God what is God’s.”

The key to understanding the real significance of this interaction is to examine the coin Jesus asked the Pharisees to present to him.

The denarius was a silver coin used throughout the Roman Empire for purposes of commerce and for paying the heavy taxation required by the Romans.

On one side of the coin was the portrait of Tiberius Caesar with the Latin inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” around the coin’s perimeter.

On the other side of the coin was a picture of the Roman goddess of peace, called Pax, with the Latin inscription “High Priest.”

Now we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter.

The Pharisees and the Herodians had the relationship between politics and religion on their minds. Jesus knew this was a far greater issue, namely, the matter of worship.

In his response to the two groups seeking to discredit him, Jesus was striking at the heart of the fundamental conception of the state in antiquity.

In that day and age, the king or emperor was closely linked to the king of the gods. The relationship between the two goes all the back to Numa, the first king of Rome, who struck a deal with Jupiter, the king of the gods.

Numa would supply Jupiter with sacrifices and in turn Jupiter would strengthen Numa’s armies. The belief was that if civic life was separated from the cult of the gods, then disaster would strike the Roman empire.

By the time Jesus appeared on the scene there was historical precedent for this understanding of the relationship between the state and the gods.

After the Roman dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., Rome fell into a period of civil war.

In order to end the fighting, a coalition - known as the Second Triumvirate – was formed by the three (3) strongest forces. Octavian was Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and his chosen heir to the throne. Octavian joined with Marc Antony, a powerful general, and Lepidus, a Roman statesman.

The Roman Empire was divided among the three. Marc Antony was charged with overseeing the administration of the eastern provinces and along the way was said to have been seduced by the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and joined forces with her. The previously united coalition was now battling against itself.

In the year 31 A.D. Octavian’s forces battled against his foes at Actium off the coast of Greece and, after a decisive victory, sent his opponents fleeing for their lives.

Clearly, the gods had shined upon Octavian throughout his conquests. In the year 27 A.D. Octavian named himself Augustus, a title with royal and divine implications.

Upon Octavian’s death, the prestigious and very public reading of his will took place. Citizens of the Roman Empire learned that during Augustus’ reign, he had restored 82 temples that had fallen into disrepair.

For the Romans, the implication was clear: The deal between the Roman emperor and the king of the gods was back on.

So, we return to the coin Jesus inspected.

On one side was the divine Augustus, whose military victories put on display the seemingly positive correlation between the cult of the gods and Roman victory. On the other of the other was the High Priest, Pax, the Roman goddess of peace. Both images on the coin suggested the act of worship was the appropriate response to the Roman emperor.

This was the heart of the matter: no mater whose likeness appeared on a coin, or whose civic name was associated with the divine, there was only One true God.

Jewish, and later Christian, citizens of the Roman empire were to pay the appropriate respect to the civil authorities – in this instance by paying taxes - because behind and beyond them was the One True Authority – God Himself.

Civil authority was delegated and thus was to be honored, but it was not to be worshipped.

Worship belonged – and belongs - to God alone.

Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give back to God what belongs to God.

As the Christian Church, we find ourselves in an increasingly difficult, and at times confusing, time when we think about the relationship between the Church and the State.

What is clear from our gospel reading from this morning is that citizens of this world – whether Christian or not - owe an allegiance to our civil authorities whose purpose is to serve, protect and provide an order for our civic lives.

And we must always remember this authority is delegated. Civic authority is not, and never has been, absolute.

I suspect we’ll need to be wise in our discernment of the relationship between the Church and the State over the coming years, holding in tension this sometimes complicated relationship.

However, Jesus Christ made one matter crystal clear throughout the gospel accounts: The people of God ultimately belong to God and their worship belongs to Him alone.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, the devil showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil suggested that, since he had been given authority over all these kingdoms and all their glory, he was free to give them to anyone who wished.

“So,” said the devil to Jesus, “if you worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4:7)

But Jesus answered, “It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Luke 4:8).

Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give back to God what belongs to God.


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