This is not a story about the separation of church and state. Nor is this a story in which Jesus advises us to be good citizens and pay our taxes.
This is a story about empires colliding – or, at least, a story about the Roman Empire colliding with the upstart anti-empire that Jesus referred to ironically as “the Kingdom of God.” It’s a story about economics, definitely, and in particular it’s the story of a rural teacher issuing a clever, subtle and radically subversive challenge to dominant, imperial economic thinking.
Jesus spent most of his ministry in rural Galilee, among peasants—agrarians, people whose livelihoods came from their land and their labour. Out there in the country, people didn’t really deal with money. They grew what they needed, and if they couldn’t grow it, they traded for it with neighbours. A typical family might have had a few coins, but these would have been small bronze coins printed by local rulers past or present. By and large, the only “economy” these people knew – or cared to know – was how to manage a household and how to trust in God for a bountiful harvest.
It’s possible, though, that this simple rural economy was beginning to change in Jesus’ day. It’s possible that under the rule of Herod Antipas the peasants of Galilee were feeling some pressure to exchange their crops for money, which could in turn be collected as taxes to line the pockets of the ruling classes. But my personal hunch is that even if these rural Galileans were being pressured to monetize their economy in order to pay tributes to Rome, Jesus encouraged tax evasion.
After all Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, an upside economy in which the first are last, where it is better to give than to receive, and where treasure is stored not on earth, but in heaven. Faced with an imperial economy that channeled wealth from the hands of the impoverished peasant masses into the storehouses of the few wealthy elites, Jesus would almost certainly have told his Galilean compatriots to withhold their tribute. Besides, in rural Galilee, who’s going to notice?
But in today’s story, Jesus isn’t in Galilee. He’s in the southern province, in the capital, Jerusalem, in the seat of political and economic power. Down here, Rome’s presence is real. Down here, you don’t openly encourage tax evasion and live to tell about it.
The Herodians, the ones who try to trap Jesus in our story, know this. As collaborators with empire, they’ve heard rumors of this Jesus and his anti-imperial sentiments; they know his peasant sympathies. Maybe they even saw him upturning tables at the temple – so they know that he is against elitist economics. And as elites themselves, they feel threatened.
So they approach Jesus with false flattery “Teacher, man of integrity,” they say, “Is it right to pay the tribute?” Go on Jesus. Say what you really think. We dare you.
But Jesus won’t bite. “Show me the coin used for paying the tribute,” he says.
Jesus, we should notice, doesn’t traffic in imperial coin. So the Herodians are the ones who have to bring one to him. The coin turns out to be a denarius. This is not the lowly bronze fare from Galilee, but a shiny piece or imperial silver.
I picture Jesus taking the coin, turning it over in his hand. Perhaps this is the first time he’s held such a coin, or maybe he just pretends it is. In any case, he takes a look at the imprint of the most recognizable face of the most powerful man in the world and says—smirking?—“who’s this guy? And whose inscription is this”?
When they tell him, “It’s Caesar’s,” Jesus is ready with his reply:
“then give it back to Caesar. Give to God what is God’s.”
The Herodians are amazed, and I imagine infuriated by Jesus’ cleverness.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”
By saying so little, Jesus says so much. He says, in effect, Caesar can have his shiny metal. He can have his economic fantasies. He can have his illusions of dominance, his pretensions of control.
But “Give to God what is God’s.”
“Let Caesar keep his coins; God will have the rest. I don’t believe in your empire or its fraudulent economics. In my God’s kingdom, the rules are different. In my God’s kingdom, gifts rendered to God are returned as care for the people of the land. In my God’s kingdom, the economy works for the flourishing of the whole earth. You ask me if it’s right to pay the tribute? I tell you your ethical-economic imagination is way too small.”
And this is why I love this story so much. Jesus refuses to give moral credence to the economy of Empire. Jesus recognized that however big Caesar thinks his economy is, it is false and small. This Roman system that makes the rich richer, that exploits labour, and devalues the earth is no economy at all. It is but a sad, pale imitation of the Great Economy of God premised on Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
“Give to God what is God’s.” The Kingdom Economy starts here.
If you’re like me, you’ll see that this is still so relevant. If you’re like me, you’ll share the crazy belief that the economics of God’s kingdom have something to offer us, in an age when elite economics come in the guise of global free markets, when the wealth of the many is consumed by so few. We may not call it empire, but our dominant economic paradigm is at least as dangerous as Rome’s, and at least as offensive to the Great Economy of the Kingdom. So I, for one, am convinced and compelled by Jesus’ attitude, and his simple, subversive saying. I, for one, feel the need for a reorientation of my economic imagination.
The words of Jesus echo in my ears as if they’ve just been spoken, “Sure, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But give to God what is God’s.”