The Priory Church, Bolton Abbey

The Rector: Taxing questions

22 October 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Canon Simon Cowling
Isaiah 45. 1-7; Matthew 22. 15-22  

The godless florin This was the name given to a coin struck by the Royal Mint in 1849. It was the United Kingdom government’s first attempt to simplify the nation’s coinage by decimalisation. The inscription on the reverse of the coin made this intention clear: one florin; one tenth of a pound. But what made the coin scandalous in the public’s eye was not the intention to decimalise; it was what was on the other side of the coin. Victoria’s reassuringly dignified image and name were there. What was absent were the familiar words in Latin by the grace of God, and defender of the faith. The godless florin was quickly withdrawn and replaced by another version, though the two shilling piece continued to be an outrider for decimalisation for one hundred and twenty years until the government finally realised its ambition in 1971.

All of which goes to show that, for all their apparent innocuousness, coins can be controversial – something demonstrated by this morning’s gospel reading. Like our 1849 florin, the controversial coin referred to in the reading was also considered godless by most Jews. It was the coin that they were required by the Roman occupiers to use in order to pay the annual poll tax – a tax the Romans levied on all adults under their rule. The highly abbreviated Latin text around the emperor’s image on the coin’s obverse read, Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus. The image of the emperor would have been offensive because it was a clear violation of the divine commandment against creating images; the inscription would have been offensive because of the phrase Divine Augustus – a reference to the fact that Roman emperors were considered to be gods after they had died. No observant Jew could possibly concede that there was any God except the one true God to whom the Jerusalem Temple bore witness.

This is the background to the question that the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? It is a good example of what philosophers rather grandly call a complex question fallacy – what you or I would call a loaded question, a question to which it is apparently impossible to give an answer that will not be compromising one way or another. If Jesus’s answer is ‘yes – it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor’ he is laying himself open to the charge of supporting a tax imposed by a godless occupying force that bore particularly heavily on the poor. This would have made him very unpopular with the majority of his compatriots. On the other hand if Jesus’s answer is ‘no – it is not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor’ he is laying himself open to the charge of sedition which would have made him a person of interest to the Roman occupiers – and not in a good way.

Jesus’s opponents are trying to trap him, of course. His eventual answer has become one of his most memorable utterances, but Jesus gets the better of his opponents before he even answers the question. Having bluntly responded to their false flattery about his sincerity and lack of partiality by calling them hypocrites, he asks to see the coin that is used for the tax. As soon as his opponents produce the coin, a Roman denarius, they are done for. They have publicly demonstrated that they are complicit in the economics of occupation because they use the coinage of their conquerors. Jesus does not have a coin and so immediately gains the moral advantage. He presses home this advantage by asking his questioners to name the person whose image and inscription is on the coin. They name the emperor. At this point Jesus appears to concede that, if the coin belongs to the emperor, it can be given to pay the tax: give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. But the concession is quickly and brutally qualified by a magnificent coup de grace: (give) to God the things that are God’s. Jesus’s critics are amazed. Silenced, outwitted, they leave him and go away.

The brevity of Jesus’s response about the question of tax is in inverse proportion to the huge amount of subsequent theological debate about what he meant by his answer. For some, Jesus’s answer is proof that God and politics –of which tax is taken to be representative – should be kept separate; for others, Jesus’s answer is proof that the law is the law and we are under an obligation to obey the law whatever our theological convictions; for still others, Jesus’s answer is proof that religious conviction is a matter of the heart, bearing no relevance to what you choose to do with your money. What all these interpretations, and many others, have in common is that they tend to reflect the more general underlying theological and political convictions of those who espouse them. This observation applies to preachers as much as anyone else, so my concluding remarks about this enigmatic gospel passage might be most appropriately received as a continuation of a theological conversation.

Hundreds of years before Christ, when King David is praising God for the gifts that have been offered for the building of the temple in Jerusalem, he offers a reminder of the one it is to whom we all owe ultimate allegiance: all things come from you, O Lord, and of your own have we given you.  I believe that it is, at the very least, highly likely that these words lie behind the final part of Jesus’ answer to the question about paying tax: (give) to God the things that are God’s.  Jesus is reminding his opponents, and us, that in God’s economy there is absolutely no division between the sacred and the secular, the political and the religious. All that we are and all that we possess belong entirely to God; every decision we make – moral, practical, political – will be judged in the light of the one and only commitment that cannot be relativized: our commitment to serve God. I also believe that it is this subtle but unanswerable theological assertion that amazes, silences, and outwits Jesus’s opponents.  They realise that Jesus has stepped aside from the binary choice they had thought to entrap him with.  As one writer has succinctly put it, Jesus has allowed that we may divide our budget, but has reminded us that we must never divide our ultimate allegiance.