As I write this morning, the first whispers of a gray autumn are in the air, and thankfully so because in Nebraska we have been enjoying an Indian summer for quite some time. Yesterday I had the chance to clear out some of the few remaining vegetable plants in my garden – the ever-abundant Amish paste tomatoes – and put them in a tidy little pile to burn when the time is right (that is, when the ground is moist and the wind is not blowing, which means that I may be waiting a long time). Though I am never overjoyed to see the summer reach its conclusion in this way, I do take great comfort in knowing that the peculiar rituals of this season somehow make everything right. I feel as if I am conforming to a grand cosmic liturgy in which the vestments of my community turn necessarily from green to gold, from light to dark, and from life to death. Though in my later years I have come to welcome the spring with much more enthusiasm, I am still grateful for the weighty reminder that this transformation of my corner of the planet is by divine design. It is at once both intimate and mysterious to me, and not a year has gone by when I have not gained some important insight from it.
In the Middle Ages, alchemists identified four humors that they believed were responsible for the emotions and personality of every individual, and these they tended to connect with the distinctive qualities of each season. While summer was sanguine, full of vitality and youthful optimism, autumn was melancholy and brooding, tinged with sorrow and perhaps even a sense of foreboding. As I consider the dialogue that takes place in our Gospel lesson for this week, I cannot help but think that Jesus must have been experiencing a similar change of emotional outlook as he approached his tragic destiny. In Galilee, among the people he fed and healed, among the disciples he taught and challenged, and even among the Pharisees who questioned his rather liberal reading of the Torah, the sun seemed to shine brightly and a sense of hope was ever in the air. But in the city of David, and in the shadow of the Temple, the curiosity of the religious leaders turned quickly to interrogation. And though the people of the land were anticipating the prospect of an abundant grain harvest, in Jerusalem the political winds were changing for the worse. They were colder, bearing intimations of suffering and grief.
The first hint of autumnal sorrow amidst the advent of spring is borne on the breeze of two unlikely allies – the Herodians and the Pharisees – who endeavor to trap Jesus into some form of subversion. The former, the sycophants of the Idumean chieftain whom the Romans had appointed "king" of Judea, probably had little interest in the spiritual teachings of Jesus, but the claim that some were making about him – that he was the long-awaited Messiah – surely caught their attention. Wanting to maintain their favorable status with Pilate, it was in their best interest to get some dirt on this pretender, this upstart Nazarene. By contrast, the Pharisees in this account were less interested in Roman politics than Torah observance, and they had gradually come to see Jesus as a threat to their traditional understanding of the covenant. They would not lose much sleep if this radical rabbi were to disappear into the Passover crowds. Getting rid of Jesus was in their best interest as well, and to this end they were willing to enjoy the company of some strange bedfellows.
But how to pull it off – this was the question. Apparently after some discussion, the two groups decided on the one issue that stood at the heart of their disagreements with each other. It offered the best chance to put Jesus in his place as a threat to either Rome or Israel. They devised to corner him on the topic of taxes.
Death and taxes: the two certainties in life. Today we lament the relatively meager tribute we pay annually (when compared to other industrialized nations), but it is really a pittance compared to the burden placed on the Jews of Jesus' day. The obligation was in fact threefold. First, if you were a Galilean farmer, for instance, you had to offer your gratitude to the Romans for bringing to you the advantages of imperial civilization: the roads, the aqueduct, and of course the Pax Romana. Second, Herod needed to be paid his due, for after all, he did renovate the Temple to the glory of God (and himself). And speaking of the Temple, someone had to cover the cost of its upkeep, and you could bet your sandals the Romans weren't going to do it. So every Jewish male was required to offer his support of the proper worship of God in the form of hard currency. As a consequence, by the end of the day, after all the deductions had been made, the average farmer had very little left for the welfare of his family. Paying his fair share in fact drove him to certain ruin. The subject of taxes, then, was a tinder box just waiting for the spark of some radical rabbi from up north to set it ablaze.
So taxes it was – that was how the Pharisees and the Herodians would set the wheels in motion to bring about Jesus' demise. But the rabbi's unexpected response to their query, as the text tells us, left them all "amazed," and this amazement is where we need to focus our attention. For us – living as we do in a democracy where our loyalties to church and state are so uncritically apportioned – Jesus' retort appears eminently reasonable. Why, then, were his inquisitors so astonished?
Before considering Jesus' reply, it is important to realize just how he succeeds in destabilizing the situation. He demonstrates by way of an object lesson the real differences between these improbable allies. Whereas a Pharisee would never dream of carrying a denarius on his person – a clear violation of the prohibition against graven images – a Herodian, by contrast, had no problem fulfilling the request. Jesus, therefore, in asking for the Roman coin, accentuates the distinction between the two groups, reminding them of how unlikely the entire scenario really is. It is as if to say: "I get the joke, you guys, and I'm not going to fall for your false flattery."
Though the rift in this bogus alliance begins with a coin, with the image of an imperial ruler displayed so cavalierly in the Temple precincts, Jesus' subsequent teaching on taxes is what finally exposes it for what it truly is. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21).
This gets to the very heart of the matter. On the one hand, it is precisely the kind of response that would appease the Herodians, suggesting as it does a vindication of the status quo with Caesar's coins going back to him in the form of tribute, and the Temple currency finding its way into the coffers of the priests. To the Pharisees, on the other hand, whose testimony of faith included the affirmation that "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof (Ps. 24:1), Jesus' reply seemed to fall clearly in line with their perspective on the sanctity of God's creation. If all things belong to God, as the Psalmist clearly states, then what can possibly be left over to offer to the emperor in tribute? But what exactly does Jesus mean? Both parties are left wondering whose side he is really on. Is Jesus an ally or an enemy?
Personally I am more inclined to believe that Jesus opposed the Roman tax; the conclusion seems to be much more consistent with the kind of radical politics that were prevalent in the Galilean countryside where he was raised. I hesitate to say this, however, for fear of piquing the ire of many, both Christians and secular Americans alike. We have all been led to believe – by way of Paul's admonition to the Romans to "be subject to the governing authorities" (13:1) and to "pay taxes to whom taxes are due" (13:7) – that this simple and efficient division of labor between the secular and religious authorities has been established since the foundation of the world, and thus it should be affirmed in both word and deed. So we dutifully pay our tribute every April with the assurance from many of our pastors and priests that in rendering unto the emperor we are also offering unto God. But I wonder. Given Jesus' ambiguous response to his enemies, what does it mean for us truly to follow the example, not only of the word, but of the Word made flesh? More to the point, in light of my Christian belief, should I consider myself an enemy or an ally of the state?
Every spring, when the wheat in the Nebraska fields is ripening toward a fruitful harvest, I admit that I am filled with my own melancholia as I dutifully write my check to the IRS and ponder this question of faith. By some accounts, as much as forty cents of every dollar I provide to the U.S. government is dedicated to some form of military spending. Add to this certain expenditures in the form of subsidies proffered in the name of the poor for the benefit of the rich – for example, commodity payments made to the nation's largest agricultural producers – and the picture becomes even grimmer. When I consider what I am rendering unto Caesar, I have to say that I am indeed inclined to throw my hat into the ring with the radical rabbi and refuse to offer my tribute.
But it is important to remember, I think, that Jesus did not come down unambiguously on this side of the equation, much to my chagrin. It has never been clear, even to this day, whether he was an enemy or an ally of the state. This being the case, then perhaps this is the example that we should also follow as we continue to plumb the depths of this perplexing issue. For too long we have relied on a simplistic reading of this text, as if in this one instance Jesus' teaching were suddenly fully transparent and self-evident. Pay taxes, tithe in church – what's the problem? But we cannot simply discredit the centuries-long practice of our tradition without proposing some viable alternative. The best I can offer is that a new direction perhaps lies in paying more attention to the second half of Jesus' teaching on this issue. This is the real punch line of the narrative anyway – "give unto God the things that are God's."
So for now, I will continue to offer my tribute every April, though in doing so I will strive always to remember that my commitment to the Kingdom of God cannot begin and end here. Instead, what is most valuable in my life – my faith in a Creator of mercy and grace, my hope for the day when the meek will inherit the earth, and my love for those who work toward this end – will be offered up to God every day of the year, including tax day. For the Gospel, as I understand it, calls us to be neither enemies of the state nor its staunch allies. Rather, we should think of ourselves, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, as "resident aliens." We do not refuse to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, even when – much to our dismay – their utilization defies our most deeply held convictions. This is as true of the right as it is of the left, and in this we can take some solace. But the affections of our hearts and minds must always, and with greater fervor, be focused on the more urgent clause in Jesus' directive: "give to God the things that are God's."
In saying this, I realize that our commitment for the future will necessarily lie in a posture of perpetual discernment, for if the past is any guide, it is likely that we will continue to confuse our steadfast devotion to God with our compulsory obligations to the state. Despite the fact that Jesus never established it clearly in his teaching, that he left Pharisees and Herodians alike astonished at his cleverly ambiguous perspective, we are nevertheless prone in our human weakness to identify ourselves as either allies or enemies of Caesar.