The Question of Paying Taxes
By Adam Fronczek October 18, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22. The scripture readings may be found at the end of the sermon.
This is a written transcription of the video message Adam Fronczek offered on Sunday, October 18, 2020. The full video can be found at knox.org/sundayoctober18
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld appeared not long ago on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show. They were talking about the pandemic and Seinfeld commented “It’s like the whole world has been put in detention.”
Obviously, this pandemic is no joke; it is deadly serious and has devastated lives and livelihoods. At the same time, sometimes along the way we can benefit from a good joke about serious things, so that we can laugh our way through the frustrations and fears and hardships. I’ve always thought that the best jokes tap into something deep inside of us; good jokes can surface things that we didn’t know we were thinking about.
For me, the image of detention opens us to some big questions that I suspect many of us are wondering about these days. “Why are we in detention?” “Who put us there?” “How long is it going to be until we can get out?” These are theological questions—God questions—because they involve the deeper meaning of what is going on in the world right now. Is this pandemic some kind of punishment? Is God playing some role in this? Why does it victimize people in ways that are so unbalanced and unfair? Are we supposed to be learning or changing something? If we do, will that make it go away? When it is over—whatever that means—are things going to look better, or worse, or about the same as they did before?
Of course, I don’t know the answer to these questions any more than you do. I will say this: I cannot believe that COVID is a punishment from God. I don’t believe God would allow the people who are already the most vulnerable to suffer the most. Inequality is a human problem. But it’s hard for me not to wonder about some of the other big questions, even if I don’t have answers. And I believe it is the nagging of these unanswerable questions that makes us feel disillusioned, discouraged, depressed, frustrated…and not sure what to do or say or think.
These are tough questions, and they don’t have clear answers. But I do think there is wisdom in Scripture and in our faith tradition to help us deal with the hard feelings they bring so that we can live and thrive even in these hard days. This Sunday and next the sermons will be about wisdom from the Bible for navigating difficult days, difficult feelings, and big questions.
Today’s scripture lesson reminded me once again that God has a good sense of humor. It was two or three weeks ago that The New York Times ran that big article about the President’s tax history, and of course he replied that the whole thing was false; the story was all over the news. That day, with my laptop on the desk and the newsfeed rolling in, I was planning sermons, and I looked to see what Scriptures were being suggested for the coming weeks. I saw that for my very next sermon, October 18, the Gospel lesson was Jesus words in Matthew 22 about paying your taxes. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” All I could think was, ‘Lord, you’ve got to be kidding me!’
Let me say before I go one word further, that this sermon is not going to be about Donald Trump, and it’s not even going to be about the election—for a really good reason. It is so tempting for a preacher of any political leaning to take the latest news and this passage of Scripture and run with it. But I believe that would be in direct opposition to what this passage means. The message of this passage is that what we are doing right now, this time for worship, this sermon, this gathering of believers…this space and time does not belong to Donald Trump, or to any other president or politician. This is not space where we render unto Caesar. This is space where we render unto God. The church must remember that God’s wisdom is strong enough not to be overshadowed by the news of the day.
That statement might make it sound like sermons and worship are bound to be irrelevant and out of touch—that we can only talk about “religious things.” But that, too, could not be further from the truth. Jesus, and the Prophets, and many personalities of the Bible were deeply political; they had much to say to the governors and kings of their day.
But how do you have it both ways? How do you keep God at the center of your life and our worship, and also pay attention to the public witness of the Bible? How do you render unto Caesar what is Ceasar’s and to God what is God’s?
Jesus makes an important distinction that helps us navigate this question. Let’s look at the story. A group of religious and civic officials—Pharisees and Herodians—come to see Jesus; the story says they were, “hoping to entrap him” with a question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This is a trick question. If Jesus says ‘yes, pay taxes to the emperor,” he’ll be accused of being treasonous to the Jewish people in the face of their Roman oppressors. If he says no, the Romans will throw him in jail for inciting rebellion. Like so many decisions in our own lives right now, this question has no really good answer. What do you do when a question has no good answer? Jesus changes the question. Looking at the emperor’s likeness on the coin, he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” And to that question he has a good answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Here’s the distinction he is making: Jesus does not set the emperor and God on equal footing. The emperor can have the coin, he says. That belongs to him. But you do not belong to him. You do not belong to the emperor; your life belongs to God. So, there are limits to the authority that the emperor may have in your life, but you belong to God—and there are no limits to God’s authority. You belong to God everywhere you go. God and the emperor are not to be thought of as equals.
So, the people who are running for election in our own time, and the malice and fear and divisiveness that they bring to so much of life right now, hear me when I say that they have no authority here, where we come to worship. And they should not have ultimate authority in your life. This is the place where we come to be reminded that we belong to God. You do not belong to the politicians. I know that these days we turn on the TV, or look at our devices, or open the newspaper and it seems like you cannot get away from the malice. But you can. Like Mister Rogers used to tell little children about shows on TV that are hurtful and make us feel bad, “You can turn it off!” And that’s a reminder we often need when we are at worship.
This is not the emperor’s place. This is where we render unto God.
AND: When you leave here and go back out into the world, you will still belong to God. And that carries with it responsibilities—ways that we must engage Caesar. Here, where we belong to God, we talk about life-shaping values that we learn from our faith tradition. We talk about justice for long-oppressed people. We talk about seeking the welfare of people who are struggling. We talk about being peacemakers in the midst of a violent world. We talk about love for our neighbors, even when our neighbors are people we are not inclined to like. This is the witness of people who belong to God. And we are to take that witness everywhere with us—to our schools, our jobs, our neighborhood councils, and yes, to the polls. You belong to God. Render unto God what is God’s. And go into the world ready to engage with Caesar.
So, those are some practical reflections on this passage. But I’m also interested in reflecting on the spiritual nature of this story. What does this story mean, in the midst of all the struggle we’re facing? What does it mean to be comforted by the knowledge that you belong to God? What does it mean to ask some of those big questions I mentioned at the start, and to know that God is there, in the midst of them?
Let’s go back for a moment to that metaphor that started the sermon, the idea that COVID is like detention. Why did this happen? What does it mean? How long will it be until it is over? Another good metaphor for these questions is darkness. The inability to know where you are or see what’s ahead or to know where you are going.
Not long ago, my family spent a Saturday at a state park where the kids explored steep hills and cliffs, and the caves and tunnels underneath. There was one especially long tunnel we walked through together. It was an abandoned train tunnel that was dug back in 1852 and never completed. The tunnel was long enough that you couldn’t see the end, and had to rely heavily upon your flashlight, and it was low enough that I stooped and bent over most of the way through; our older boys clambered around through the mud and the rocks while I stepped carefully, our one-year old boy strapped to my chest. Not knowing exactly how long the tunnel was, there was a point at which I knew it was a long way back to turn around, and still didn’t quite know how much longer it would be ahead, and it was very dark. Except for the voices of my children enjoying the adventure, it was quiet and felt totally removed from the noise of the world. Perhaps it should have been scary, but I felt a surprising sense of peace while picking my way over those rocks in the dark tunnel, watching my children explore, and holding my warm, babbling baby close to my heart. Something there gave me a surprising sense of comfort.
We tend to talk a lot about light when we’re talking about God. “Let there be light;” “the light of the world;” “the light shines in the darkness…” We often forget that God is also quite comfortable in the darkness, and that amazing things can happen there.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote a great essay about caving. She recalled the role of caves and darkness in religious literature: Buddhists tell stories about meditation caves in India, China, and Bhutan. There is a cave near Mecca where Mohammed experienced his Night of Power and received the wisdom of the Quran. In the Bible, Elijah experienced God’s still, small voice at the mouth of a cave. God wrestled with Jacob in the nighttime and appeared to Mary and Joseph at night in their dreams. Jesus was born in the night; if you’ve been to the Holy Land you know that it probably happened not in a stable but in the darkness of a cave. A cave was also where Jesus was resurrected.
Barbara Brown Taylor points out that no one ever talks about that on Easter. “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But [resurrection] didn’t happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air… [N]ew life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” (Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 129)
Whether the subject is the upcoming election or the future of COVID, I know this: the politicians and pundits do not have answers to the questions that haunt us in the darkness. If we want to find our way through the darkness, we’ll need to remember that darkness is God’s territory.
So, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Pay your taxes, and out in the world, witness in public to the goodness of God by demanding justice for vulnerable people and acting as a peacemaker. Vote in favor of the principles of the Gospel, principles that all flow from the idea that every human person is a child of God. Give generously out of what you have. Help those who are suffering. Love your enemies.
And when the darkness seems too dark, remember that the Caesars of the world may seem to surround us, but their influence is limited. Your life does not belong to them. You belong to God. And God is at home even in the darkness.
Closing Question: What does it mean to you, in these days, to hear that God is comfortable in the darkness and that new life might be found there?
New Revised Standard Version
The Question about Paying Taxes
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 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.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.