The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
– Matthew 22:15-21
This was the gospel for Sunday. Once again, the topic of the Bible is politics. It’s hard to emphasize that enough, and there is nothing to which the church in North America is so deaf to hearing. The Bible is politics.
In this simple, easily understood, but so often glossed over passage used last Sunday there is a dichotomy set up. This dichotomy is set in the context of a question about taxes. More specifically it’s a census tax, which means that if you are alive, then you owe money to the government. For the privilege of living and breathing you owe the government money. If that isn’t sinister, insidious, and diabolical, then nothing is! But it is the way the world works; no pay, no life.
Why on earth do people continue in servitude to this is beyond understanding. It’s no different today. I own property, but only because there are no fringe places to live and to care for others….so we pay a price to give things away…which highlights even more of the insidiousness of principalities. So, if I want a place to live then I have to pay a tax. And I have to pay a tax even if I want nothing to do with the services of my area: road repair, etc.. If I do not pay my taxes, then I will be punished, which is the perpetual threat made by all principalities throughout time. If my land is taken away, then I have no place to lay my head. If I rent an apartment, the owner of that apartment will pay taxes on where I live and will use what I pay in monthly rent to pay their taxes.
However, innumerable scripture texts affirm that God doesn’t work that way…these claim just the opposite in fact.
This narrative is an example of the difference between corrupted creation, and the politics of redemption. On one side is the politics of nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world. And on the other side is the politics of the Kingdom of God. It is only another instance of those outside of God forcing the priority of politics and its prominence. The way of God offers to set people free from this servitude. Daily, ordinary human life in the world here and now is promised renewal and fulfillment, vouchsafed right here and now and throughout time.
North American Christians are taught to read the Bible as individuals. What should I do in this situation? And while it does not unduly twist this scripture by asking this question of it, the question is, after all, about paying a census tax…a levy on persons. There is a system that stands behind this…it’s not as if Caesar goes from person to person to collect this tribute. There is something bigger at stake, beyond the individual, and beyond the personal. Once again, Christ sets things up as a run-off between two systems, Caesar’s and God’s and what each offers as rulers of two different ways. Once again Christ teaches that in the trauma of political existence there is a peaceful, centred alternative.
Over the years I have heard many people say, I don’t believe in getting anything for free. (And perhaps that would be more accurate if people said, I don’t believe in giving anything away for free?) And every time I hear those words it’s like someone drives a dagger through my heart. Why? Because scripture teaches that that is the way God works God’s economy in the world. Free. Because by not learning to barter in or understand free, there is no way to understand or experience God.
All of this is why here, on this farm, everything is free.