Many years ago, in another life, I had an older colleague who had an interesting way of interpreting Scripture. Even though he was a devout Christian, he had very clear ideas about paying taxes, but not tithing to the church. He paid taxes with lots of grumbling simply because he was legally required. Not because he didn’t believe in giving to Caesar what is his, but because of what Caesar is doing with the taxes. As far as tithing was concerned, he did contribute to the collection plate, but he emphatically did not give his tenth as required, because he said that much of what the church historically did, was now supposed to be done by the government. And he said that giving to God what is owed to God shouldn’t cost money, anyway. As such he was unstinting in his charity work.
With this as background, I think we all understand the intention of the Herodians and Pharisees in their questioning Jesus about the tax, and about Jesus’s clever response to them. Since Caesar’s image is on the coin, and we are citizens of his realm, we have to give to him what is due to him, Jesus says. And since we are made in the image of God and are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we need to give what is due to him.
And this is a conundrum for us, this dual citizenship of both the earthly realm and the spiritual realm. What do those citizenships mean and what do they demand from us?
As citizens of both realms, it is not so much about paying taxes to Caesar, or the government, as much as it is about paying attention to what the government is doing and whether in good conscience we can support all its actions. We pay a myriad of taxes, from income tax down to so called “sin tax” on wine and cigarettes. We grumble, but we pay, nevertheless.
However, it is when we see governments doing things that go against our consciences that rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God takes on real meaning.
Should we as Christians remain silent when our governments engage in actions that seem legitimate on the surface, but that conflict with the principles of our faith? This has never been an easy place for us as Christians to be in, but we have never been excused from engaging in it.
And what does render unto God mean for us? What is the currency that we use to render unto God?
That currency is love.
Since we all are in the image of God and bear the image of God, we cannot ignore each other, and especially not during this time of the pandemic, and particularly in the light of how the Herodians and Pharisees frame their question to Jesus “Is it lawful to pay taxes…”
The question of what is truly “lawful” can be answered only by looking forward to Jesus’ teaching of the greatest of the commandments, which grounds his debates with the religious leaders: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The fulfilment of the law, including the question of whether or not to pay taxes, is that which grows out of complete devotion to God, expressed in love of one’s neighbour. *
Debie Thomas writes: “So yes, by all means, give the emperor what belongs to him. But remember that our first debt is to a power that will remain long after earthly empires rise and fall. Our first and highest debt is to love.”
The thing with love is that it is not always a sun setting in rosy skies with romantic music rising. We all are and have been in relationships; be that as spouses, parents, lovers, or living in community. There are immense joys and there is immense heartbreak and everything in-between. Love can be difficult and painful, yet we cannot not love. Not when we believe that we are formed in God’s image and see Christ in each other.
And nowhere do we read a better definition of love than in 1 Corinthians 13:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said if Christ calls us, we follow and die. This may not necessarily be a physical death, although few people understood and lived this better than him and a multitude of other Christian martyrs.
As Martin Luther King aptly said:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that, ” and then was killed, nevertheless.
In our context, though, this dying is a calling to the death of the self and of a living into humility, making space for others in our lives and in this world. This is the call of love to love into love.
Allow me to end with a caveat before we all rush out to become doormats and martyrs. Remember the commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Love your neighbour as yourself; this is written for a reason. So, go and ponder this commandment with seriousness, sincerity, curiosity, and love.
*Susan Grove Eastman; Feasting the Wor