“What’s in your wallet?” That is, in effect, what Jesus was asking the crowd listening to him in the temple a few days before he was arrested and crucified. He had been engaged in a debate with the chief priests and elders, as ordinary people listened, for hours. The chief priests and elders would ask Jesus a question, hoping to trip him up in his answer, but he always managed to get the better of them. That sealed his death warrant, because they decided that Jesus was too much of a threat to their power and authority, and could not be allowed to continue preaching and teaching.
His request to see the coins that they carried with them was in response to the question asked by some Pharisees, who believed that they were the arbiters of all religious law, and Herodians, who supported King Herod, who ruled brutally in compliance with the Roman authorities. Their commonality in opposing Jesus led them to form a strange coalition. First, they pretend to compliment Jesus as a truthful teacher who doesn’t pander to anyone. Then they try to trap him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus, who hasn’t been mincing words all day, calls them hypocrites and then asks to see the coin they carry with them.
What we would not know unless we were history buffs, and what Jesus did not point out directly, is that the denarius, a common coin in the Roman Empire, had the image of the emperor Tiberius Caesar with a written declaration that he was the son of the divine Emperor Augustus on one side and on the other, the words “pontifex maximus,” which declared that Caesar was “the most high priest.”
Such a coin was blasphemous to religious Jews and was not permitted in the temple. That is why there were money changers outside the temple, to change the Roman coins to those minted by the Jewish authorities to purchase sacrifices and make donations to the temple. So, the people who considered themselves to be the most religious were carrying the offensive coins. They are hypocrites, and they are not really interested in the content of his answer, they just want to trap him.
His response at first seems like an enigma – he asks whose image is on the coin, they respond “Caesar” and he instructs them to give to the emperor what is his. Then he adds, “give to God the things that are God’s.” The authorities who asked the question were amazed that he could give such an answer that did not make anyone angry. They expected him to denounce the emperor, which would have gotten him in trouble with the Roman authorities, or support the tax, which would have made the people turn against him.
Because Jesus calls the questioners hypocrites and clearly states that they only wanted to test him, the people listening understand that they are not really looking for a legitimate answer to the question. They realize the questioners are only trying to find a way to have Jesus either incriminate himself, or make the crowds turn against him. Those who were religious would have heard in his response, “(give to) God the things that are God’s” the words from Psalm 24, which begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.”
Jesus wanted them to understand that as Roman subject they owed some allegiance to the emperor, but not absolute allegiance. As devout Jews, they could not declare absolute allegiance to anyone other than God. They were even exempt from offering the yearly sacrifice of allegiance to the emperor because it was against their religion. An example from slightly more recent history would be when the Christian churches in Germany allowed the swastika to be hung behind their altars and used the greeting of “Heil Hitler” in their sanctuaries. That was blasphemy. God’s people are created in the image of God so we do not owe absolute allegiance to any earthly ruler.
Metaphorically, Caesar represents the common good, the society in which we live, and as such can make legitimate claims on us. We are responsible to create programs and governments which serve the good of all. That is what we owe to the common good. We don’t like paying taxes, but we know that without them we would not have many certain services and benefits. For example, Martin Luther was one of the first people to support a tax that would provide public education for both girls and boys. He insisted that education supports the common good of society. All those who receive Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid would not want those things taken away, but they are only possible because we all contribute to fund them.
Refusing to pay taxes or other fees that support our society does not help the common good. However, it is our responsibility to debate what is appropriate taxation. We complain about the cost of taxes here on Long Island, and we can support legislation that cuts waste to decrease them, but we cannot completely eliminate them without eliminating services that are for the common good. Some people who live in rural areas and pay much lower taxes often do not have services such as garbage collection, they have to truck their garbage and recycling to the town dump.
There should be healthy and honest debate about the legitimate right of the government to tax us, but at some point, there is a limit to what the government can demand of its citizens. In Jesus’ day the Romans taxed the people in occupied territories unfairly, with much of the proceeds going directly to Rome rather than benefitting the people who paid them, with some skimmed off for the personal enrichment of the local authorities. We can be genuinely dedicated to the nation and the common good without falling into the idolatry of blind obedience. But when it comes to giving to God what belongs to God, nothing falls outside of that category. Even the taxes collected for the common good of society actually belong to God. Everything we have, our very selves, belongs to God.
Jesus was really asking, “Who or what are the rivals to God in our lives? Where do our loyalties lie?” Sometimes we get so caught up in our jobs and professional goals, our possessions, our lifestyle, our comfort and security that they become our gods. They can overshadow our families and time that should be spent with them, and they can even more easily overshadow our commitment and time spent with God. Jesus is saying we need to get our priorities straight. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – there are things that are important and have rightful claims upon us. But keep it in perspective. We should not allow these things to become our idols, taking time and energy away from our faith, our families, sometimes our health and our moral integrity.
What is in our wallets? Our most fundamental and ultimate allegiance belongs to God who created all things and to whom all things belong. How we choose to live our lives determines if we are sacrificing our time and trust to false gods or if we are giving God the allegiance that we owe to God. God’s rule is forever, all those other loyalties are temporary. Amen.