Once upon a time, a man fell in love with the woman of his dreams. They were perfect for each other, except for one minor problem: She was a Duke fan and he was a UNC fan. He decided to make the ultimate sacrifice and become a Duke fan so he went to the doctor and asked if there was an easy way to do this. The doctor replied, "Yes, it's a very simple procedure. What we do is go in and remove half your brain. When you wake up, you will be a Duke fan." The man agrees, and the next week he showed up for his surgery. After he woke up the doctor came up to him concerned. "Sir, I apologize, but there was a mix-up during the surgery. Instead of removing half your brain we accidentally removed 3/4 of it. How do you feel?" The man sat up, looked around, and said "GO NC STATE!"
We here in the Triangle know about divided loyalties, don’t we? I’m sure you’ve seen the flags and bumper stickers that say, “House Divided” with Duke on one side and UNC on the other, or UNC on one side and State on the other. Even if you don’t care about sports at all, you probably feel some loyalty to one of the schools around here. In our house things are extra-confusing; Both Elizabeth and I were raised UNC fans. Even though neither of us went to college there, the loyalty stuck. Now Elizabeth works at Duke, and both of us are in graduate school programs at UNC! So we root for UNC AND Duke (I know, blasphemy!) when they’re playing other teams. When they play each other, our long history as UNC fans tends to override those friendly feelings towards Elizabeth’s employer. Even in our confusion we agree on one thing for sure: NC State is irrelevant (What do you get when you cross UNC with a groundhog? 6 more weeks of bad football! How many Duke grads does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One. He just holds it up and waits for the world to revolve around him).
Our passage from Matthew is, in many senses, about divided loyalties. But the loyalties in question here are much more important than which football or basketball team we cheer for. What we render to Caesar and to God shapes our whole lives, our commitments, who and what we care about most deeply, how we raise our children, what we give our money and energy and time to. So what are you giving to Caesar and what are you giving to God? What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Is this passage really about paying taxes or is there a much deeper question at play? What does this passage say about the kingdom that Jesus has come to inaugurate and how we should live to make that kingdom a reality? These are vitally important questions for how we practice our faith and if you think they are easy to answer, you’ve probably missed the point of Jesus’s teaching here. So let’s dig in.
This famous exchange between Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Herodians is a continuation of the confrontation that we have been studying over the past few weeks between Jesus and the powers that be in the Temple. Jesus, never afraid of a little holy conflict, has marched into the center of religious and political power and set about disrupting business as usual. He is showing us how to be, as Bayard Rustin put it, “angelic troublemakers.” After flipping over the tables of the money-changers and occupying the Temple for a day, Jesus and his disciples retreated for the night before returning the next day to preach good news of God’s kingdom to the people, prepared to take on anyone who tried to prevent this gospel from taking root. Over the past few weeks, Jesus has made it clear to us that the kingdom does not necessarily belong to those who think they are sitting pretty. The kingdom belongs to anyone who does God’s will, anyone who bears fruit, especially those who have been on the B list, those the religious leaders have considered unobvious and unworthy and unclean. Jesus has even gone so far as to say that the prostitutes and tax collectors, the lowest of the low in the eyes of these Pharisees, are going into the kingdom ahead of them!
It’s no wonder they were riled up. The Pharisees are so incensed that they are willing to work with some characters they consider unsavory just to silence this pesky prophet from Galilee. We sometimes conflate all these different factions who find themselves on the wrong side of Jesus but we should be clear about the motivations and values of each if we want to understand what is going on here. The Herodians, with whom the Pharisees team up to lay their latest trap for Jesus, are collaborators with Roman rule. The Herodians were loyal to the puppet-king Herod and helped Rome enforce its order on Israel in return for power and wealth. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were far more ambivalent when it came to Roman rule and were sometimes outright hostile to it, especially when Rome tried to regulate religious life. So when the Pharisees sent their disciples with the Herodians to ask Jesus about paying the tax to Rome, they are forming an unlikely coalition with a singular objective—to silence this Jesus before he brings them all down. So they lay a trap for him. The Pharisees, who have already been engaging with Jesus face to face will send their disciples in disguise with the Herodians, and after some truly over-the-top flattery, they finally ask Jesus a gotcha question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
I know what some of you are thinking. You’re picturing your tax bill from April and you’re thinking, please say no, please say no, please say no. Before you get too excited, I want you to realize that this isn’t a general question about all taxes. This is a question about a very specific tax—the tribute tax that Roman occupying forces had imposed on Judea since 63 B.C.E. It was a burdensome tax meant to remind conquered people who was in charge, a means of establishing authority and filling the coffers of Rome at the expense of the poor folk of Judea. Some peasants like Jesus’ family would have owed 50% of their income directly to Caesar in return for the pleasure of his domination. It was a tax that all Jews—save those collaborators like the Herodians—would have opposed in principle. It even led to several uprisings including one right around the time of Jesus’ birth led by a man named Judas from Jesus’s home, Galilee. Jesus surely would have heard stories of this growing up. On top of all that, the tax was only to be paid in Roman currency—currency that featured the image of Caesar with the inscription, Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus. Does anyone recall the first two commandments of the Ten Commandments we talked about a few weeks ago? (You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make for yourself an idol or graven image). These coins were not only symbols of Rome’s brutal subjugation, they were blasphemous! They claimed that Caesar was divine and worthy of the loyalty and deference of all people.
When the group of Pharisee disciples and Herodians come to Jesus asking whether it is “lawful” to pay the tax, they aren’t asking about the law of the land. It was obviously Rome’s law that they pay the tax. They are asking Jesus about God’s law. Another way to phrase their question would be: is it right, is it just, does God want us to pay the tax to Rome? They expect him to say “no” so that they can report him to the Roman authorities and have him arrested as a rebel. If he says yes, he loses all credibility as a prophet, aligns himself with the oppressors of the people, and appears to be unconcerned with the blasphemous nature of the Roman cult of the emperor. It is quite a crafty trap. But Jesus sees right through it. They won’t be able to outsmart him that easily. In classic Jesus fashion, he doesn’t answer their question but proceeds to turn the tables on them. “Why do you tempt me, you hypocrites?” he fires back. “Show me the coin used for the tax.” Now remember that they are in the Temple so even having this blasphemous coin on you would have been against God’s law. Jesus is already forcing them to reveal their hypocrisy by producing the blasphemous coin they are trying to use the entrap him and revealing that they don’t really care about what is right in God’s eyes. He then asks the poignant question, “Whose image is on this coin and whose title?” To which they reply, “Caesar’s.” Then he says to them “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” By asking first whose image is on the coin, then delivering his punchline, Jesus means for the hearer to go the next step and ask, “What belongs to God and what is God’s image stamped on?” The answer is that all life and creation belong to God and that we all have God’s image stamped on us. Everything belongs to God and we are to render our whole lives as a response to God’s gracious work and love. If you stop at the first half of Jesus’ response (give to Caesar), then you miss the whole point. The second half of the statement trumps the first. Give to God what is God’s. And what is God’s? Everything. The text then says “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”
Stanley Hauerwas says this about this moment of amazement: “Unfortunately, throughout much of Christian history, Christians have not been amazed by this answer. Rather, they have assumed that they know what Jesus meant when he said we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. It is assumed that Christians are a people of double loyalty to God and the state.” But this is not what Jesus is saying at all. One need only go back a few chapters in Matthew to hear Jesus contradict that sentiment when he said: “No one can serve two masters, for a servant will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Wealth (or God and Caesar or God and Knowledge or God and Power or God and Violence or God and…).” Jesus doesn’t believe in divided loyalties—he didn’t then and he doesn’t now. Jesus cleverly avoided answering the gotcha question of the Pharisees and Herodians; he refuses to validate their either/or zero sum game by saying “you’re right and you’re wrong.” But in doing so, he puts us all in a very difficult spot. We must now reckon with a God who wants all of us, not just the parts that are left over after we pay tribute to Caesar.
Y’all, there are lots of bad interpretations of this passage out there. This passage has been used to justify all kinds of nonsense; typically folks want to use it to make a point about paying taxes to the US government or to justify showing deference to Caesar in our public lives and saving religion for our private lives. Just this week I read a quote from Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, evangelical advisor to the President (and modern day Herodian if there ever was one), who, in response to the take a knee NFL protests said “Many of these players claim to be strong Christians, and I believe they are, but I think they ought to remember what Jesus said — render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. Jesus said we have a responsibility toward our government. We owe our government not just our taxes, but we owe them our respect and our prayers.” Now, first of all this is a misrepresentation of what the players are doing—they are respectfully and peacefully assuming a posture of prayer to bring awareness to police brutality in communities of color. They are literally demonstrating, in spite of what Rev. Jeffress implies, that they take their responsibility to their government very seriously, a responsibility that includes calling the government to righteousness and justice when it needs to be held accountable.
Second of all, as we’ve just discovered, Jeffress is horribly misrepresenting what Jesus is saying in this passage of Scripture. What I’d like to offer to Rev. Jeffress is a couple questions: If you believe the National Anthem is so sacred that Black men peacefully and respectfully and prayerfully kneeling during it to call attention to an injustice makes you irrationally angry, might the balance of what you are rendering to Caesar and God be off in your life? As a Christian, why do you feel the need to defend so unquestioningly the symbols of the state over and against the very lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ? I know people have strong feelings about this, including many of us in this room, but I’d like for us to seriously consider as followers of Jesus, why are we so disturbed by someone not rendering full and complete loyalty to the state? Why do we feel the need to come to Caesar’s defense when someone decides to kneel to a different God?
The question of the relationship between church and state, between God and Caesar, has always been a pivotal question for Baptist people, and for our country. We clearly need to keep wrestling with it. But I would like to take us down a different path today. I would like us to consider expanding our definition of Caesar beyond “the state.” I want us to consider the fact that Caesar can be anything in our lives that distracts us from offering our full loyalty to the God whose image we bear. Caesar can be anything that promises you peace and meaning, but that never fully delivers on that promise. Caesar can be anything that you think deserves giving your life to, but that doesn’t lead to the abundant life God wants for you. We’re all so busy offering our lives to this and that, that I think we may have more than one Caesar in competition with God for our loyalty!
So what are the Caesars in your life? What things have crowded out God in your heart? How much of you is left for God after you show allegiance to your Caesars with your time, energy, and money? Are you giving to God what is God’s? What things has our church allowed to siphon our love and loyalty away from God and the work of the kingdom? Do you think if we all committed to giving God what is God’s we would ever have to worry about making our budget? Do you think if we all committed to giving God what is God’s we would be satisfied with attending worship twice a month, or coming to Alpha Omega whenever you don’t have a sporting event or homework to do? Would we be satisfied with coming to church once in a while but never responding to God’s call to take the good news into the streets of our community? Would we feel like our labor for God’s kingdom was a burden and keeping us from other “important” tasks? The great Dorothy Day used to say, “Once you give to God what is God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar” but I’m afraid we’ve reversed this. We too often give to our Caesars first and then try to come to God with our leftovers, and more often than not, we have nothing left to give.
I know how hard this is. But don’t let the size of the task discourage you from trying. Don’t let the end destination keep you from beginning the journey. We have too much good work to do together for anyone of us to be on the sidelines. Giving everything to God sounds impossible in the complex world of divided loyalties that we live in, but the good news is that the way to begin is simple. It’s by putting one foot in front of the other as we follow Jesus together. Maybe you need to incorporate one short spiritual practice into your morning and evening routine in order to frame your day around God instead of your Caesars. Maybe you need to give up one of the many things you have committed your time and energy to (or your children’s time and energy to) to begin to realign what is ultimately important. Maybe you need start giving regularly or increase your regular gift to the church and the work of God’s kingdom in Cary. Maybe you need to commit to coming to worship every week and spending more time with your community of faith. Whatever it is in your life, Jesus is calling you to give more than your leftovers to God. Jesus is calling you to give to God what is God’s—your life, your love, your heart. In return, the kingdom of God—where all are welcome, where justice and peace reign, where Caesar’s domination is already over, where abundance and joy are found—is yours.