Does anybody really enjoy paying taxes? As mid-April approaches, do any of us celebrate writing out a check to send off to the treasury? Are any of us filled with joy as another tax form needs to be filled out? Taxes are a part of life. So when Jesus is asked about paying taxes in the reading, the answer he gives is unexpected because he flips the narrative. Pharisees and Herodians were trying to trap Jesus in a political trap. In the end, Jesus exposes them for their own hypocrisy.
Pharisees and Herodians were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Pharisees were against the Roman occupation and paying taxes was the equivalent of being considered a traitor. Herodians, as the name suggests, supported Herod who served at the leisure of Rome. So lets say a liberal Democrat and conservative Republican join forces to take someone down politically. Yeah, you get the picture. Something is about to happen and it doesn’t pass the smell test. A trap was being set.
Jesus was asked about the legality of paying taxes to Rome. If he said, “yes,” Jesus would be charged with betraying Israel and God. If he said, “no,” Jesus would be charged with sedition against Rome. How was Jesus going to respond? He trapped them in their hypocrisy.
Jesus asked for a coin. They had one readily available engraved with the image of the emperor. Owning the coin proved that they were fully involved with the economic realities of living in the Roman empire. Therefore, paying taxes was acceptable. However, God’s authority has a moral claim over our lives that cannot be negated by Rome. The answer Jesus gave was not the simple “yes” or “no” that they were hoping to hear and serve their political agenda. Life as a person of faith in this world is far more complicated than we imagine.
We live in a time where there is confusion over God and country. Do we merge the two together or keep them strictly separate? If we aren’t careful, then we are living out what the Pharisees and Herodians were trying to do with Jesus when he flipped the trap on them saying,
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”Matthew 22:21
There is a political claim that is made upon us because we live in this world. Yet, there is a claim that God has placed upon us as well. If we try to merge the two, we end up making the country into an idol. If we try to separate them, then one is chosen at the expense of the other. The answer Jesus gave about taxes seems to leave us in tension between the two.
The life of faith is not an easy one – nothing shocking here. So we are left with the great challenge of discernment. Where does the claim of politics begin and end? Where does God’s claim (as the One who gave us life) fit in? How we draw the lines is the way faith is lived.