Charlottesville, VA. I’ve been thinking about religion and politics, church and state, this week, and not just because the unending news from Washington forces people of faith to think about where their loyalties should be, given the current state of our government. Yes, I am one of those who cannot understand how some Christians find it necessary to support a man whose personal life and personal and political values are so distant from Christian faith and morals; conversely, I admire Christians like Bree Newsome, who in the New York Times Magazine (October 22) explains her bold move in taking down the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina statehouse as driven by her Christian values: this is what God wants of us. There is still a great conversation among religious people to be had about the Donald Trump presidency.
But the immediate reason I have been thinking on these matters this past week has more to do with the Gospel reading for Sunday, October 22:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to Caesar the things that are the Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22.15-22; NRSV, adapted)
This passage appears, with slight variations, in Mark 12 and Luke 20 as well, and thus is firmly rooted in early Christian consciousness: Jesus’ instruction was considered exceptional, and not forgotten. But what does it mean?
It is not a general programmatic statement, as if Jesus were issuing a policy paper on the division of church and state. Taxes were already a vexed issue. The money changers in the temple, exchanging Roman coins for coins that could be used in the temple, had worked out the compromise of “outside” and “inside”, and benefited from the transactions; tax collectors were universally despised (except by Jesus, it seems); Jesus famously turned over the money changers’ tables. Herodians were loyalists of a king who had sold out to the Roman overlords, and they had learned to live with compromise. Presumably, their pockets were full of Roman coins.
In Matthew 17, where Jesus was asked about the temple tax. There, he had pointed out that the children of the master need not pay an entrance fee, only others, thus undercutting the very idea of the tax. Trivializing it, he concludes: “However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.’” (Matthew 17.27)
Today’s incident occurs because Jesus’ increasingly bitter enemies were once again trying to trip him up. In their malice — or hypocrisy (Mark), cunning (Luke) — they were trying to catch Jesus in their trap: support the enemy of our faith, or dare to oppose his power. On the surface, Jesus’s response may at first seem to be an appeal for a compromise, Caesar’s fair share and God’s fair share.
But his meaning is actually narrower (regarding Caesar) and far broader (regarding God). Caesar, or any other ruler or political regime, can assert himself and mark off – by his name and image (icon) – a domain that “belongs” to the regime: until the empire inevitably falls, this and that belongs to it.
But what belongs to God? There was no coin, in Israel, with the name and image of God on it. The implication seems to be: what is not cordoned off as for the state (and its taxes), or for the temple (and its taxes), is God’s. In other words, everything is God’s, all is due to God, even if leaders and rulers have for a moment some small portion of God’s domain under their control. Or more specifically, everything with the image (icon) of God in it, is God’s. Every human being created in God’s image, as Genesis 1 so famously tells us. No one belongs to Caesar.
A very bold claim for an oppressed people to make. Perhaps this is why the lectionary pairs this Gospel with the opening of Isaiah 45, a long divine speech that ends: “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward, says the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 45.13) Cyrus the Great is a servant of God, whether he knows it or not; kings, emperors, presidents, powers-that-be, serve a purpose, for a time, in God’s greater plan.
Back to 2107: the honest debates we can have about President Trump and the Republican Congress, the urgent need for Christians – and all people of faith – to resist, are not made unnecessary by Matthew 22. We still need to talk with one another, from deep faith perspectives — as Christians, but obviously with Jews and Muslims, with Hindus and Buddhists, and with people of all faiths — and refuse to let malice — and hypocrisy and cunning — get in the way, if the political realm is to flourish humanely in God’s world. But if we start with faith’s strictures, the situation is changed from the start: everything is God’s, and there is no dividing the world between God and mammon; every human being is sealed with the image of God because we are human. Donald Trump too will end up playing a small part if God’s greater plan.