“We know that you are sincere,” they said to Jesus. “We know that you teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Matthew had to warn us at the beginning that we were about to witness a plot designed to entrap Jesus, or we would have read those words and said to ourselves, “How nice of them to say that.”
Pharisees and Herodians make strange bedfellows, but stranger things have happened in politics. Judea was a province of the Roman Empire, and the population was heavily taxed to support the army and government that occupied what used to be Jewish land. The name Herodians is shorthand for supporters of the political status quo, men who saw nothing wrong with Roman rule and very likely benefitted handsomely from it. The Pharisees were not openly opposed to Roman rule, but certainly not in favor of it; they were pious men from across Galilee and Judea who aspired to fidelity to God’s law in all aspects of daily life. The Roman occupation of the promised land may not have been their primary concern, but it definitely was not part of their vision for Israel. They wanted God’s people to live on God’s land, in faithfulness and righteousness.
What brought the two groups together was Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God which, for different reasons, made both of them nervous. For a moment, they put aside their significant differences and set up a clever trap. They used a little shameless flattery to butter him up and attract the attention of passersby, and then dropped a question that left no way out: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” It was a brilliant move. If Jesus said yes, he would immediately be exposed as a collaborator with the occupation, and his approval rates would drop to levels of complete insignificance; no Pharisee needed to be nervous anymore. If he said no, he would immediately be arrested for inciting sedition and the authorities would take care of him; no Herodian needed to be nervous anymore.
It was a brilliant move, but Jesus didn’t play their game: “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he told them, and his opponents had no trouble finding a denarius; they obviously were much better connected to the imperial economy than Jesus of Nazareth. They didn’t have twitter in first-century Palestine, but if they had, we could read angry tweets like,
“Guess who brought blasphemous coins into the holy temple? #herodians #pharisees #whatsinyourwallet”
“Rome’s currency isn’t kingdom currency! #jesusmessiah #blessedarethepoor #whatsinyourwallet”
Jesus still didn’t answer their question, but now asked them, with a nod of the head toward the coin: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” A more literal translation would be, “Whose image is this, and whose title?”
“The emperor’s,” they answered. Most likely the coin bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during those years. And the title inscribed on it was more than a title. To Jewish eyes and ears it was blasphemy: Emperor Tiberius, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest. This brief debate wasn’t about paying taxes, it was about idolatry. And Jesus didn’t answer their question, but said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
It’s as though he told them and us, “If it bears Caesar’s image, let him have it; give it back to him, it’s rightfully his. But remember that to be human is to be made in the image of God. Remember that to be human is to give back to God what is God’s – your life, your breath, your days and nights.” Jesus didn’t answer their question, but showed them and us a much bigger and more important question we need to answer every day: How do we live as people who know that we are not our own, nor anyone else’s, but God’s?
Marcus Borg wrote,
This text offers little or no guidance for tax season. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative (…) question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism?
How do we live as God’s people when the economic and political systems we create and sustain become oppressive? When they claim and take what is God’s by abusing humans who bear the image of God? We cannot serve two masters. We cannot neatly divide our loyalties between God and other lords. And we must not confuse our loyalties to other lords with our loyalty to God.
We bear the image of God, but when we look at each other, or in the mirror, we also see the inscriptions that our interactions with the world have left on us: You are what you wear, is a common script. You are what you do, what you earn. Or: You are nobody. You don’t count. We are made in the image of God, but other scripts and images continually overwrite our identity as God’s own with layers of falsehood.
James Kelly wrote,
We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us. Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self. And each of our selves is in turn a rank individualist, not co-operative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes. And all too commonly we follow the common American method of getting a quick decision among conflicting claims within us. It is as if we have a chairman of our committee of the many selves within us, who does not integrate the many into one but who merely counts the votes at each decision, and leaves disgruntled minorities. The claims of each self are still pressed. (…) We are not integrated. We are distraught. We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow. For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power.
Give to God the things that are God’s is not an invitation to draw a line through our lives and the world where things on one side belong to God and things on the other to other lords and other claims. Give to God the things that are God’s is not a call to fragmentation. Jesus didn’t suggest a split between a political self that answers to Caesar and a religious self that answers to God. Jesus didn’t carve out separate realms with separate loyalties: he proclaimed and inaugurated the kingdom of God. Give to God the things that are God’s puts all other demands made on us in perspective.
“We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us,” wrote James Kelly. The Life that integrates our conflicting selves and frees us to be who we are, is the life of Christ.
“We have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence,” wrote James Kelly. That way of life is what Christ embodied: “a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power,” a life rooted in God’s love.
As part of every baptism, just after the person has emerged from below the surface of the water, we make the sign of the cross on her forehead and say, calling her by name, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In baptism, the life of Christ becomes ours and through him we give to God the things that are God’s – our life, our breath, our days and nights. With him we learn to live as citizens of the kingdom, as people who know that we are not our own, nor anyone else’s, but God’s.
When Caesar was Hitler, the small Confessing Church in Germany declared,
As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.
We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords - areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
The Confessing Church was persecuted and driven underground, its pastors were arrested and sent to concentration camps, but, though small in numbers, those brothers and sisters refused to give the things that are God’s to anyone but God.
Christ has made us his own, and in every area of our life we belong to him, and neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can change that.
 TIBERIUS CAESAR DIVI AUGUSTI FILIUS AUGUSTUS PONTIFEX MAXIMUS
 “What Belongs to God?” http://www.beliefnet.com/story/20/story_2000_1.html
 James Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, chapter 5