16 October 2011

"Give therefore to the emperor that things that are the emperor's. and to God the things that are God's." (v. 21)


This well-known story, also found in Mark and Luke, comes towards the end of Matthew's Gospel. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11), Jesus' enemies are becoming ever more desperate to bring him down. A sign of this desperation is the willingness of the Pharisees to work together with the Herodians, two groups who have little in common except in their shared hostility to Jesus (verses 15-16).

Their attempt is often described as a 'trick question': "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (v. 17) But actually it's a very real question - just one which is very hard to answer without upsetting one group of powerful people or another. For to answer 'yes' runs the risk of being accused of collaboration with the Romans; to say 'no' could lead to the charge of insurrection.

Jesus is well aware that this is intended to trap him (verse 18). The wisdom of his response is not to duck the question - but to answer it in such a way that it challenges his enemies as to where their ultimate allegiance lies. To pay taxes using the coinage which bears the emperor's image is one thing (verse 20); but this can only be done in light of their obligations to God - and his opponents are unable to press him further on this issue without revealing the weakness of their own position.

In light of this response his opponents melt away, amazed (verse 22). However, the challenge of Jesus' reply remains as acute now as it was then, not least in times of political and economic uncertainty. What are our obligations to the secular authorities who govern and protect us? And what are those deeper obligations we owe to God alone?

To Ponder

In the current economic climate taxation remains a contentious issue; is there a moral duty for citizens to pay taxes? Why?

Are there any situations in which you feel it would be morally right to withhold paying taxes to the government? What are they?

Together with partner Churches the Methodist Church has been prominent in campaigns against tax avoidance; how far do you consider this to be a part of the gospel?

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Stephen Wigley

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