22 October 2017

“Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (v. 21)

Psalm: Psalm 96


This passage sees Jesus being tested by the authorities of the day. It is the start of a debate with the Pharisees and the Sadducees as they try and trip Jesus up politically and theologically. It is a conversation which demonstrates a polarisation in political thinking, and seeks to draw Jesus out as either a revolutionary or a false prophet. The comparisons with contemporary UK politics cannot be underestimated - as leaders are at once heralded as victor and victim; revolutionary and rebel.

The Imperial Tax in this dialogue was not a legal taxation, but was a tax expected to be paid by people. Not paying the tax was seen as a form of rebellion and punished accordingly.

If Jesus answered 'yes' to the questions then those who were following Jesus as a revolutionary, and who were looking to Jesus to change the world, would be disappointed. Jesus would be proving that he is not a true prophet.

But if he answered that Jews have no responsibility to pay taxes to Roman officials, then he would be reported as a political rebel.

Jesus is deliberately put into a no-win situation. Yet he does not offer a blunt answer, instead relying on the dexterity of the philosophical tradition with which he had been schooled. The coin is not a holy item, it is distinct from the things of God. Give to God what God demands, and then do not feel guilty about offering to Rome what is demanded.

Some contemporary interpretations of this dialogue run the risk of creating a polarisation between Church and state, and thus inspiring the suggestion that culture is in opposition to the kingdom of God. However, this misunderstands the reality that the Holy Spirit is at workinthe world, not in some after-world alternative. A more radical interpretation of this passage may indeed suggest that all things are of God, so it doesn't matter what is offered to the officials; rather than the creation of boundaries.

To Ponder

  • The Pharisees, albeit cynically, called Jesus someone of integrity, truthfulness and consistency (verse 16). What characteristics of Jesus do you value the most? Why?
  • If you had heard Jesus in this confrontation, what would your response have been?
  • Should Church and state be intertwined or separate? Why?

Bible notes author: The Revd Joanne Cox-Darling

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