16 October 2005


  1. The Story and the Conflict

“Give to the Emperor those things which are the Emperor's, and give to God those things which are God's”.

We are very familiar with this story, I think. As you know, at least, you older ones will know, some of you younger ones just might not, the country where Jesus lived, what's now modern Israel, was part of the Roman Empire in those days, and governed from Rome. Now, whenever a country is occupied and governed by a foreign government, you get two different sorts of people, the Resistance and the Collaborators. The Resistance do what they can behind the scenes to make the occupying power's life uncomfortable, and the Collaborators take jobs with the government and try to work with them. There was also, in ancient Israel, the collaborating party, the Herodians, who supported Herod, the puppet-king imposed by Rome. The vast majority of people, of course, just try to get on with their lives as best they can! All the same, most people resented paying the Census tax, which the Romans had imposed in about 6 BC, and was roughly a day's wages – in those days, very often, one coin.

Now, you may remember that Jesus had both collaborators and resistance workers among his disciples – Levi was a tax-collector, who worked for the occupying power, and Simon the Zealot was a resistance worker. So I don't suppose that people like the Pharisees really knew what to think of him!

Jesus was always having run-ins with the Pharisees. They were good, religious people, of course, but the trouble was that they did not see God in the same way that Jesus did. And they were the religious authorities of the day, and What They Said Went. So they tried to do Jesus down as often as possible. And one of the ways they did this was by asking trick questions. And this time they've teamed up with the Herodians, the collaborating party, who were afraid that Jesus was going to lead an armed rebellion against Rome.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?”

Hmm – if he says “No, it isn't,” the Herodians could, and would have him done for tax evasion. If, on the other hand, he says “Yes, you must pay your taxes,” he might well lose an awful lot of his followers – and maybe the Pharisees could have him done for collaboration!

But Jesus carefully avoids their trap. Instead, he asks them to show him a coin. And he looks at the coin.

Now, if you've got a coin handy, take it out and look at it – doesn't matter the denomination, just any old coin. Whose picture is it? a picture of the Queen, and round the side there are some words in Latin that say who she is.

Our coins are based on the Roman model. Roman coins – and you had to use Roman coins to pay the Roman tax – Roman coins had a picture of the Emperor on the head-side, and, round the edge it said something like "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest."

Well, you can quite see that if you were Jewish there were two mighty good reasons not to carry this coin around with you. For a start, whatever happened to “Thou shalt not make a graven image”? And to carry on with, Augustus divine? I don't think so! But the Pharisees were carrying these coins round with them. They used these blasphemous coins for their lawful business. They must, therefore, consider them legitimate currency, and dealings with the Empire to be legitimate dealings.

So they didn't really have a leg to stand on. Jesus asks them whose picture it is, just like I asked earlier whose picture was on our coins. And then he says, “Well then, give to the Emperor those things which are the Emperor's, and give to God those things which are God's”.

  1. So What Does It Mean?

Well, this is all very well, but it was long ago and far away, and what does it have to say to us today?

Well, fairly obviously, we should pay our taxes. Okay, maybe we don't agree with what those taxes are used for, but then we should make a fuss in other ways, not withholding our taxes. And yes, where we think our government is using our taxes for immoral purposes, like invading Iraq or destroying our way of life, or if we think local government is wasting our council tax, we need to make a great big noisy fuss. But we still need to pay the taxes!

But in one way, that's the easy part, isn't it? It's rather like when Jesus tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves – many Christians find loving their neighbour a heck of a lot easier than loving themselves! Or in the Old Testament, when we are told that we are to rest on the Sabbath Day – we often find it easier to do that, than to obey the bit that goes “Six days shalt thou labour and do all that thou hast to do!”

So giving to God that which belongs God's? That's the difficult bit. What is there that doesn't belong to God already? And how do we distinguish between the two?

Well, to start with, Jesus asked whose image was on the coins. That was the easy one, it was the Emperor's. But where do we find God's image?

Well, if you've a Bible handy, look up Genesis 1.27. I'll read it to you, for the sake of those who haven't one handy:

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

So we are the image of God! Look around you, not only here, but when you go out this morning, and look at all those people, made in God's image. You can't hug God. You can't give God change for a cup of tea. You can't demonstrate love for God in concrete form. But you can love all those made in the image and likeness of God. You can hug them. You can give to them in their need. You can show them you are really interested in them. You can give them your attention and time.

Our niece L------ who has joined us this morning – sorry, L------, don't mean to embarrass you in public – has just spent the summer teaching in Nigeria, as just part of this sort of giving. Another friend of ours went to Malawi, to help build a pontoon for shipping on Lake Malawi. Not all of us are free to do these sorts of things, obviously – but we can support those who are in our prayers, and with our giving.

In passing, on the subject of giving to God, isn't it interesting that we don't dare not pay our taxes, but when it is suggested we tithe, we wriggle our feet, and shrug our shoulders, and blush, and mutter that we can't afford it. Yeah, okay – but even if we feel we can't afford the full tithe, those of us who are tax-payers should do Gift Aid, so that the tax is paid back by the government! See your treasurer for the relevant forms – and that really is worth doing.

Mind you, the whole issue of what should be given to God and what should be given to the Emperor, as it were, isn't quite as clear-cut as it may seem. The world isn't divided into secular and sacred, the divine and the profane. We have to live in this world, we are human. That is how God created us. We weren't created, like the angels, to live wherever angels live, but to live here on earth, with all its problems. Jesus himself came down to earth to live as a human being – and he paid his tax.

And, when all is said and done, our taxes do mostly go to help pay for things to make our lives easier – roads, education, care when we are ill, and so on. Yes, there's probably a lot of wastage, and not all the money is used wisely. And it is a positive disgrace that so little of it is used to help our brothers and sisters overseas who don't have the advantages we do; I think I read somewhere that our Government Aid budget was about one-half of one percent of our total taxes, or something like that. It's encouraging, then, that we can raise so much money at such short notice when a disaster strikes, like that dreadful earthquake in Kashmir last week, or the even worse tsunami last Christmas.

But it would be be even better if we could give money even before disaster strikes – money to avert a famine, for instance, or to help those in refugee camps before disease hits them. After all, no matter what their race or religion, these, too, are God's children, created in God's image – and giving to them is giving to God.

  1. Finally

And, finally, of course, the one thing that we can, must and should give to God is ourselves. Our hearts. Last week, we celebrated our Harvest Festivals, and joined together for lunch afterwards. And did you sing, as we did, that lovely Harvest hymn “We Plough the Fields and Scatter?”

Remember that last verse?

Accept the gifts we offer
for all thy love imparts,
and, what thou most desirest,
our humble thankful hearts.”

For it is us that God desires, more than all. We belong to God, and therefore we come under the heading of that which should be given to God! Let's recommit ourselves to God this morning by singing hymn no 505: “O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

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