Pay your taxes!

22nd October 2017 St Edmund, Stoulton. 10am HC CW. 19th after Trinity. Isaiah 45.1-7, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22.15-22

I am very pleased to be here and lead a service for you. I’m very much looking forward to getting to know you all and of course, you getting to know me. Some of you have already chatted with me and like many others have asked Have you settled in yet? My answer is yes! Very well thank you and so has my dog, Bertie. And yet in light of today’s readings, I began to reflect upon how this could be seen as a trick question. Perhaps not meant in a nasty way but in a way that I feel can only be answered positively. To do otherwise would be to give cause for concern. I mean, who would want a Vicar that doesn’t feel at home here?! And I do, I genuinely feel very at home here and have enjoyed meeting everyone and walking across the fields with my dog.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear of a trick question asked out of spite and fear. The Pharisees feel threatened by Jesus and his new teachings. So they try to ask questions that they think will trick Jesus up, exposing him as a false prophet. The Pharisees do this because they do not want their positions of power to be undermined or their relationship with the occupying roman army to be damaged.

Their question to Jesus has a double edge. Paying taxes to the Roman emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle east in Jesus’ day. Just take a moment to think about this for a moment. Imagine waking up one day to find that people from the other end of the world had marched in to your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having your land stolen?! You can imagine how this would cause the people to riot and revolt. That sort of thing is still happening in the world today.
Not paying taxes under the Roman empire rule was punished by death and any revolts were crushed mercilessly. In the wake of the mighty armies were countryside’s littered with crosses with dead and dying revolutionaries on them as a warning to those who were thinking of rising up. Just remember the scene in the film Spartacus staring Kirk Douglas and you get the idea.

Paying taxes was compulsory, not optional, so any prophet leading a kingdom of God movement like Jesus would be expected to oppose such laws. Like many Jews, the Pharisees thought that the point of becoming King would be to overthrow Caesar. If Jesus wasn’t intending to get rid of the tax and the occupying forces then why had they all shouted Hosanna a few days earlier? So, their question was not only to trick Jesus up but to give him a hard time too. To make him look weak and false.

When Jesus does answer them, he doesn’t rush into his answer but instead asks for a coin, a denar. This is in fact part of his answer but also reveals something about the Pharisees themselves as when they produce a coin they are in fact showing that despite opposing the Roman rule they are handling the hated currency.

Why was the currency hated? Well Jews at the time were not allowed to put images of people, human faces, on their coins. Caesar of course had his image stamped on the coins with words proclaiming that he was the Son of God and High priest. Words that would send a shudder through any loyal or devout Jew as for them, there was only one Son of God, the Messiah, and this pagan man wasn’t it. So how could the Pharisees even touch something so abhorrent unless they secretly colluded with the Romans for their own gain.

You can imagine Jesus looking at the coin with utter distaste as he asks Whose is this … image? Jesus has not said anything that would get him into trouble but instead has turned the question back at them. Of course they have to reply Caesar. Well, then says Jesus You’d better pay Caesar back his own coin, hadn’t you? How astonishing! Jesus is advocating paying taxes! But then here comes the kicker. Jesus then says and give to God the things that are God’s!

You see Jesus wasn’t trying to give an answer on the relationship between God and political authority but was pointing out to whose allegiance the Pharisees should have been giving themselves truly to. Jesus was rebuking them by challenging their playing games of keeping Caesar happy while speaking of God. He showed that the Pharisees were only paying lip service to God and were not being whole hearted in their faith. They had gotten it wrong about what the coming of the Messiah would mean. Jesus’ revolution was not about leading a military revolt, or defeating the Kingdom or Caesar by conventional means. No, Jesus would bring and continues to do so, through the victory of God’s love and power, victory over even death itself.

So what does this reading have to say to us today? Well the same challenge Jesus gave to the Pharisees can still be given. And this is no trick question. From time to time, we too need to remind ourselves about who we are truly serving. Have we truly given ourselves whole heartedly to serving God? Or are there other God we serve, like money, possessions and activities in our lives that we put first, before God? Its easily done. Yet God is always there, loving us and ready to forgive our mistakes as we return again in prayer to Him.


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