1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
It was a very crafty move. We know from the end of Matthew chapter 21 that the chief priests and the Pharisees wanted to arrest Jesus, and their latest ploy was for the Pharisees to join forces with members of Herod’s party to try to trap him. The question they asked him reveals why this combination of Pharisee and Herodian was so devious. The Pharisees, after all, generally resented the presence of the occupying power of Rome, with its heavy taxation. The party of Herod, the Jewish puppet king installed by the Romans, supported Rome and its inventory of taxes. So when this unlikely alliance of Pharisee and Herodian asked Jesus whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor Jesus was caught between the rock of appearing to be a lackey for the Romans, and the hard (and dangerous) place of being charged as an agitator against them. It was the sort of question that makes, “have you stopped beating you wife? Answer yes or no” look basic.
Jesus’ reply, pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, escapes the trap, but it can be taken two ways. The first is that we live in two realms, the political realm, where Caesar rules, and the religious realm, where God rules, and we divide our allegiance accordingly, recognising responsibilities to both. In this way we live in two, parallel kingdoms and there is clear separation between the two.
The other, and I suggest much more likely, way of reading this, hinges on the fact that Roman taxes were paid in Roman currency, and Roman coins bore upon them the image of Caesar and the words, Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine august and high priest. This combination of a graven image and the attribution of divinity to Caesar made even the carrying of Roman coins deeply offensive to many Torah-observing Jews, and it is significant that Jesus had to ask for a coin – he did not carry one. Given this, I think that here Jesus is turning the tables on his interrogators, criticising by implication those who are even asking this question and carrying this currency. On this interpretation, Jesus’ answer is much more about you cannot serve two masters. Rather than affirming Caesar alongside God, Jesus’ point is that the sovereignty of God trumps the rule of Caesar every time. In effect Jesus is saying, Give back to Caesar this odious coin with its graven image and submit to the true, sovereign, God.
Of course, this way of looking at things might cause some problems, because as for many any stress on the lordship and sovereignty of God is not good news. Many people are sick of lords of any kind. Human lords turn out far too often to be tyrants, and has not the lordship of God has been used to oppress people – slaves or women or gays or whatever? And we do not like the language of submission which goes along with lordship. The human race, after all, has come of age. We should not see ourselves as beholden to and dependent upon a sovereign God who lords over us. Is it not better now to think of God as friend, or lover, or partner, who affirms human capability, coming alongside us rather than ruling over us?
This, however, is to misunderstand the sovereignty of God. What it misses is that, rightly understood, the lordship of God subverts, undermines, and puts every other would-be lord and sovereign in its place – exactly what Jesus is doing here – and hence it is part of the freedom manifesto of the Kingdom, what Paul calls the glorious liberty of the children of God.
So whether it is the lordship of oppressive rulers, or the lordship of materialism and consumerism, or the tyranny of racism and sexism or any other power which dominates and constrains our lives, the appeal to this higher, ultimate authority spells freedom. Or, if you prefer, the purpose of a God who is really in charge of all things is something far above all human orders and systems. A truly free God is essential to people on the margins if they are to have a legitimate standing ground against the oppressive orders of the day. In other words, Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God contains an implicit invitation to appeal to God against Caesar.
This wasn’t just a one-off in Jesus’s time and place. We find something similar in Thessalonica. What is significant about that city is that it was home to a plethora of gods: Greek gods, Egyptian deities, a Phrygian divinity, along with the Roman imperial cult of emperor worship. No wonder Paul refers to idols – these were the main feature of Thessalonican religious life, woven into the everyday life of the city. But Paul had come, along with Silvanus and Timothy, and had proclaimed the Gospel and people had turned from idolatry to be servants of the true and living God. What’s particularly important Note the language of servanthood. Here was submission to the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. Only this submission spelt not just one more captivity to one more god but rather liberation into life with Jesus the deliverer.
Farnham in 2014 isn’t 1st century Palestine under Roman rule; nor is it ancient Greece with a multitude of Gods. At first glance, we are not lorded over by powers and authorities that constrain our allegiance, nor is there worship of idols, yet if we pause to think a moment, just those things go on around us all the time. The gods of money, power, possessions, seek our allegiance, and claim the worship of many. Just as they did in the ancient world, so in our modern world, Jesus’ words, Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God are a proclamation of God’s sovereignty over all, and as such they are the foundation of God’s Kingdom, and speak to us and our world, as much as they did when they were first spoken.