To talk about taxes on a Sunday, on a Sabbath, might seem strange. But let’s dive in, shall we? Do you remember the first time that you learned about taxes: what they were for, how they were calculated, and what entities collect them? I don’t think that I really was very cognizant of taxes until my first job, and even then, I didn’t really pay attention to them. It was just something that was taken from my meager paycheck. Period. When I really started paying attention, I was living in Sweden as a student. For every person who complained that their taxes were high in America, there were probably five people in Sweden who would point out the collective goods and services and communal understandings that undergird the paying of taxes in their country. With pride, Swedes would acknowledge the payment of a larger portion of taxes, progressive taxes, and then would point to their clean water, impeccable parks and waterways, highly reliable, safe, and ascetically pleasing public transit, free college, longer vacation periods, government supported maternity and paternity leave, equitable schools, comprehensive and free healthcare, and various entities that were supported by taxes. I started paying attention when I tried to explain to my host sister that some of these things were more “a la carte” in the U.S. and not simply available to everyone, all the time.
And then, fast forward, a couple of years and I notice that forms and paperwork and complicated tax laws that govern in the US and require many to pay for tax help. For Swedes, this is simply not the case. Our system rewards those who are savvy enough to find loopholes or go-arounds or laws that favor the few at the expense of the majority. Add to this, the fact that a Swedish understanding of taxes, for the most part, is for the strength and communal benefit of all.
I am reading our scripture passage regarding Caesar, Jesus, and taxes basically on the eve of an election in which taxes paid by public servants are of high interest and has been a point of discussion and debate. In what manner should we hold our elected leaders responsible for supporting the taxes that government levies? I also read this having just gotten more than “caught up” on my own complicated taxes which included a payment of $12,000 to satisfy and complete taxes owed in 2018, 2019, and 2020. I am proud to pay taxes, proud to support our communal services, but not quite as proud that I had fallen behind in taking care of self-employment taxes, in recent years. For those who don’t know, clergy are employees for Federal and State taxes, but considered self-employed for social security taxes. So, every year, I need to do quarterly taxes in addition to the taxes that are taken from my paycheck. Usually, this isn’t an issue. But since my husband died, I’ve found it much harder to deal with. I now work with an accountant to help me understand those taxes for which I am responsible, how they are used, and how to render my responsibility each year.
So, this is the context in which I am addressing this topic. Today, Jesus is approached about paying taxes. It is curious, isn’t it? And we might ask, who are those who want to know what and how he thinks about taxes? What are the larger questions that this passage addresses concerning obedience to God and obedience to State? What motivation do Jesus’ debate partners have and why are their questions of any import to anyone listening in on the conversation—either then or now?
One day, Jesus is approached by the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees, in Jesus’ time, are often contrasted with the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or that life would continue beyond the grave. The Pharisees and Sadducees were two primary groups of philosophical, religious, and political thinking among many. On this day, the Pharisees approach Jesus but along with another group that would at first appear as unlikely companions: the Herodians. The Herodians were a secular group loyal to Herod, and loyal to preserving the current Herodian dynasty (Herod Antipas, etc). So you have two separate political groups, two unlikely “frenemies,” but with similar united intent: to “entrap” Jesus in the ensuing debate. Those who do not believe religion and politics should ever mix might see in this passage how they cannot help but to mix. Politics at its core is how we live with one another and how we make decisions in groups; religion is about the values that inform our living together and our decisions.
So the Pharisees and Herodians put this question to Jesus: Do you think that it is lawful to pay taxes to the imperial power (the emperor) or not? If Jesus says, “yes,” then he will be seen as a collaborator with an oppressive regime and lose favor among the masses and the religious establishment who provide cover and protection against arrest. If Jesus answers, “no,” then he could be viewed as a seditionist or someone fomenting revolution thereby putting his life in danger. Jesus chooses to answer by asking for a coin used for the tax. By doing so, he highlights those questioners who have carried the emperor’s coin into the temple—a coin which features the idolatrous image of the emperor and also the blasphemous words, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest…” These words point to the emperor’s divine status among human beings, clearly a charged symbol of the oppression and unholy power Caesar wielded.
Instead of falling for the trap, Jesus reframes the question by simply saying, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Of course, in answering this way, he turns the test back on them and quietly forces them to consider what things truly belong to God and what things belong to the emperor. Do humans belong to the emperor? Do resources, wealth, food, and the air we breathe? For his fellow religionists, all things belong to God, ( see “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…” Psalm 24:1) Jesus has answered those leaders without indicting himself as an insurrectionist, but has also subsumed Caesar under the greater rule of God. As one commentator has remarked: Jesus shows that “Caesar can stamp his picture and pedigree far and wide, but he cannot come near to the true commerce that animates us… Caesar will get many or most of the coins– and be flattered by how well his likeness is rendered in the medium of cold, hard cash; but the coin of the realm of our flesh and blood is the image of God. What is rendered to God is whatever bears the divine image…”
‘Render’ is a word that we do not hear very much. One of the many definitions of the word, “render,” is “to give back,” “to return as due,” or “to pay as an obligation.” The larger question of this passage for us is, “To whom do we owe a debt—whether moral, communal, or spiritual?” Beyond our goodwill, to whom do we owe for the services, the quality of life, and the communal well-being that we enjoy? How have we answered that question in the past and how do we answer now? If we do not feel “beholden” to anyone or anything, then why exactly is that the case? And if all things belong to God, what should we, as a people of faith, “render” (give back) to God and why?
Not only is this passage about taxes and what is owed to powers and principalities; it is also about how we order our duties, our communities, our debts, and how we often relinquish services and our power without realizing it. That is, we sometimes allow lesser things and people to take power away from us and away from our vision of a beloved community. That is, we often render payment to Caesar when one is due to God.
I am reading a book called, The Walking Life,: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time by Antonia Malchik. Among other things, Malchik traces how American society slowly made public policy decisions over several decades that overtly and purposely favored a car-culture over our human need and right to walk. This is of particular interest as Montgomery County has struggled recently with a high number of pedestrian deaths and injuries. In Maryland, nearly 3,000 pedestrians are injured annually. On average, 400 are struck by vehicles in Montgomery County.
Carefully researched, the thrust of Malchik’s argument shows how individuals, powers and principalities began to preference car use in public policy making and community design which explains why I encountered 8 lane highways in Florida with no easy way to cross, much less the availability of sidewalk and shade for the elderly, the parent with young children, or the disabled. It is also why so-called sloping “Hollywood curbs” often lack a satisfactory width for sidewalk use. In the name of efficiency, Malchik recounts how highways were built that all but destroyed communities in low income areas with the emphasis on getting cars through such areas at the fastest speeds possible, and without regard for the social fabric that thrived on day to day interactions through pedestrian contact and activities.
Her book helps one to see how easily we can render to Caesar, or – in this case, the automobile—things that which belong to God and the greater welfare of all. In her powerful book, race, economics, public policy, industry, and what makes us human are all intertwined. They are not separate. Prioritizing a car culture over and above the natural need to walk within and between communities has had harmful effects and was short-sighted. What is so jarring was the way in which our society has, over time, slowly rendered to the automobile and its primacy what we might have rendered to stronger communal ties, better city planning and policy, and less oppressive social dynamics.
At its core, our scripture from Matthew reminds us how easily we can render too much to the wrong sources of life and peace and for the wrong reasons. What have we – as a religious people—rendered unthinkingly to the political authorities and idols of our day? What have we given to them which we rightly owe to God? Has what we have “given back” been utilized for the benefit of all, or for the benefit of only a few? Lastly, are the debts that we levy and the debts that we pay reflective of our Lord’s injunction to “love our neighbor as ourselves?” If not, how might we make them more reflective of the God and the values in which we trust?
For more info, please see this article: by Tom Heberlein, “ I’m an American living in Sweden. Here’s why I came to embrace the higher taxes,”April 17, 2017https://www.vox.com/2016/4/8/11380356/swedish-taxes-love
 Richard E. Spaulding, “Matthew 22: 15-22,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) 190.
 See https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/dot-pedsafety/blairwalkproject.html