Is It Lawful to Pay Taxes? [Sermon]

Are you a card-carrying member?

I used to belong to a number of motorcycle riding groups.
Some of them had cards:

  • Four Stroke Singles National Owners Club
  • Women on Wheels
  • American Motorcyclists Association

I have also had library cards, a card as a member of the Seminary CO-OP (a bookstore beneath the seminary that everyone at the seminary and at the University of Chicago called “The Coop”), student IDs from six different schools, driver’s licenses from two states, a passport card, and other cards identifying me as “belonging.”

I didn’t wear them publicly like a badge on a lanyard, though I have worn badges on lanyards for events, nor did I need a bumper sticker or t-shirt or tattoo. Just carrying that card with me was a reminder of my membership, and proof should I need it.

When I was ordained, the Fox Valley Association of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ gave me a card identifying me as an authorized minister.
When I transferred by credentials to the Golden Gate Association of the Northern California/Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ, they did the same.

I have never been asked to show it.

But we carry many sorts of identification with us: some public, some private.

What’s in your wallet?

Let’s go to God in prayer.
God of wisdom, may the words that I speak, and the ways they are received by each of our hearts and minds, help us to continue to grow into the people, and the church, that you have dreamed us to be.

“Jesus said ‘Pay your taxes!’”
That’s going to be a lot of sermons today.

“Jesus said ‘Give to God what is God’s,’ and that’s everything!”
That’s also going to be some sermons today.

“You must prayerfully discern what you should give to God.”
That will be other sermons today.

One can preach any of those sermons directly from the text, as if it were written today.

It was not written today.

In some translations, the question is “Is it right to pay tribute?”

Rome occupied Judea by force. This was not new to the Jews. The northern kingdom of Israel had been occupied by the Assyrians. Then the southern kingdom of Judea was taken into captivity by the Babylonians, where Iraq is now. Then the Persians – in what is now Iran – defeated Babylon and eventually released the Jews. Then it was the Greeks. Now Rome.

Rome extracted wealth from its occupied countries in many ways, one of which was Tribute. Caesar – whichever caesar was on the throne at the time – was considered one of the gods. And so, to honor that god, one would offer a tribute of money.

So the Pharisees are trying to paint Jesus into a corner, by asking him:
“What do you think: should we be giving an offering to this god-king?”

Here’s where the lawful part comes into play:
Remember the ten commandments? Right at the top is “Have no other gods before me.”

So here’s the trap: should one pay tribute to Caesar, which is treating him as a god and breaking the first commandment, or should one refuse, which will bring the wrath of Rome?

If Jesus answers “Yes,” he may lose the respect of his followers.
If Jesus answers “No,” he may be arrested by the Romans.
Either way, the Pharisees are rid of this troublemaker.

So Jesus calls them hypocrites. Why?

He asks to see a coin, and they bring him a denarius, worth a day’s labor. And he asks whose head and title is on it, and they say it’s Caesar’s.

Wasn’t there a commandment about making images of other Gods? Yes there was. And so any Jew with Roman money had money with the image and title of a god-king.

In fact, this is why there were money changers: One could not bring Roman money – with its image of another god – into the temple, so they had to exchange it for Jewish money in the courtyards.

So Jesus is making the argument that if they’re worried about paying tribute to Caesar, they’re already carrying around images of Caesar whenever they go to pay for something in the market.

To put it another way: when asked whether to contaminate their culture with Roman culture by paying tribute, Jesus said “you’re already contaminated.”

It’s hard for an occupied people to avoid losing their culture.

Sometimes it’s overt, like taking children from their homes, forbidding them to speak their language or practice their customs, and teaching them the way of their oppressor.

Right now people are wondering
“Is Cindi talking about Russian treatment of Ukrainian children,
or American treatment of indigenous peoples here?”
Yes I am.

Other times it can be taking them into captivity in a foreign land.

Right now people are wondering
“Is Cindi talking about Babylonia treatment of the Jews,
or American treatment of African peoples here?”
Yes I am.

Or it may mean criminalizing a people’s gatherings

Right now people are wondering
“Is Cindi talking about Chinese raiding of unauthorized religious meetings,
or American raiding of gay bars?”
Yes I am.

Because the powerful can easily subjugate the less powerful.

And right now, Christianity – especially certain expressions of Christianity, holds a lot of power in the United States of America. Is it right to pay tribute to these forms of Christianity, with their restrictions on reading material, and on performances, and on who we say we are?

How much do we want to allow such arguments to become part of our accepted way of life, the currency of social acceptance?

But the banner in front of the church this morning says

Love your neighbor.
No matter their mental health challenge.
No matter their immigration status.
No matter their sexual orientation.
No matter their economic status.
No matter their gender identity.
No matter their disability.
No matter their religion.
No matter their race.

Jesus taught us to love one another, not to have power over them. And part of that is, so far as we are able, to not participate in the exertion of power over others.

And so my challenge to all of us this week is to think about how we pay tribute to those powers, either through giving them money, or by carrying around a little tribute, whether in our pockets, our minds, or our hearts.






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