In today’s gospel the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.”
I grew up in Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was called then. It’s a country I loved, and still love. It was, however, a country where a small number of whites ruled a large number of blacks. It was a frankly racist society and I was part of it. Slowly, some of us whites began to realise that this political order was unjust. Slowly, we recognised that black people got a bad deal. We began to speak and act for change. The churches led this change and protested at actions and laws which they thought unjust. Always the response from Government was: “The Church should keep out of politics. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God that things that are God’s.” Christians can pray, sing hymns, help the poor. They mustn’t interfere with government.
There are simple answers to this:
Jesus was speaking into a particular situation. The Pharisees and Herodians had ganged up to put him in a difficult position. If he said Jews should pay taxes to Caesar the Pharisees would accuse him of being a sell out, a traitor to the Jewish people, a traitor even to God. If he said they should not pay taxes the Herodians would accuse him of encouraging revolt against Rome. His answer neatly stops them both in their tracks. It doesn’t actually answer the question.
We, today, insist you cannot divide between the things of Caesar and the things of God. All things belong to God. Christians have a right and a duty to look at all aspects of human life and say what this looks like to the eyes of God. We can disagree on how far the church may go in protest. We may argue about the degree of direct political action, demonstrations, letter writing or whatever that the church may take. We cannot step back from the problems of our world. We need to talk, think and act as Christians for the whole of society.
But, of course, saying that doesn’t solve the problem. How do we know what is objectively right or wrong? Even if we can decide that question, how do we know what is the best action to take? We need some guidelines to our discussion. We need to remember this is fundamentally a question about Jesus. Where would he be in this discussion? What do we find in the Gospels?
I think the first thing we see is that Jesus would talk to anyone. He didn’t decide beforehand which group was his and only engage in mud-slinging at the other. His own disciples included a tax collector, who co-operated with the Roman Government and a zealot who opposed them. He talked at length with the Pharisee Nicodemus; he went to dinner with the Pharisee Simon. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, was a friend and risked his life to give him a proper burial. Yet also Jesus performed healings for a Syro-Phoenician woman, a Roman centurion and he talked at length with a Samaritan. He mixed with prostitutes and other kinds of sinners. One of the women who went around with him was Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward. Jesus listened to people and that is why they talked with him and trusted him. IN the political, social and economic debates going on around us now we need to ask ourselves – Do we listen? Do we really listen? Do we listen only to think of an argument against what is being said? Are we listening to the hurts, the fears and the hopes of the other side? I am afraid that if you are like me, you probably have to admit you are not listening. Most of us are bad listeners. We need to admit that.
The second really important thing about Jesus is that he favoured the poor. “Blessed are the poor”, he says, more than once. He is not against the rich. He invited a rich man to sell all and follow him. He had rich people like Joseph and Nicodemus as his friends. But he did say It is hard for a rich man to be saved. Jesus lived with the poor and like the poor. He came from a poor village and was certainly not rich himself. He died poor, stripped of everything, even his clothes. Any discussion we have about economics or politics needs to start from the poor. It is hard to see how any system that favours the rich can be considered one that Christ approves.
There is a third way of giving back to God the things of God, and dealing with Caesar. As far as we know Jesus never openly criticized the Roman government. He didn’t lead a rebellion against them. But he died the death of crucifixion, a Roman punishment reserved especially for murderers and rebels. The Romans saw Jesus as one who would overturn their empire and, of course, they were right. He did. Within a hundred years Jesus’ teaching had spread throughout the Empire. After 300 years it took the empire captive. It was the example and teaching of Jesus that did that. His example changed the world.
In Zimbabwe today you do not speak truth to power, unless you are very brave and have a lot of friends to protect you. It is too dangerous. But you can act quietly below the radar and work for change. So in Zimbabwe we have an organisation called Tariro which works with young people, bringing them out of poverty, giving them a good education, transforming their lives and setting them up as good Christian members of society. They will be the new generation that will replace the present corrupt order. They will make it easier for Christ to work in that little part of the world.
In the United States today you can still vote, in confidence that the votes will not be tampered with or their results ignored. You can still speak openly about things that matter and not be arrested. It is really important we do that, looking first at the Gospel to see what Christ might have said, which way he might have voted. But we can also act for the future – to change the lives of the poor, to rescue the created world from the destruction inflicted on it or to create relationships beyond American shores that will make it possible to spread the message of Christ to a divided and fragmenting world.
That is how we give Caesar what belongs to Caesar to God what belongs to God.