The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin

Essay posted 10 October 2005

Show Me The Money: Unconditional Allegiance to the Unconditioned God

For Sunday October 16, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Exodus 33:12–23 or Isaiah 45:1–7
           Psalm 99 or Psalm 96:1–9, 10–13
           1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
           Matthew 22:15–22

The imperial denarius of Matthew 22:19 minted under Tiberius (14-37AD).
The imperial denarius of Matthew 22:19 minted
under Tiberius (14-37AD).

           A few weeks ago the Tax Collector of Santa Clara County sent me a property tax bill for $5,814.34. As if to accentuate the size of my bill and their intent to collect it, the envelope is unusually large. I also pay state and federal income taxes, California's sales tax of 8.25%, taxes on gasoline, and on it goes. As a confessing Christian, should I pay these taxes? Or maybe that question is a smokescreen that obscures more important matters than money?

           Like us, the Jews of Jesus's day were saddled with many onerous taxes. In Matthew 17:24–27 we read about a Temple tax. They also paid custom taxes and taxes on land. In the Gospel of Matthew for this week a controversy arose about yet another tax, an annual tribute tax paid to Rome: "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (Matthew 22:17). As you might expect, and also like us today, the Jews of that day disagreed about how to answer this question. Those whom we might call "realists" collaborated and co-operated with Rome and paid the tax, perhaps out of conscience, or maybe as a survival strategy; who wanted undue attention from Rome? The "idealists" of a more nationalistic bent resisted, resented and protested Roman economic exploitation out of principle.

Emperor Tiberius.
Emperor Tiberius.

           The Pharisees who despised Rome and the Herodians, as their name implies, who co-operated with Rome, were actually opposing sects, and so it is no surprise that the text tells us that what they really wanted was not tax advice but rather "to trap Jesus in His words." That seemed easy enough. If Jesus agreed that the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, that sounded like capitulation to the oppressive Romans and a renunciation of Jewish nationalism. But to answer in the negative so as to encourage tax-dodgers was political sedition that would have jeopardized his ministry. In fact, oddly enough, one of the principal criticisms against the early Christians was that they were "atheists" because they refused to bow down to Caesar, to participate in the cult of imperial worship, that they made the subversive confession "Jesus is Lord" (not Caesar), and practiced what eventually was branded an illegal (= non-state) religion.

           The trick question elicited a trick answer from Jesus. He asked them for the coin that was used to pay the state tax, then asked whose image it bore. Most likely the coin in question bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during those years (AD 14–37). One side of the coin would have deified Tiberius as a "son of the divine August," while the other side would have honored him as the "Pontifex Maximus" or "chief priest" of Roman polytheism—which is to say that the two sides of the coin celebrated absolute religious and civil authority for Tiberius. To a nationalistic Jew who confessed a radical monotheism, such a graven image was religiously offensive and politically humiliating. Certainly much of the crowd would have been repulsed at the political, religious, and economic implications of honoring a pagan "god" by paying a tax to him.

Decree honoring Tiberius and the Imperial Family.
Decree honoring Tiberius and the Imperial Family.

           When Jesus's questioners responded that the coin bore the image of Caesar, he replied with a cryptic and enigmatic answer: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Rather than making an inflammatory political statement by denouncing Rome, maybe Jesus sought to evade their trap with a dismissive shrug—"If the coin belongs to Caesar, let him have it. So what? It's only money." In this scenario Jesus refused to take their bait. We might even imagine Jesus taunting his questioners by pocketing the coin.

           But what about the second half of his advice? What do we owe to God? Merely a temple tax, or everything, which is far more than money? I like the conclusion of New Testament scholar Marcus Borg:

Thus this text offers little or no guidance for tax season. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?1

At issue is not merely my economic relationship to the government, but my existential relationship with God. On that ancient denarius was an image of Caesar, and merely money is owed to him, whereas every human being bears the image of God, implying that I "render to God" wholly and without condition my entire self.

Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855.
Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855.

           Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), who perfected the art of irony like few others, once observed with dripping sarcasm that most people are infinitely malleable: "One can as easily get them to do one thing as another, just as easily get them to fast as to live in worldly enjoyment—only one thing is important to them, that they are just like the others...Yet what God wants is neither the one thing nor the other, but primitivity." As his biographer Joakim Garff explains in Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography (2005), for Kierkegaard "a primitive relation to God is a relationship in which one relates unconditionally to the unconditioned, but in so doing one inevitably comes into profound conflict with prevailing social and ethical norms." Kierkegaard thus envisaged an unavoidable collision between the "profoundly radical nature of Christianity," and what he variously described throughout his works as cultural convention, Christianity in which its "terror" has been tamed and so makes believers as docile as geldings (here he anticipated Nietzsche's critique), superficial civic virtue that barely rises above "obedience to police ordinances," dead orthodoxy, vacuous social affectations, or the safety of neutrality.

           Paying your taxes is simple. However distasteful, you hold your nose and write a check. Rendering relative honor to that subordinate Caesar is the easy part, and perhaps even necessary. As a friend of mine once observed, civilization is expensive, and taxes pay the tab. But absolute allegiance to an ultimate God, rendering our entire selves to Him without preconditions or limits, without hedging our bets, demands a higher order of magnitude. That takes a lifetime.

For further reflection:

* What are some of our modern day "Caesars" beyond those that Borg mentions?
* Describe some of the collisions and conflicts between our cultural "Caesars" and Christian faith.
* Consider Borg's question: what belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar?
* How do we condition, hedge, or eviscerate "the profoundly radical nature" of Christian faith?
* What have been some of your successful choices of faith in this area?

[1] Marcus Borg, "What Belongs to God?" at