In today’s Gospel, Jesus once again shows himself to be a master of teaching-by-inquiring. Not for the first time, and not for the last, he answers a tricky question with…a tricky question.
He frequently uses this technique to guide people toward some truth. Perhaps he learned this from his father, who sets the stage for countless human-divine encounters with his early, original question to Adam: “Where are you?”
The question posed to Jesus today is in some ways reminiscent of this query: He is being asked to declare where he stands with regard to Jewish tradition and law, which viewed the collecting and the paying of taxes to the Roman occupation with disdain. Moreover, the coin used to pay the tax—the impression of a human likeness with the words “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (great high priest) on the other—was certainly an idolatrous claim and a clear violation of the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make any graven image…or likeness…thou shalt not bow down to them or worship them…”
Before zooming in to analyze this exchange, let’s pull back for a wider view, to get a sense of when and where it takes place. Jesus has foretold his crucifixion—three times, no less—and has just entered Jerusalem on a donkey—with the people shouting “Hosanna”—“Save now!” There is all the pomp and passion of Palm Sunday.
Jesus starts things off with a bang by kicking money changers out of the temple. He goes on to heal blind and lame people, and after spending the night in Bethany, returns to the temple. It is here that the answer-a-question-with-a-question dialogue begins. The mood grows increasingly tense.
Chief priest and elders: By what authority are you doing these things?
Jesus: I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, I will tell you by whose authority I do these things.
The question is about the baptism of John, and the chief priests and elders are not able to answer it to his satisfaction. This triggers a cascade of parables, many of which we have heard over the past weeks, all punctuated with provocative questions.
A landowner sends his two sons to work in the vineyard; one says he won’t, but does; one says he will, but doesn’t. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”
A landowner’s slaves and son are violently killed when they attempt to harvest his vineyard. Jesus asks, “What will the landowner do to those tenants?” [who committed the murders].
In response to the answer the chief priests and elders propose, he becomes exasperated and quotes from one of his go-to sources, the Psalter. “Have you never read in the scriptures about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone?” He goes on to boldly predict an overturning of the current political, social, and religious order: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
The conflict is escalating, and Jesus doesn’t do anything to calm things down with the parable of the marriage feast, which ends with one unfortunate guest being bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
By this time emotions are running pretty high on both sides.
Perhaps the Pharisees call for a time out to regroup, for they back off, and send their students — their disciples — to continue the conversation with Jesus, together with some Herodians. Although we don’t hear much about Herodians, it’s worth noting that they were a political group that supported the royal family — the successors to Herod, who had been appointed King of the Jews by the Romans.
This new group of Pharisees’ disciples and Herodians tries a new approach: flattery. “We know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth….”
After this attempt to de-escalate and perhaps make Jesus lower his guard, they spring the question that comprises the first half of the centerpiece of today’s Gospel. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
Knowing what we know, we might wonder if this question is really about paying taxes. It’s a question with a not-so-hidden agenda: to reveal Jesus as a fraud, an imposter, a heretical teacher, thereby preserving their authority and maintaining the status quo. After all, the Pharisees follow the Torah closely, and Jesus has already shown that despite his heritage and upbringing as a Jew, he’s got a different take on Mosaic law.
They think they’ve got him. If he says, Yes, pay taxes, he’s essentially giving Rome precedence at the expense of the Jews. If he says No, don’t pay taxes, he’s setting Jewish law above Roman law. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
Now he is getting exasperated. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” This is reminiscent of his words to the tempter during his forty days in the wilderness: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Then he responds with the second question that completes the centerpiece: “Whose image is this [on the coin], and whose title?” Whose image is on the coin?
Which brings us back to Genesis, to the very beginning. Remember —“…God created the human in his own image, in the image of God..male and female he created them.”
“Whose image…?” In drawing on the familiar wisdom of the Torah— the Pharisees’ foundational Scripture—Jesus responds to the question about the legality of paying taxes, and suggests a further, deeper response.
On the one hand, he says that people of faith—I’m looking at you, Pharisees—should submit to governing authorities by paying their taxes. On the other hand, he cites God’s all encompassing, inescapable reach, a reach far beyond that of any earthly ruler—I’m looking at you, Caesar—and their tax collectors. This is undoubtedly informed by a phrase from his prayer book, the Psalter: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”
Jesus responds to an either/or question with a both/and response. The Jesuit scholar Jack Mahoney, SJ, offers these thoughts:
I do not think that Jesus ever answered any question put to him in exactly the same terms as it was posed; he always changed the subject or introduced his own agenda, moving everyone’s attention to a higher level of reflection. Forgive your neighbour seven times? No, seventy times seven. The greatest commandment? Actually, there are two. …Where do I live? Come and see. So we should not expect Jesus to answer the question here about paying tax to Caesar with a simple yes or no. In fact, he adroitly evaded answering the trick question, pointing out, ‘well, if it belongs to Caesar, give it back to Caesar’. Then he added his own reflection, ‘and give God whatever belongs to God.’
I suggest it is a mistake to think that in his reply Jesus is dividing life into two spheres, the secular and the sacred, as so many people have supposed. His argument does not separate, it accumulates… He is not saying, on the one hand respect Caesar and on the other hand respect God. What he is pointing out is that, if you respect Caesar’s property, as you should, then all the more you ought to respect God’s property. So his full answer is, ‘Well, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And while you are at it, give everything that belongs to God back to God.’
I suspect that most of us are pretty familiar one or more versions of “rendering unto Caesar…” thanks to the watchful eye of the Internal Revenue Service and other civic mechanisms. How are we doing on the rendering unto God piece? This isn’t about stewardship—although Father Warren will be pleased to hear me say that stewardship counts! It’s more about gratitude; it’s more about love. Our liturgy is full of clues about this — a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” …“Feed on him in your heart, by faith, with thanksgiving…”
So here we are, created in God’s image and likeness, come to worship the God who created us. Lift up your hearts! We lift them unto the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God! It is meet, right, and our bounden duty…
And finally this, from one of the Eucharistic prayers: “…here we offer and present unto thee our selves, our souls and bodies…”
In so doing, again and again we truly render unto God the things that are God’s. Amen.
 Genesis 3:9b
 Decalogue I, BCP p. 318
 An appeal for deliverance. See Psalm 118:25, BCP p. 762
 Psalm 118.22
 Deuteronomy 6:16; see Isaiah 7:12, Sirach 3.26, among others…
 Genesis 1:27
 Psalm 24:1
 Eucharistic Prayer I, BCP 336; see Romans 12:1