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“Teacher,” said the Pharisees to Jesus, “you need to pick a side.” Tell us which side you’re on: “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not.”
But, as Matthew points out in the introduction, it was a trap. And to understand why it was a trap, you need to know just a bit about the question.
The Pharisees were a group of people who intensely studied the Law of Moses and decided whether some action was in keeping with the Law of Moses or not. So when they ask Jesus “is it lawful”, they don’t mean according to Roman law (which of course requires the paying of taxes), but according to the Law of Moses.
And the reason most of the Pharisees declared paying taxes to the emperor as “unlawful” was not because paying taxes was wrong, or even because paying foreign tribute was forbidden. The reason they declared paying taxes to the emperor was wrong was because all of the Roman emperors declared themselves to be gods. Indeed, the image of the emperor on the coin was considered to be a “graven image” and it wasn’t permitted in the Temple. And so the conclusion of many of the Pharisees was that paying taxes to the emperor was “unlawful” because it was, in essence, acknowledging another god. It was pagan worship. And so it was “unlawful.”
But question was a trap. It was trap because if Jesus chose one side – “yes, paying taxes to the emperor is unlawful” – then the Roman authorities would come after him and kill him as an insurrectionist. But if he said, “no, it’s not really unlawful”, then the Pharisees could run around and point out that Jesus didn’t really care about God and the law of Moses.
But Jesus recognizes the question as a trap. And moreover, Jesus points out that the question itself is wrong, because often questions that, in one way or another, tell us to “pick a side” force us to deny the complexity of the situation and to stop asking questions that we really should be asking. And this is what Jesus does in his answer.
Jesus begins by calling out the Pharisees for being “hypocrites.” A “hypocrite”, of course, is a person who says one thing but does another. And in fact, in spite of the Pharisees declaring to others that paying taxes to the emperor was unlawful, they themselves still paid the taxes. They did this because, not unreasonably, they wanted to keep on living …! (We usually think of the penalty for not paying taxes as fines, liens and maybe even jail time. But if any of the Pharisees were ever famous enough to be known to the authorities, as Jesus was becoming, and really pushed the envelope on not paying taxes, they’d be toast! Moreover, if they got enough people to stop paying taxes, the Romans would destroy the whole country and kill a lot of people. And the Pharisees realized this.
Paying taxes was a more complicated and complex subject than “pick a side” would initially lead you to believe. But more than that, often “pick a side” means that you stop asking questions. And this is the bulk of Jesus’ answer. He tells everyone, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
But these are actually questions. What is it that I’m supposed to give to God? Is it merely lip service? Is it using “God” as an excuse to do what I want (perhaps not paying taxes?) Or is it more than that? How is it that God wants me to live in this moment? How do I balance the various relationships and responsibilities that God calls me to care about? How do I, as Luther said, “sin boldly” when I know I need to act, but all of the options before me (including NOT acting) seem like bad options? How do I live in such a way that I trust God and trust in God’s forgiveness when I’m not sure what’s right? These are the kinds of questions you raise when you start by asking “what should I give to God’?
And what about “the emperor.” What are the things we’re supposed to give to our government or our community? Is it just paying the taxes we’re supposed to pay? Or is Jesus really serious that there is something we should give? Does that mean we should demonstrate love for our country even, and perhaps especially, when we don’t like the politicians running it? Does it mean that we should care for others in our community, even when many of them make us angry? Does it mean that we should do more than fly a flag on national holidays? These are the kinds of questions you raise when you start wondering “what should I give to my secular government”?
Jesus didn’t spell out exactly what “give to the emperor” or “give to God” look like, because like all good rabbis, he answered questions by raising moral complexities and asking more questions. And Jesus is serious about taking those complexities seriously and about continuing to ask questions.
And this is especially true when we get told by others that we need to “pick a side.” I’ve been reading that implication quite a bit online after the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. I’m told by some folks that if I stand against terrorism and support Israel’s right to defend itself and protect its citizens, then I don’t care about civilians in Gaza (who are frankly being used as human shields by Hamas), or about legitimate Palestinian concerns. But others tell me that if I don’t side with suffering Palestinians, then I’m in favor of the Israeli government doing whatever it wants without constraints. You have to pick a side, they tell me; or at least, that’s the implication.
Over the years, as I’ve been on Holy Land trips and talked to lots of people, both Israeli and Palestinian, I’ve discovered a majority of both groups understand the complexities and would really like to live in peace. And I’ve learned there are lots of difficult questions that I don’t have the answers to. But I do know that acknowledging the complexities and continuing to ask questions is a better way forward than simply picking a side. Indeed, in the past, when I’ve spoken to people on both sides of the conflict who suggested strongly that I should “pick a side” they’ve often dismissed issues of complexity I had heard about from others, or they told me “I shouldn’t ask such questions” as I was asking.
And of course, in many other difficult and complicated issues, we also get told to “pick a side.” It happens in our politics. It happens with all the hot-button issues like crime, immigration and the economy. It sometimes happens in our personal relationships, when somebody says or implies, “you need to be on my side instead of his side or her side.” And almost always, the people who tell us to simply “pick a side” want us to deny complexity and stop asking deeper questions.
Yet acknowledging the complexity of moral and ethical issues, and asking deep questions, is what Jesus does in today’s Gospel reading. He does that not just to avoid a trap, but to remind us that this is the way he calls to live as his followers. Following Jesus doesn’t mean you get an easy way out. It means struggling to live faithfully in complex situations, and asking tough questions about how God is calling you to live in relationship with him and with others around you. In one sense, this story is Jesus’ way of reminding us not to get caught in the trap of taking the easy way out by simply “picking a side.”
And this DOESN’T mean we shouldn’t care about issues or people. And it doesn’t mean you can’t form an opinion or advocate for particular actions. In fact, quite the contrary. It means you take issues and people more seriously, and you don’t short circuit the process by simply cheering for one side and unquestioningly accepting whatever that side tells you.
So, if this afternoon you’re watching a game, feel free to pick a side and cheer for that team! But if you get asked about difficult situations, or if you’re in relationship with people who are struggling and need help and support, don’t just pick a side. Do as Jesus did. Recognize and explore the complexities of the issues. Never stop asking questions. And use those questions as a serious way to examine what it is that Jesus is calling you to give to God and to others.