The gospel reading we hear this Sunday is possibly one of the most misunderstood and ill interpreted sayings of Jesus in Christian history.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to realise that this Sunday’s passage has been a favourite proof text for politicians, rulers, and representatives of secular power over the centuries. Jesus, presented with a question about taxation, asks for a coin. He seems pretty uncomplicatedly to teach it is the duty of those who wish to follow him to pay their dues to whoever is in charge.
But more than that, this passage has often been the foundation stone for a certain sort of thinking which sees the spiritual and the secular as two completely different realms. You see that kind of attitude in republics that insist on the separation of church and state, for example. But it’s also present in a much more malign way in oppressive states that don’t want the representatives of organised religion challenging the status quo or defending human rights.
So what is Jesus actually teaching us today? Does he really want us to support the state we live in come what may, or is this about something subtly different?
One of the problems here is a misunderstanding of how taxation worked in antiquity. In modernity we think of taxation as a reasonable contract. By paying funds to the state, we expect to receive something back in return. Taxes are the way in which our safety is ensured through our armed forces, how our children are educated, and how the sick and old are cared for by the NHS. In a way you could argue that for the modern mind, taxation is one of the ways in which we are bound to one another, and support each other. And when taxes seem unreasonable or unjust, they can be changed by replacing the government at the ballot box.
But that’s not how taxes worked in antiquity, and especially in the Roman empire. Taxes in the ancient world were quite simply a sign of subjugation. You paid taxes to show you were a subject of the Roman Emperor. There was no expectation you’d get anything back. There was no social contract. No NHS, no social security. It was quite simply a humiliating way of paying tribute to the power that exercised control over you. The taxes you paid showed which empire you were subject to.
So if the denarius is to be paid to Caesar because it belongs to him, what are the things that belong to God? Well, if there’s one place you’re guaranteed to find God’s image it’s in us. Human beings, we are told in Genesis are made in the image of God. We are his handiwork and we belong to him.
So this teaching is less about political theory, the role of the secular state, or taxation policy, and more about what it means to be human.
To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to acknowledge that above all things, and before all other allegiances, we belong to God. We are his. And if that is so, then the demands of this world, its politics and the power of money and wealth can never completely have dominion over us.
And if that is so, then our outlook on life completely changes. We are able to value ourselves as made in God’s image. We are able to cherish our neighbour as uniquely precious, no matter who they are and what they’ve done. We are able to say human life is of immense value and should be protected wherever it is found. And we are able to speak about what our ultimate destiny is: living with God in eternity and returning to him who created us in the first place.
Giving to God that which is God’s is about acknowledging our complete dependence on him, and opening ourselves up to the idea that to truly be human is to trust in him as our origin and our ultimate destiny.