Psalm 96: 1 – 9, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10, Matthew 22: 15-22
Hear again the words of Matthew 22, verse 21, first in our modern NRSV translation and then in the King James.
[Jesus] said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (NRSV)
Saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. (KJV)
Jesus instruction: to “Render” or “give”
In the Greek:
“aposote” (in context)
The only other place in the Bible this Greek word “aposote” comes up in this same form and meaning is at Romans 13: 7 (full verse):
“Pay to all what is due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (NRSV)
(and again, the KJV translates this as “Render”)
“Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (KJV)
The meaning of “aposote” therefore is quite clear:
“Render” as the KJV says.
For me, there is something poetic, something perfect about the way the KJV translates this word
…“render”… it’s a word that is very seldom used in this context in our modern English…
“Render unto Ceasar”.
I think it’s because this word, this “render” brings to mind a much more visceral image than “pay” or “give” or “recompense”.
These days “render” does not so much bring to mind the jingling of coins or the flipping of chequebooks, rather, it brings up images of dripping fat, of congealing grease, of smelly, messy work.
With apologies to the vegetarians and vegans watching today.
To “render” fat is to take what is natural, what has been created by God, and to melt and boil and filter until it is no longer so.
To “render” fat is to take a natural, created thing, an animal, and reduce it into only one of its components.
In this way therefore, “render” really is the perfect word for the transactional nature of paying taxes, whether to Caesar Augustus, or to the Federal or Provincial government, or even to your local City Hall:
A person, and his or her means of surviving, of earning a living, is a natural, created thing.
From the very beginning, when Adam and Eve began to survive outside of the Garden, humanity has toiled.
We have toiled in our work, to feed ourselves, to survive, and from the moment humanity took up arms to rule over one another we have had governments and taxes.
God has great sympathy for the humble worker, the humble tax payer.
A great many words of scripture are given to the topics of work, of earning income, of survival, of community formed between people of various occupations.
Even at the beginning of the Gospel, when Jesus called his first disciples, what do we find them doing? Fishing! Earning their living, bringing in the day’s catch, working to pay their expenses and their taxes.
God in Jesus Christ, had a great interest in work, in toiling, in trade, being himself the Son of a Carpenter.
He spoke to and taught people of all kinds of occupations: farmers, soldiers, beggars, fisherman, and even tax collectors.
The work these people did added to their individuality, to their complexity, it added to who they were, as fully created and beloved people of God, just as we are today.
And yet, as we modern people know all too well, once a year, at tax time we are reduced, we are rendered.
On tax day we are no longer doctors or pastors, lawyers or custodians, fishers, or anything else; we are “tax payers”
We are rendered from a breathing, living, God-loved life, into just one of our component parts: an income, a tax file, a nine-digit identification number and a dollar amount.
Taxes and death: our two inevitabilities, two realities nearly as old as one another.
Friends, many wiser and sager people than myself have offered philosophies on how to approach the reality of our “rendering” unto Ceasar, how to go on being tax payers, to go on being citizens in a world that so often reduces us to little more than a number and a dollar amount.
The Pharisees and Herodians themselves, those who meant to entrap Jesus in his words, intended to use just this issue to get Jesus into trouble:
“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?”
Even if the flowery language and the compliments of the Pharisees and Herodians were not enough to tip Jesus that these questioners were dishonest in their intentions, there was an even larger clue:
This question was being asked simultaneously by both the Pharisees (those legal experts loyal to the Temple) and the Herodians (those Judeans loyal to King Herod and to Rome).
“What do you say, Jesus? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
Thinking themselves quite clever in asking this question, the Pharisees and the Herodians were putting forth a choice:
Who will you dishonor Jesus? God or the Emperor?
Where would you like to end up? In the clutches of the Temple authorities, or in one of Herod’s prisons?
These days, especially, when we are inundated with election ads and campaign promises at the civic, provincial (and, as we know painfully well, the American Presidential) level, we are asked a similar question:
Whom will you serve?
Will it be God or will it be Emperor?
Is it lawful or not to pay the tax?
But this, Jesus shows us, is exactly where the lie of the Pharisees and Herodians was embedded.
This was the trick used to attempt to entrap Jesus in His words, but hear the answer Jesus gives directly from Matthew:
Tell us [Jesus]… 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, “The Emperor’s”
Then He said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Matthew tells us that When [The Pharisees and Herodians] heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s
So Caesar wants his denarius?
So Caesar wants us to return to him this little disk with his face on it?
Render your taxes to Caesar.
But more importantly, be aware of what you are doing. Whether you regard Caesar as a tyrant or a friend, Caesar is only due the rendering, the fat of your labour. A piece of your income. Not your whole heart, or mind, or body.
In other words, Jesus reminds us:
God is not mocked.
God is not mocked by this denarius, this little trinket. By the ego of a man who would stamp his face on a fleck of gold and think that that makes him a god over men.
In the time of Rome, Caesar considered himself a god among men, but that did not make him so.
These days, we have our own Caesars; people who consider themselves more important than they are. That because we vote for them and pay taxes to their governments, that entitles them to our hearts and minds as well as our dollars. But that does not make it so.
Friends, the difference between God and Emperor is not one of loyalty it is one of category:
It sometimes appears that the choice is between God or World, Church or State, God or Emperor but this is an illusion.
God; Christ’s Heavenly Father and our own, is the maker and sustainer of the universe, giver of every good thing, knower of every person at a level of depth that only those who profess faith in Christ know.
By contrast, the Emperor (or in our modern day: the “Prime Minister”, the “Premier”, or even the “President”) is not.
Comparing God, Father of Heaven and Earth, to an earthly politician, is (as Jesus shows us) ridiculous.
God is not mocked, and neither are we, so long as we remember that God is God and Caesar is not.
Friends, I do not pretend that knowing this distinction and living by it is always easy to do.
For as often as we are reminded that Christ alone is Lord, that our loyalty is to Him and not to any earthly ruler, we still live in a political world.
Thanks to the barrage of messages and opinions, ads and editorials that are swirling around us in these very political times, Christ will forgive us if we sometimes lose sight of the fact that these elections, these politics do not alter God’s world so much as we may hope or fear.
The truth of the Gospel today is that God knows.
God knows our hopes, our fears, and our hearts.
God knows us in our deepest selves.
To such a depth that cannot be expressed in tax dollars or votes.
Render therefore unto Caesar
Two thousand years after Jesus first spoke these words, Empires continue to rise and fall, just as they always have. Even Rome, the great Empire that was promised never to crumble, eventually did. Those coins, those denarii emblazoned with the face of the emperor have long ago been melted down, rendered into coins of other nations.
A few still exist, preserved in museums, relics of a dead god.
As difficult as it is to believe, the empires of our day are destined to the same fate.
Even taxes come to an end.
With all of the pitfalls and trappings of our created world, with all of the tyrants and politicians, toil and taxes, tributes and renderings, we can easily find ourselves lost in the confusion, equating God with Caesar, and taxes with loyalty.
The Good News today is that despite all of the voices claiming authority for themselves, there is one who speaks with far greater authority.
We know Him by His Words and His Works, by His Miracles and especially by His Resurrection.
That in His dying and rising again He has established the One True Kingdom of God.
This Lord Lives, That even Death May Die; That we may live our lives in Him and He in us. Forever.