Making Wise Choices
19th Sunday after Trinity Matthew 22:15-22
The Romans had tax systems that are not dissimilar to our own, and, as you would expect, they were not welcome. They had 'ground tax', which meant you had to pay 10 per cent on all grain and 20 per cent on all the oil and wine that you produced. This was paid in kind or in money. There was income tax to be paid at 1 per cent of your earnings. There was poll tax on every adult male from the age of 14 to 65 and every female from the age of 12 to 65. Obviously the women matured earlier! This tax was one denarius and was known as the 'tribute to Caesar'. The Roman coinage itself was offensive to the Jews for each coin not only depicted the head of Caesar but also gave him divine status. To carry and to use such money was to associate the individual to Roman rule, even though they didn’t have any choice in the matter.
The Pharisees and Herodians were trying to lay a trap for Jesus by asking if it was right to pay tribute to Caesar or not. Matthew suggests they are doing this out of malice and describes them as hypocrites. They had presented Jesus with a real 'Catch 22' situation. Not to pay tribute would be a rebellion against the empire. For this Jesus would be reported for preaching sedition. If he said it was right to pay, Jesus would be discredited in the eyes of many of the ordinary people.
Jesus asks for a denarius and asks, 'Whose head is this and whose title?' When they answered, 'The Emperor's', Jesus replied, 'Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's.'
There is great wisdom in this answer - or you could say he was ducking the issue and that it is no answer at all. The question remains - Who are we to give to? The answer is not one or the other but both. It is a mistake to separate one from the other. The sacred and secular are not independent of each other; they are so intertwined that we cannot divide them, just as we cannot separate the human into body and soul. Both are woven together. God made the world, God loves the world and God is present in his world. The Christian who says that we must not get involved in worldly things like politics does not realise what Christianity is about. We cannot hope for a new heaven and a new earth unless we work towards it happening. It is no use praying for peace if we do not help to bring it about. We give to the state - even if only by law - for our own benefit for example our State Pensions, the police force and the NHS.
We give to God - what? That is the big question. Does God get the priority he is due in our life? Do we respond to him in praise and thanksgiving? Do we seek to do his will? Do we give God our most precious commodity – time? When Jesus said give to God – he was talking about things that are far bigger than just money.
The temptation to compartmentalise our lives into the secular or the spiritual is strong. For some people work can become a purely physical realm where they earn money and carry out their tasks without consideration of the other dimensions of their faith which might apply. They mistakenly imagine that God is not interested in this aspect of their lives, or in the mundane household business of living. Jesus reminds us that God is interested in all that we do, asking us to deal wisely and thoughtfully with the material as well as the spiritual aspects of life. God wants us to pray and worship and do good, but he also cares about how and where we spend our money and how we go about earning it.
Jesus calls us to treat the sacred and the secular with due respect, to strive to integrate them, not to separate them. When moral or ethical dilemmas interrupt us at work or at home we need courage not to turn a "blind eye" or to opt for a quiet life. The spiritual values of love and justice should influence how we behave – at the same time remembering that well known phrase ‘take care not to become so heavenly minded that we become no earthly use.’ I am sure we have all met some of those!
Some of the greatest witnesses to giving God his due were the early Christian martyrs. Catherine, who gives her name to the 'Catherine Wheel' firework, was born of a noble family and lived in the fourth century. The emperor was attracted to her and wanted to marry her. Catherine refused because she was already a 'bride of Christ'. She is said to have disputed with 50 philosophers whose job it was to convince her of her error and she defeated them. Because she refused to do as commanded by the emperor she was tortured by being fastened to a large spiked wheel which and driven around the arena - but the wheel broke. Finally she was beheaded. Fortunately we are not called to make such drastic choices today. We are just asked to apply wisdom to the way we behave and the choices we make.