I didn’t plan it like this, but it’s somehow fitting that we are looking at today’s passage on the first day of the new tax year – and indeed on a day when a particular high profile tax rise in our country comes into effect. It is, perhaps, cold comfort to know that controversy over paying taxes is as old as government itself. In Jesus’ day, the issue was red-hot because such taxes were paid, not just to the people’s own leaders, but also to the Romans, their hated oppressors. Those who collected them were considered traitors – which is why Jesus’ own kind behaviour towards both Levi and Zacchaeus elsewhere in the gospels (Levi even becomes one of the disciples, renamed Matthew) is so striking.
It also makes the latest loaded question arguably the most dangerous. One mis-step here could either lead to Jesus being arrested as a radical, or lynched as a collaborator. The stooges recruited to ask the question raise the stakes even higher by deliberately speaking about Jesus’ integrity, and refusal to conform to social prejudices (v14).
So how is Jesus going to get out of this one (you may be thinking)? With divine wisdom, just he does with all the other questions. His answer reframes the question entirely: each authority should get the obedience/offering rightfully owed to them. Whilst early Christian leaders endorsed the basic legitimacy of paying taxes (Romans 13:6), Jesus leaves just enough ‘wiggle room’ in his answer to imply that there is also a concomitant responsibility for leaders to justify what they ask of their people; we are given permission to ask the question: ‘What exactly does Caesar rightfully deserve?’
However, the next part of Jesus answer takes us well beyond the hot topic of taxes: ‘Give to God what is God’s.’ To which we have to ask: ‘And what is God’s?’ The answer is clear: ‘Everything!’ For in God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)… for from him and through him and to him are all things. (Romans 11:36)
This is not just a brilliant reply, it also puts the ball right back in his questioners’ court. Are they giving God everything he deserves? Are we? Today, take a few moments to reflect on where we might feel tempted to short-change God a bit. God is good, and gracious, and a great listener: why not share it with him, and ask for help to keep giving him all that he deserves – just as Jesus encourages us to do.