When the temple clergy in Jerusalem sent their stooges to ask Jesus a loaded question, they thought they had him cornered: Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? If Jesus endorsed the Roman tax, he’d lose the crowd. If he encouraged nonpayment, he’d lose his freedom. His famous answer, of course, outsmarted his opponents and postponed his arrest for a few precious days.
“Show me a coin,” he said. One of them dug into his pockets and pulled out a coin, stamped with the image of the Roman emperor. “Whose picture is on it?” They all looked at the coin, straight men headed for a fall. “Caesar,” they said. Duh! “Well then,” Jesus said. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
We always smile at the Teacher’s wit. I like to think that Jesus pocketed the coin with a wink before walking away. But when the amusement fades, we are left with a puzzle. What does this saying mean for us? Is it a teaching, or even a commandment? What are we being asked to do with the money in our own pockets? The colorful Southern theologian Will Campbell, himself a country preacher, once said to me that if we give to God what belongs to God, there won’t be anything left for Caesar!
I loved what Will said – it had his characteristic prophetic edge – but it didn’t really solve the practicalities of being faithful to God while sharing in the costs and benefits of a complex economy. Most of us are not among the brave few who refuse participation by taxation in the military-industrial complex. We send in our check and accept our complicity in the mixed blessings of the system, which does provide for much common good along with its regrettably baneful effects (drones, for instance).
It’s like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where a dissident complains, “The Romans took everything from us, and what have they ever given us in return?” His followers, to his chagrin, come up with a long list of benefits, including the aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, education, public baths, and even the absence of war in the Pax Romana.
While we live in this world, Jesus’ aphorism on taxes will never be an “answer” in the sense of an unambiguous guide for specific action. Instead, it persists as a question that interrogates every individual as well as every system. What does belong to God, exactly? And how then do we return to God what is God’s own?
Pooling our resources through taxation in order to educate our children, feed the hungry, protect the environment, provide universal health care and so on, might be regarded as one form of return, to which we subscribe as citizens with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Common good requires common action. Pooling our resources through church pledging to sustain a community of faith and grow God’s mission to the world is a less messy and more direct form of “giving to God what belongs to God.” Charitable giving is yet another kind of return.
This is how we live as citizens of heaven: we keep the gifts moving – in circulation – rather than hoard them for ourselves.
And did you notice that in this gospel story of the coin the notion of “belonging to” refers only to God or Caesar? We ourselves own nothing. We are but recipients and stewards. The only thing that really belongs to us, Jesus says, is the giving.