The Coin of Tribute

Taxes. If you want to see people react strongly, just bring that subject up. Taxes are a big issue in politics and economics. Some  want to get rid of as many taxes as possible. Others say we need to rebalance our tax system to make it more equitable. We need to tax the rich more.

Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 22, 15-21) reminds us that controversy isn’t new. In Jesus’ day his enemies try to get him in trouble with a question about paying taxes to the emperor.

“Tell us, then, what is your opinion:

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

The census tax to Caesar was a tax levied on the Jews that required everyone to pay one denarius (the equivalent of one day’s pay) to the emperor in Rome every year. It was a very unpopular tax, one more burden to all the other taxes people had to pay.

Some Jewish nationalists at the time argued against the census tax and at one point started a revolt against paying it. The Romans judged them to be traitors and quickly put them to death. Rembrandt’s illustration above shows the Pharisees and the Herodians questioning Jesus about the coin of tribute, but notice the fellow on the staircase ready to run and inform on Jesus if he says the wrong thing.

If Jesus said “Don’t pay the tax,” his enemies could have reported him to the Roman authorities and they would have taken care of him. But his answer is more complex.

Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”

Then they handed him the Roman coin.

He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

They replied, “Caesar’s.””Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar

and to God what belongs to God.”

On that coin, Tiberias Caesar, the Roman Emperor then, was pictured as godlike, wearing a crown of victory. His word and will were supreme. In a very clever way, Jesus says to give him his due,  but he’s not God, though he may think he is. Caesar, his state, his government, his empire are under a higher authority. All life is under God.

That’s a basic lesson for us today too as we look at all levels of government,  from our national to our local governments. Governments are also under God.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that a government follow a particular religion. In pluralistic societies like ours, it’s not prudent for a particular church to dominate.  We believe in separating church and state.

But that does not mean that governments should respond only to the will of the majority or the will of the powerful or the will of the rich.  Governments have to respond to the needs of all,  to respect human rights, “ life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”

When governments become the tool of private interests or powerful majorities, they no longer are under God who cares for all, especially the poor and the sick and the slow.

Later on, after he’s arrested, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who condemns him to death.  It’s a dramatic meeting. Pilate is a symbol of what can go wrong in governments. He’s  more interested in keeping his job than seeing that justice is done.

The One who stands before him has no power, no influence, nothing to give the Roman governor. He’s innocent, but the injustice done to him doesn’t matter to Pilate. He’s helpless, but that matters less. Pilate sentences him to death. Jesus stands for our vulnerable humanity. Pilate is an example of pragmatic power, looking after its own interests.

The great tragedy of governments is that they fall in love with their own power and position. But the greater tragedy is that we let them.

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