I think I was a teenager when I first came across the story of Jesus’ clever back-and-forth with the religious authorities of his time.
The story is found in Matthew 22:15-22, and the line familiar to most is in verse 21: “Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
At the time, and in recent memory, I suppose I didn’t think too much of it. After all, Jesus’ quip was curt and to the point, making a clear distinction between what was the emperor’s and what was God’s — as if it was a property dispute.
I would’ve guessed that the message therein was something along the lines of: Money (especially taxes) belong to a national government’s corporate budgeting system, but the things you give to God are spiritual and somehow separate or transcendent from monetization.
But at that time I didn’t know that emperors were thought of as divine.
I didn’t know that what he could be saying was that Caesar is not God.
The connection between systems of money and power hadn’t yet taken root and were still abstractions.
If the religious leaders were trying to ensnare Jesus as a blasphemous anarchist, it makes good sense that they invited the Herodians along to be present for Jesus’ answer to the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
Reading it now, I see how this question is perhaps one that those religious leaders had likely considered for themselves. They would’ve known firsthand the difficulties of trying to navigate an identity as a nation of people – the Jews – who upheld their own system of laws, justice, and corporate taxation, and yet were now subjected to a dominating governance of Roman occupation.
So the question becomes: Do you pay these guys or not? Do you recognize their power as supreme or not? Is the god you preach about in control or not? Opting to not pay taxes likely ended in compulsory indentured servitude, if not death from the outright act or disputing them.
In this light, it could be argued that Jesus was saying something like: “This coin, this system of taxation, this abstraction of value is not what the true God has in mind for humanity.”
Faith and Money Network teaches a course called “Pharaoh Economics v. Sabbath Economics,” and in it, you’re invited to consider the fundamental outcomes that various money systems produce and the means that undergird them.
Several accounts from both the Old and New Testaments note the constant struggle between how to live as an effective witness of a message of abundance in a world where we find a dominating culture of scarcity from empire to empire.
What was Jesus’ message meant to convey? Why did it “amaze” them and furthermore cause them to leave without arresting him then and there?
I don’t think it had much to do with money as much as it was a call to recognize that the governing systems in place were and would continue to standardize inequities and distort the peoples’ self-worth and integrity. I think he was talking about a truer authorship of value that thus trivialized the Roman coin with the emperor’s likeness — and likely the taxation system to which it belonged.
This paradox of identity and subjugation to law is broad and complex. It continues to perplex us to this very day. For the case of the religious leaders’ discernment written in Matthew, I would guess that they posed this question to Jesus to stump him and possibly because they too did not think that Caesar was God. Perhaps they also wanted to see if his response might help them identify a possible solution to their problem of subjugation to Rome.
The whole ruse is petty and thus sharpens the irony of Jesus’ message that an identity of a witness to the true system of belonging and equity comes with the acknowledgement that all human-made systems of control do not have the final word in determining one’s value or obligation.
As we contemplate this radical concept today, we try to make sense of how it permeates our understanding of our societies and their interdependence on each other.
By Stephen Cottingham | Tuesday, November 22, 2021