I have heard it said there are two things in life that we cannot avoid, death and taxes. Based on this morning’s Gospel this has been true at least since Roman times.
In this morning’s reading, we find Jesus being vetted by the Jewish authorities. Anxious to find a reason to condemn him, the Pharisees and Herodian Guards attempt to trap Jesus into speaking out against paying Roman taxes. It would not have been surprising for Jesus to have a contrary opinion to the Roman system of taxation. I suspect the issue of taxes was often discussed passionately among the Jews, because like today, almost everything was taxed. According to Wikipedia, along with the usual property taxes, city taxes and utility taxes, the Jews of Jesus’ day were also taxed on meat and salt, roads were taxed every so many miles and there were poll-taxes as well. To add insult to injury, Herod Antipas, in an effort to ingratiate himself with the Emperor, Tiberius, decided to build a new capital in his honor on the Sea of Galilee. To pay for this lavish project, Herod Antipas levied additional taxes on the fishing industry.
In addition to Roman taxes, the ancient Jews also had to pay taxes to the Temple. Every Jewish family was expected to pay that tax in Temple money. This meant they had to exchange, at an exorbitant rate, Roman money for Temple money. (You will recall in another Gospel chapter that Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple.) This tax, along with the added costs of the annual sacrifices required of each family at the time of the Passover, left most families with very little with which to survive.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of complaining about taxes in Jesus’ day and it would have been easy for Jesus to speak out against what was a system of exploitation, both by the government and the Temple. But Jesus was not easily trapped. As we know from Matthew’s passage, Jesus did not speak out against Roman taxes. Instead, he responds by instructing the people to give to the Emperor what is his and to give to God what is God’s.
The duality between God and the Emperor to which Jesus alludes is not unique to this passage. When teaching, Jesus often claimed that the Kingdom of God, not Rome, is near. And, at his trial before Pilot, Jesus is asked if he is the King of the Jews. To this Jesus responds that his “kingdom is not of this world.”
And yet, at the same time, his kingdom was and is part of this world. When Jesus instructs us to give to God what is God’s, it is a call to his listeners to recognize that ALL of creation belongs to God. Each week, at the eight o’clock service we state, “All things come from you O Lord, and of your own we have given you.”
Every time I recite this line, I am reminded that ALL we have is directly from God. In the Book of Genesis, we are told God created the heavens and the earth, the sea and the land, the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and everything else contained on this earth. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul tells the people gathered at Mars Hill that it is God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
As I speak these words, intellectually, it is easy to acknowledge God as the root of all creation. To acknowledge all things truly come from God is to acknowledge we are totally dependent on the grace of God. However, when I move from my head to my heart, I am not sure things are as clear.
I have lived what I consider to be a fairly blessed life. My family has good health, and we have never lost anything to fire or tempest or flood as many of our brothers and sisters have in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and now, California. I live with a false sense of security that is reinforced by the fact I have never experienced a shortage of food or water. As a result, I live with both a sense of entitlement, and a false sense of independence. I have to consciously remind myself that “no man is an Island.”
Several years ago, I spent a week living among those who worked the coffee plantations in the mountains of Puerto Rico. What I learned from them is something I periodically reflect upon.
Harvesting coffee is not an easy task. Coffee plants grow on steep mountain slopes. In the area I was in, the slopes were so steep one wondered how anyone could keep his or her balance while walking amid the nearly vertical rows of coffee plants. The truth is, it was common for someone to fall off the side of the mountain while harvesting the beans. However, despite their hard and dangerous work, the people possessed a deep sense of joy and a deeper sense of connection to God. They did this in a manner I have not experienced since.
Early each morning, the workers gathered in the small chapel at the top of the fields. There they prayed for their safety and a bountiful harvest. At the end of the work day, they would gather again to give thanks and praise to God for surviving another day. Then they returned to their lowly makeshift homes often constructed from materials salvaged after the devastating Hurricane George of 1998.
Despite their crushing poverty, they were truly generous. On Sunday mornings they arrived at church heavily laden with food for sharing with each other and gave to God whatever gifts they could muster.
I suspect, like us, they well knew today’s familiar passage of the Gospel of Matthew. They dutifully paid their taxes to the Puerto Rican government, paying “Caesar” what belonged to “Caesar.” However, on Sunday mornings, they also knew that all things come from God. So they gladly gave back to God what they knew to be God’s.