Lions and tigers and bears—oh my!
But in this case, it’s money and religion and politics—oh my!
Yes, that’s right. It’s time to talk about these SCARY things. It IS almost Halloween, after all.
Let’s talk about money, first, which leads to politics, which leads to religion!
Jesus of Nazareth probably wouldn’t be invited to anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner, because apparently he really liked talking about money. He talked about it a LOT. A whole lot more, in fact, than he ever talked about sexual orientation—or sex in general.
Oh wait—he didn’t talk about sex.
Money and taxes were reality in the 1st and 2nd Century for the people of Israel and Palestine. Some may argue that things have not changed much. Well, I will beg to differ, because it was different back then and over there in that part of the world. Let’s give culture and history it’s due here; let’s look at money and taxes in this particular context.
Jews like Jesus in first century Palestine paid numerous taxes: They paid temple taxes, land taxes, customs taxes, and even more. But the “tax” that Jesus is asked about in this particular story is the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome. This tax supported the Roman occupation of Israel.
Um, sad, no? The Romans occupied Israel [not their land], but Israelis had to pay taxes to their oppressors.
But of course, as in every situation, some sided with the oppressors.
There were Jewish folk put in power by the Romans and they benefited from the occupation. So obviously, they supported the tax.
One more layer to it: those who were religiously devout [think about the Pharisees] had to pay this Imperial tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius; this picture was a proclamation of his divinity; having the coin itself would mean breaking the first two Commandments of Mosaic Law. So by paying this tax, the religious leaders were in fact honoring Caesar as a god. Obviously, the temple authorities were ultra-sensitive about this issue. And then Jesus started making them more sensitive about, it because…
Jesus taught that the Roman imperial system left out certain people.
Jesus said that the last should actually be first in God’s world. He told a story just before this episode about a wedding reception hosted by a king. Many rich people and dignitaries were invited, but they ignored the invitation. In the end, the king ended up inviting anyone he could find even from the streets, and they filled his banquet hall.
The injustice of the social systems mixed with the apathy of the religious leaders had put things out of balance.
But the Pharisees could not see that in Jesus’ message, for they were far too worried about, you guessed it—
Money, religion, and politics…oh my!
So they asked Jesus a trap question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? No good way to answer that.
So Jesus asked them a question.
“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.
Whose face is on the coin, and whose title?
How quickly the Pharisees produced said coin which was a symbol of Roman oppression and a sure sign that these very religious leaders were actually compliant in this unjust system. They eagerly showed Jesus the coin and told him that it was the Emperor’s face on it.
And while they considered the sad irony of all this and held tightly to the Emperor’s coin, Jesus quipped:
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.
This was Jesus asking them to wake up and notice that they were contributing to the injustice. None of their religious piety mattered, because it was empty. They cared more about the coin with the face on it; they cared more about their precious religious laws than they cared about the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, the forgotten.
So who were they? Were they Caesar’s subjects, or God’s children?
It’s a sharp question—and one we often avoid.
Because political affiliations [or lack thereof] tend to be very personal; we don’t like to talk about it. But many remain very loyal to said affiliations. And the way we spend and earn money is nobody’s business, we say. But meanwhile, we often measure ourselves [and others] by how much money we have or how many material possessions we own.
And then there’s religion. We say we don’t want politics or money mixed in with religion. But sadly, many churches are full of poisonous politics and gossip and people vying for control; churches even favor certain people who have more money and listen less to those with very little money.
So like the Pharisees, we often miss the point.
We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money, religion, and politics. They are part of life. We should not fear such things.
But they cannot be how we define ourselves.
Who are we? Are we subjects in an empire, loyalists to faces on a coin? Are we limited by our material wealth and boxed in by politics?
Or, are we children, created equally with the capacity to love and to show mercy, and to be impartial as the Creator is?
I’ve always felt that faith communities ought to inspire this kind of positive identity in people. Faith communities should be teaching and telling people that they are created in the image of God and all equal—with gifts to share, with purpose and potential; with the tools to love and to make a difference.
Churches [and people in general, for that matter] should never define people by their politics, religion, or how much money they have.
Instead, what if the coins with the faces on them did not matter so much to us? What if our religious and political affiliations also mattered less?
What if our behavior—how we live our lives and how we treat people, mattered the most?
The Pharisees are meant to be examples. We are supposed to walk in their shoes. Because like them, many of us have found ourselves getting too caught up in the politics of power, the pursuit of material wealth, and the imperialism of religion.
Unfortunately, a lot of people are members of churches only because their parents forced them to go or because it’s the status quo or merely because a particular church aligns with their political or social worldviews.
But I think that more and more people in this world want to commit only to things that make a real social impact in the world. More and more people of all ages and backgrounds want to find something like a spark or a light within themselves. And they want to join their light with others to make an even brighter one.
So friends, let money, religion, and politics, be what they are. Don’t let them define you.
Instead, be defined by the beauty and light given to all living creatures. Be defined by how you love and care for others.