Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10
Sunday 22 October 2023
How do you, in your life, give to God what is God’s?
In your choosing, do you first give part of yourself to something else?
Or do you offer something first to God and then attend to the distribution and division of what remains?
In our Gospel reading we may hear what seems on the surface to be words advocating for a neat division between church and state; between temporal and spiritual authority or perhaps, in an especially Protestant sense, a division between our private life where religion is essentially a domestic matter, and a state power to which we owe civic obedience.
This interpretation may seem a neat bit of specific advice Jesus is offering, but that reading does not fit the context nor fit comfortably with the rest of Jesus’ teaching.
We need first to look at what is happening here. The scene is painted as acutely hostile from the outset. The Pharisees, we are told, sent a delegation along with the Herodians, with the express purpose of “entrapping” Jesus in what he would say. This is purposefully, a dishonest and manipulative staged encounter. It is designed to trick Jesus into saying something that will be his undoing. For this exchange occurs in Holy Week- we are only days from Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. This encounter was meant to provide evidence to convict Jesus or at least turn others against him.
Even the partnership between Pharisees and Herodians is unusual. It is interesting how often for the sake of personal or political gain, previous enemies can become allies. The Herodians were often the wealthy Jewish supporters of Herod Antipas, the ruler who collaborated with the Roman occupiers. The Pharisees were more zealous for the law and would have eschewed the religious compromises the Herodians made to maintain the relationships with Herod and Rome. And yet here they are together, carefully crafting just the right question to trap Jesus.
And why was the questions so tricky? Well firstly we should be clear on the fact that this is not tax as we understand taxation. This particular tax, (and there were numerous taxes for first century Palestinian Jews), was an Imperial tax paid as tribute to support the Roman occupation of Israel. It was a tax on the oppressed to support their own oppression and therefore greatly resented. This of course goes a long way to explaining why Jewish tax collectors were so despised.
So Jesus is in a no win situation. If he says it is not lawful to pay taxes, the Herodians will have him for sedition, and if he says he will pay taxes, his followers would be dismayed, and his prophetic ministry would be called into question. This was a malicious set up.
But not only is Jesus show that he is aware of the manipulations that are going on here, but he is able to skilfully turn the question back, revealing their motivations while at the same time pointing to the truth.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” asks Jesus, when they produce a Roman coin.
Andrew McGowan underlines the religious hypocrisy at work here noting that;
… if the coinage of Tiberius, who was then the emperor, is imagined as the prop used for this exercise, then in this setting the denarius combined imperialism and idolatry, since Tiberius’ denarii depicted his mother Livia as a goddess.
In asking his interrogators whose likeness is shown, Jesus is calling to mind the Jewish prohibition on graven images. No Jew would ever have an image of Abraham or Moses, let alone an image of God, so to be ‘owning’ such a coin proclaiming the divinity of the lineage of the emperors would be to break the commandments.
But there is a deeper move going on than just alerting the Pharisees to their double-minded ways in even presenting the coin. Jesus is ever calling us all to a higher way of righteousness and he is doing the same again when he says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Where his enemies come to Jesus with only deceit and manipulation, Jesus utters this phrase not so we know which parts of ourselves and our resources should be set aside for God and which parts we should dutifully and obediently be giving to the state, but so we may understand that in God’s kingdom, there is no division. What is God’s? Everything! The whole universe and everything that is in it. Jesus is not here being deferential to Caesar, but dismissive. Caesar has no claim upon him. Jesus, filled with the Spirit, sees clearly that these claims to divinity of empire builders are no threat to the God who created it all and who continues to hold all life in loving attention. There is an inherent and unbreakable wholeness to reality that is not reduced by the war machines and colonising power of Rome.
How do we give to God what is God’s?
Perhaps we need to begin with humility, knowing that it is not ours to divide. This word division has had a lot of airtime and repetition in this country in the past months. There is a danger now that those who come not with honest listening and an openness to learning but with the aim of manipulation and entrapment, will continue to invoke the spectre of division to silence calls for justice. The very word has become a way to quickly shut down any movement for change or reform. It is easy to cry division, but not so easy to live with a God’s eye view of the world that sees the inherent wholeness of creation and the dignity of all humankind. We are called to commit to one another, even our enemies, knowing that God holds us all equally in mercy. We are called to live in faith that the hidden oneness at the heart of everything is strong enough to hold us even when we disagree or struggle to understand. To see this reality is to not place ourselves at the centre but offer instead to God the whole beauty and immensity that is God’s, knowing that our part to play and what we are to give back can be guided by the Spirit.
Jesus calls us to remember to whom we already belong. Our lives are not to be divided between masters, but rather to offer our all to the God who calls us by the Spirit, revealing how our lives can be an offering to others from what has been given so freely to us.
So we pray in these words written by Steven Shakespeare to help us remember the hidden wholeness of everything;
God of servant rule,
your kingdom breaks our tangled webs
where state and church collude
to worship power and trade on fear:
grant us the wit and will
to give you what is your own,
no more nor less
than all the world and time;
through Jesus Christ, whose kingdom comes.
Andrew McGowan “The Tax Coin” https://abmcg.substack.com/p/the-tax-coin?fbclid=IwAR0i_QWUaf0JXxeVueiyUy77ECn2DurwuWPL5Q-bOfT0lyH038QRg6BNzUI
 Andrew McGowan, “The Tax Coin”