Theme(s): Pay your taxes! / Give to God what is God's / The power of God's Word
Sentence: The gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (1 Thessalonians 1:5)
nameless, you stay with us;
even when we wrestle in the darkness
may we never lose heart
until your justice is fulfilled;
through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer,
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
When Jesus says in the gospel reading today that it is ok to pay to Caesar taxes required by Caesar, he stands in a theological tradition in which this Isaianic passages plays a role: ungodly rulers serve God's purposes, they may even be described by the Lord God as 'his anointed' (1).
The whole passage makes clear that the Cyruses of this world are (in a sense) mere pawns in the great chessboard of God's plans. Would that megalomaniacal rulers understood how puny they are compared to the one God ruling over the universe.
If we start by contemplating the might of mighty rulers, and then (in accord with ancient world views) consider the 'gods' who allegedly empower those rules (4-5), we - who understand that such gods are 'idols' - may praise God with greater joy for there is only one God, the Lord who 'made the heavens' (5).
With a nod to our gospel reading and Jesus' affirmation that what belongs to God should be given to God, note that our praise to God should not only be words but also come with an 'offering' presented in his 'courts' (8).
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
This letter is widely accepted as the first of Paul's letters to be written. It is a team effort, coming from 'Paul, Silvanus and Timothy' (1).
As with other Pauline letters, the beginning here is marked by thankfulness. The writers use the opportunity to tell their recipients that they thank God for them to also tell why they thank God.
If this Pauline team were writing to our church - perhaps after a parish review - would they be able to say of us what they say here?
Note the way in which the 'history' of the Thessalonian church, including the progress of the gospel among the members of the congregation (5, 9b), their 'imitative' discipleship (6a), their experience of persecution (6b), and their spreading reputation (7-9a), is woven together with 'theology' of Christian living and church life.
That is, note the important theological triad of faith, love and hope (3), the role of God in 'choosing' them to become his 'beloved' (4), the correlation in true preaching of the gospel between 'word', 'power', 'Holy Spirit', and 'conviction' (5), along with characteristics of reception of the gospel, 'joy inspired by the Holy Spirit' (6b), changed lives (7-9), as well as a new horizon for the future (9) and, finally, the Christology which affirms Jesus as 'Son' whom God 'raised from the dead' and the saviour 'who rescues us from the wrath that is coming' (9).
Perhaps all is well in our church and we can receive this passage as an endorsement of the work of God in our midst.
Perhaps all is not well in our church. How might we receive this passage?
On the one hand, could it be that we need a renewal of the basics of Christian life? A renewal of vital faith, energetic love and patient hope? Could a key to that renewal be a renewal of the importance of preaching as preaching of God's powerful, convicting, Holy Spirit inspired and illuminated word?
On the other hand, could it be that, unconsciously, we have reversed the course of conversion. We have turned back from God to 'idols' (9b)? We may need to identify what have become idols in our particular congregational life, but once identified we can turn again to the living and true God.
I wonder how many preachers this Sunday will be bold enough to firmly and loudly urge their congregations to pay all their taxes and with the same earnestness and enthusiasm that they obey all the other commands of our Lord!
Yet, seriously, one of the applications of today's passage is: pay your taxes!
How do we get to that application?
Jesus is continuing a series of exchanges with religious leaders. If he is not provoking them, they are provoking him. Keen to get rid of him, they have tried to trap him. Today's trap is particularly vicious as a wrong answer on tax to be paid to Rome could see Jesus going straight to a Roman court with no need for the extraordinary persuasion exercise Israel's leaders would later engage in so that Rome could do their dirty work for them.
Remember that the Israel of Jesus was a theocracy wrapped inside an autocracy, with the extra layer of local hegemony via Herodian rulers (of different parts of Israel) wrapping round the theocracy and helping the Roman emperor to exercise his power. Thus we note the trap is set by a group of Pharisees as well as some Herodians (15-16).
Pharisees, let's recall, were keen to live out the law of God, determined to be faithful to God while under the thumb of Roman and Herodian rule. Yet they resisted temptation to isolate themselves monastically (as the Essenes did, in the desert) as well as to ingratiate themselves with the rulers (as the Sadducees did, via Israel's leadership through priesthood and Sanhedrin [council]). The very fact that the disciples of the Pharisees combined with the Herodians in this entrapment tells us that significant issues were at stake politically and religiously.
The wrong answer from Jesus, re tax to Caesar and the Herodians will be off to Pilate quick as a flash.
The wrong answer from Jesus, re giving to God and the Pharisees will be off somewhere (making mischief with the crowds, perhaps?).
The question itself is a Pharisaical question because it is framed in terms of what is 'lawful' (17). It is a good question, almost a clever question, because it asks Jesus as a 'rabbi' or 'teacher' (16) to give a legal ruling which, in turn, invites Rabbi Jesus to engage with the Law of Moses, a set of rules with lots to say about giving to God, making offerings to God, including, of course, the giving of tithes to God. In the theocracy presupposed by the Law, nothing is said about paying taxes to foreign rulers of Israel.
Thus the trap in the question is twofold. A simple 'Yes' it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor would mean a denial of the Law of Moses in favour of obedience to imperial law. A simple 'No' it is not lawful to pay such taxes could have been an assertion of the Mosaic Law's authority over Roman law but the Pharisees would not have wasted time complimenting Jesus on his rabbinical faithfulness. A quick nod of their heads to the Herodians and off to court Jesus would have gone.
Jesus knows he is being put to the test and declares that in a voiced complaint (18). 'you hypocrites' is a valid charge here because the questioners are play acting. Theirs is not a genuine intellectual question but an enticement to support breaking the law.
In what is now 'typical' fashion for Jesus, he answers a question with a question. He asks for the coin in which the tax is to be paid (19) and puts the question, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" (20).
There can only be one answer to the question (21a) but what Jesus then says likely surprised his hearers and likely continues to challenge us, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's" (21b).
Our first interest in the reply is the manner in which it answers the entrapment question. Effectively Jesus says, "Yes, it is lawful to pay tax to the emperor." But he does so in a way, with a 'both ... and' that makes no diminution of the Law of Moses regarding tithes and offerings. He is, to coin a phrase, politically correct and theologically correct. Ironically, he gives the same answer that the Pharisees and Herodians would have given if the question had been put to them.
Our second interest in the reply is the content of the answer in respect of life for each Christian in every country where (with the exception, perhaps, of the Vatican State - but I claim no familiarity about how taxes work there) taxes are claimed by governments that make no claim to do the will of the God of Jesus Christ (indeed, may even make the claim to be opposed to that will).
The balance in the statement between emperor and God, along with the significance of paying taxes to an enemy ruler over Israel, means that what Jesus says is a timeless principle.
Governments have the right to claim taxes from us since they are authorities instituted by God (see Romans 13) and the costs of their work in guarding, guiding, and caring for us need to be met. God has the right to ask us to give, both because everything we have has come from God as Creator and Sustainer of all things, and because the mission of God has costs.
(I leave for another day the difficult questions of when we might stop paying taxes because the benign government envisaged in Romans 13 becomes malign.)
Our third interest - potentially - in what Jesus says in verse 21 lies in the presumption the statement makes: that the 'world' or 'worldly' system of money - expressed through coins minted by due authority - is what it is, when we engage in it we must honour the obligations of it, but no thought is given here to (say) opting out of the system.
There might be some challenging morning tea conversations if we pursue this thought!
A fourth interest, possibly, lies in the distinction Jesus makes between (so to speak) the worlds of Caesar and of God. How far do we press that distinction? Occasionally we hear stories of Christian businessmen who are grace-filled on Sundays and 'hard', 'mean', 'sharp', 'worshipping the almighty dollar' in the practice of their business life Mondays to Saturdays. Is that a distinction which may be justified from this saying of Jesus? Or, to head in a different direction re engagement with business life, as consumers, are Christians doing what Jesus wants if they shop like everyone else for the latest clothes and gadgets, just so long as on Sundays there is a decent offering in the plate?
Food for thought!