Then again, this would likely get him killed all over again.
Truth be told, Jesus wasn’t much of a political philosopher. At least, in the Gospels he doesn’t say a lot about taxation or effective participation in the political process. He was a Roman subject, after all, and that left him with little choice in these matters. Taxes had to be paid, and there was little opportunity for a pipsqueak like him to sway “the political process,” if that term even applied.
Plus, he and his contemporaries knew from recent history that too much boldness on these topics could prove dangerous.
At the same time, Jesus does address political life, about what it means to be a member of society — particularly about what it might cost you just to get by.
This is the right way to read the story in which he is asked whether paying the Roman census tax (or “head tax”) is lawful (Matthew 22:15-22). When Jesus inspects a coin and declares, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he doesn’t say that our political lives and religious lives constitute separate spheres. He doesn’t advocate social withdrawal or outright rebellion, either.
In fact, by that point in the story he has turned the discussion away from the trick question that initiated it, concerning paying taxes to Rome. He speaks more broadly about the long, strong reach of political power, and about its untiring ability to compete for people’s most fundamental loyalties.
The Coin Says It All
Before I explain further, we need to pause to take a look at the coin Jesus examines in this story. It’s an important object lesson.
The coin in question is a silver Roman denarius depicting the emperor’s image (his head) and bearing the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Deified Augustus, [who also is] Augustus” (see it here, under “Tiberius”). The coin’s reverse declares Tiberius is “high priest.”
The coin makes a claim. It asserts the emperor’s divinity (also implied in the name “Augustus” and in the laurel crown he sports) and proclaims Tiberius as the mediator of the emerging Roman state religion. The coin utters blasphemy, from the perspective of Jewish monotheism, and it issues a perpetual reminder of the religious loyalties embedded in Roman imperial society. It was a “pay to play” world; full participation required a serious commitment to the emperor.
You have to use this coin to stay in the emperor’s good graces, even as the coin itself compromises what you might stand for.
As Omar says in “The Wire”: it’s “all in the game, yo. All in the game.”
The Price Of The Game
This isn’t shrug-your-shoulders resignation on Jesus’ part. He’s highlighting the hazards of life under the Empire and issuing a sharp criticism.
His words “give to the emperor” use the language of settling a debt, and so they sting. Pay the emperor back. Give him what you owe him. Complete the deal. Acknowledge the benefits he gives to you.
And the small but powerful coterie of Jesus’ opponents in Jerusalem were very familiar with Rome’s benefits. They — although not necessarily the Pharisees who appear in this scene — received their authority through a partnership with the Roman government. Loyalty has its rewards.
The Empire gives nothing for free. Whether you possess coins, prerogatives, influence, opportunities or status, it will demand some sort of fealty in return.
All this makes it hard for a person to give back to God “the things that are God’s.” Loyalty and devotion are not easily partitioned among multiple recipients.
What’s A Poor Citizen To Do?
Rome has come and gone, but the challenges facing people of faith remain just as real, even if they are more subtle than the brazen propaganda stamped on a denarius.
For one thing, to be a member of society — simply to be in the game — puts me at risk of becoming complicit in society’s blasphemies. Chances are good that every time I buy a pair of shoes I am exploiting someone somewhere. I can declare, “I am Troy Davis,” and insist that capital punishment not be performed in my name; but part of me feels like, simply because I am an American, I cannot shake a share of responsibility for the injections that ended another man’s life.
Second, Jesus calls our attention to the dangers of seeking power or courting the establishment. Part of me sympathizes with the impulse behind the Pulpit Freedom Sunday of 10 days ago. If American churches’ tax-exempt status comes with a cost, if it requires them to avoid voicing certain endorsements or condemnations, then I can imagine scenarios in which the game isn’t worth playing. When “the emperor” (the state) wants to regulate Christian preaching, I worry that “the things that are God’s” could be compromised. And so, in some circumstances, I might be persuaded to choose churches paying taxes over their subjection to this regulation.
(I should note that I’m not convinced American churches necessarily have a constitutional right to tax-exempt status, which is but one reason I’m outside the “Pulpit Freedom” party line.)
Watch: Politicking from the Pulpit
But, alas, there’s still a grave danger in bringing too much political specificity into church, at least along the lines of the priorities that seem operative among the Pulpit Freedom people. If Christians, as a group, cozy up to a candidate or a partisan movement, they’ll soon find themselves owing some allegiance. Worse, they’ll wind up complicit in abuses. This vision of (pulpit) freedom isn’t free.
It may not be Rome, but you still can’t play without a cost; no matter who your candidates are, they’ll need a part of you in return.
All in the game, yo.
Third, what’s true for churches is true for individual Christians. Who among us isn’t drawn to favors granted by the emperor? The comfort of respectability, the potential to influence things, the confidence of reliable markets, the security from danger, the hope of a better future — I am not calling these things and our desire for them bad. But they do demand our loyalties and require us to make commitments.
And yet we have no choice but to pursue them.
Jesus’ words in this story are famous for their ambiguity. However, the ambiguity is more than a clever maneuver to evade entrapment. It admits the moral ambiguity that permeates our political and social existence. People cannot avoid any and all obligations that may, in their full effects, dishonor or grieve a merciful God, can they? Anyway, the needs of the world demand that Christians stay deeply engaged in it.
In our increasingly complex existence, Jesus’ statement about attending to “the things that are God’s” prompts us to recognize how all-encompassing that category is. It overshadows the rights and allegiances any empire might demand for itself.
Furthermore, Jesus’ statement regularly summons us to repentance toward changes in how we live and toward more undivided loyalties. It extends the promise that we need not be totally defined by the games we must play.
Editor’s Note: ON Scripture is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.