When the Pharisees and Herodians joined forces and they are really nice to you; Jesus knew it was going to be one of those days.
Their question is simple. Should people pay taxes or not? Should the occupied Jews pay Rome a poll tax to support the occupation and suppression in their land? Jesus is between a rock and hard place. He can publicly make a statement against Rome or he can be seen to support the occupying force.
The response of Jesus is to ask for a coin. The annual poll tax on all adults was one denarius, equivalent to one day’s wages, and it had to be paid in Roman coinage. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says.
And there, in the sacred temple in Jerusalem, the Pharisees gave him a Roman coin with its pagan inscriptions and image of Caesar’s head on it. The mere fact that they possessed the graven image in the temple condemned his questioners. Then Jesus says the familiar words which have become perhaps one of his most famous sayings. ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’
It is an enigmatic statement and it has been used as a way of suggesting that as Christians we should separate our lives between the religious bit and the secular bit. So people will say things like, ‘Keep religion out of politics!’ But let us recognise that the person who most obviously did not live in that kind of duality was Jesus!
Jesus made it perfectly clear that God was interested in every single little part of our lives. When Jesus says, ”Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," make no mistake, Jesus is not putting God and Caesar on a level footing with equal and competing claims.
So what is Jesus saying? We need to start from the position which we know, that Jesus believed everything belongs to God. All things were derived from God, even political power.
The story is easily twisted to support an easy separation of church and state. It is used to tell the church to stay out of politics. But actually there is no separation of religion and politics in Jesus’ time.
And it is the same today - theology and politics were and are inseparable. There is no other way to give God what is God’s. I cannot separate out issues which do not concern God and only concern “Caesar,” the state. It all concerns God.
If we consider that all things belong to God, including the way in which we structure our society, then as Christian people, the way we live, who we vote for, what issues we choose to fight for, are both the political and religious outworking of our faith.
If we had a conversation about party politics I suspect many of us would feel a little bored, yet if we talked about fracking, or the Human Rights Act, or Scottish independence I suspect we might all get a bit more animated. After all when we pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ surely we are praying for political and social change as well as religious change? Jesus was heavily into the politics of his day, but he was however no politician. Politicians need to be loved. They want re-election.
Here Jesus does not side with anybody. Jesus does not give a political answer he gives us the truth. Jesus is not a populist, he could offend anybody. Religious leaders, political leaders, even his disciples.
The coin bore the likeness of Caesar, humanity bears the likeness of God. Can you imagine God's image is on you. We belong to God. We are more than what we possess, or what we believe, we are more than the political ideas we have. We belong to God. And when I say we bear God's likeness, I mean all humankind. When I look in the mirror, and see the image that looks back at me, I do not see God as a white middle aged male Christian. God is female, Jew, Muslim, we all bear God's likeness.
We need to remember that God's love knows no borders; God’s call for compassion and mercy, knows no borders; we are God’s children. The poor belong to God, no matter what they believe or look like, they are his. If we try to separate ourselves from those who are poor and in need, then what we do is separate ourselves from God.
Over the next few weeks the Church’s readings gets us to reflect on the nature of Christ’s kingship and the complicated relationship we have with the Kingdom of God and the
kingdoms of our world. We have, if you like, a dual nationality.
It is easy to see Christianity as being about being nice, being good, upholding society’s values but it’s so much more than that. Every day we say “Thy Kingdom come”. Yet we don’t live as if that is a reality in our lives. We need to view our world, and its governments from the perspective of the coming Kingdom. What will the returning Jesus make of our world and of our governments?
Once you have a faith which says everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and that Christians should treat people with respect, love and equality, so much of our politics changes, including church politics.
What would we see as untenable in our world now if we lived with the knowledge that the kingdom is coming? What would we oppose with more energy, what would we support with more love?
The coming kingdom makes us rethink much in our world and makes us ponder our governments a bit more deeply. In the light of the resurrection, kingship and return of Jesus we look at our world with different eyes. The present social order – for all its good and all its evil – is passing away. Only God and the Kingdom are absolute; only God and the Kingdom can be the inspiration for true change, true hope and true justice in our world. We all bear the likeness of God—toss the coin and it will always belong to God. Amen.