Sermon for Mattins at St Martin’s, East Horsley on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 19th October 2014
Matt. 22:15-22

None of us really like the brown envelopes which periodically come through from the Inland Revenue. For some reason we never think of our tax bill as the price we pay for a fantastic bunch of goods and services. We are kept free and safe by our armed forces; we’re kept healthy by the National Health Service; our streets are safe because we have police, and so on. But we tend to forget all that when we see our tax bills. We just see it as a sneaky way the government cuts down our income.

I don’t think it’s really the case that we think that we would be able to spend that money better, better than the government has done, if we’d kept it. Perhaps we’d spend more on schools and hospitals, less on bombs and rockets for foreign wars. But others, of course, would have different priorities. As you go to the post box with your tax return, if you bump into a friend who sees the brown envelope going out again from you, you will shrug your shoulders, perhaps, and say, ‘Well, I’ve got to render unto Caesar’.

What Jesus was talking about when the Pharisees tackled him was perhaps not really about paying taxes. The question was, are we permitted to pay taxes to the Roman emperor – to Caesar? The Holy Land was occupied territory, which had been conquered by the Romans. The Jews had a certain amount of self-government, but they did have to pay tax to the Roman emperor. That tax was greatly resented.

You will remember all the references to ‘publicans and sinners’, meaning ‘tax-gatherers and sinners’, in the Bible. Jesus was accused of consorting with ‘publicans and sinners’ (for example at Matt. 9:11), instead of being always with virtuous people. Publicans, tax-gatherers, were hated. They operated under a sort of franchise system, whereby they acquired the right to collect taxes and pass them on to the emperor. They would charge a gross amount, to include their fee, and pass on the net amount which the Roman authorities had set for the tax. There was no limit to the mark-up which a tax-gatherer could charge. It was a good system from the point of view of the Romans, but it did make the tax-gatherers themselves very unpopular, hated.

Indeed the question was, Is it possible to pay taxes to Caesar? The catch was that Roman emperors counted themselves as gods, and there was a state religion, so paying tax – the word in Greek is κηνσος, census, so the sense may really be of registering for a census, rather in the way that Mary and Joseph went, before Jesus was born, to Bethlehem in Judaea to be ‘taxed’ (Luke 2:1f). The Authorised Version of the Bible says ‘taxed’, and other translations talk about ‘registration’, taking part in a census.

I don’t know whether it’s a little bit irreverent to say that it occurred to me that this was rather the same procedure as asking the faithful – this congregation, for example, in this church – to join the electoral roll of the parish. Nothing wrong with that – it helps to keep the church family together, makes sure that everybody gets the news, gets invited to the parish picnic.

But of course it also allows the Planned Giving Secretary to send you a banker’s order form and ask you to consider regular giving.

So censuses do have a taxation aspect to them. And the catch, of course, was that in the eyes of the Pharisees, Jesus was going to be wrong whatever he said. If he said it was OK to go and sign up for the census, paying a token amount to signify that you were in the scheme, it would involve using a Roman coin, a denarius, a ‘penny’ sometimes so-called, but also reckoned to be a day’s wages.

This would be tantamount to acknowledging the authority of the emperor – as a god – which of course would be blasphemy. If on the other hand, Jesus could be caught out advising people not to pay, then he could be condemned as a revolutionary engaged in sedition against the emperor.

And the answer that Jesus gave was pretty mysterious. By asking to see the coin that you would use to pay the tax, it looks as though Jesus wasn’t familiar with foreign exchange. These days, I’m sure the Revenue are very happy to receive money’s worth in any currency which is exchangeable. But Jesus says here, ‘Show me the currency that you would have to pay the tax in’, and because that currency has a picture of the emperor on it, he says, in effect, this is a matter for the emperor: it’s nothing to do with us here in the Temple.

It was actually pretty shocking that the Pharisees had brought a Roman coin, with its purported image of a god, the Roman emperor as a god, into the sacred space of the Temple. So not surprisingly, Jesus didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But it does seem to be a slightly odd idea of Jesus’, that tax is payable only if you have the right currency.

What about the other side of what Jesus said? Render unto God the things that are God’s. The third-century scholar Tertullian said that this meant ‘us’, human beings. We are the things that belong to God. We are made in God’s image. So Tertullian argues that we are the things that are God’s. We belong to God. So Jesus is saying that, in a narrow sense, those things which bear the image of the emperor belong to the emperor: and those things, which bear the image of God, belong to God – and that is us. It still needs some careful consideration. Is there, according to Jesus, a hard distinction between the temporal authorities, the state, and the spiritual authority, the realm of God himself? You certainly can take what Jesus says to mean very simply, that we should be law-abiding citizens, obeying the laws that government has laid down for us, but also worshipping God and reserving our ultimate allegiance for him.

But St Paul, in his Letter to the Romans (13:1-7), pointed out that actually God is the supreme authority, over everything. Even governments are subject to the will of God. That is a reason for obeying the government; because the government actually derives its authority ultimately from God.

There is in fact no conflict between obeying the government and obeying God. That of course immediately begs the question what a Christian is to do, if the government is a bad government. Effectively it is the same dilemma which the Pharisees were challenging Jesus with. It’s the dilemma which Christians living in Nazi Germany faced, and it’s the dilemma which faces Christians in many parts of the Middle East today.

The government may ultimately be subject to the will of God, but that doesn’t by itself, necessarily, make it a good government, or worthy of our assent to it. As with all other aspects of the problem of evil, a bad government is nevertheless free to carry on making bad decisions and engaging in sinful acts.

We are so fortunate, that all we may find relevant in the story of Jesus and the denarius, ‘Render unto Caesar,’ and so on, is a fresh look at paying tax. No-one is trying to kill us because we aren’t swearing an oath of allegiance to a government which regards our Christian belief as blasphemy, as some of the radical Moslem opposition groups in Iraq and around would do. For those people, ‘Render unto Caesar’ has extra poignancy.

So let us, in our prayers, ask for God’s blessing on the people who are threatened today by militant Islamists all over the Middle East: let us call to mind the goods and services which our taxes pay for, and ask for God’s blessing on the people who physically deliver the benefits. And let’s pay our taxes with a good grace. Let’s also remember that our taxes buy a huge amount of benefit for all of us, and not begrudge paying our fair share.