“The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said” (Matt. 22:15). “But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?’” (Matt. 22:18). The Pharisees addressed Jesus with a false-hearted compliment and then mocked him by reiterating one of Jesus’s favorite questions. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matt. 22:16-17) Understandably, subjection to the Roman Empire and the imposition of a foreign tax deeply offended the Jewish people. Given Rome’s enormous power, however, there was no safe way to protest, nor was protest even desired by all Jews. There was, it seemed, no obvious way to answer the question.
Jesus asked the Pharisees to demonstrate the answer, saying, “Show me the coin used for the tax” (Matt. 22:19). Seeing the image of the emperor, Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” (Matt. 22:21). At precisely the moment that the tax and all its implication seemed to be accepted, Jesus added an astounding and brief remark. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).
What things belong to God? The first line of Genesis is the answer. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The first two lines of The Apostles’ Creed is the answer. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” The first paragraph of The Nicene Creed is the answer. “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.”
Glory be to God, the source of all things, and to whom all things owe their existence. Giving to God the things that are God’s requires a devotion akin to that described in the marriage service during the exchanging of rings. “With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.” (BCP, p. 427). Indeed, we are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This devotion is comprehensive and exclusive, something of which the Pharisees were quite aware.
Devotion to God does not settle what allegiance is owed to earthly powers, although it relativizes any such commitment and prohibits the deification of the state and rulers. “As for the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but it is the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 96:5). “There is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:6). In a sense, there is but one true king. “The Lord is King; let the peoples tremble; he is enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth shake” (Ps. 99:1).
The earth may shake, but it also sings, and this aspect of worshipping God should also and often be recalled (Ps. 96:1). Worship is a joy. “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 96:11-12).
Give to God the things that are God’s. Give everything. How? Commending a “blessed dependency,” John Donne once said, “Hang upon him who hung upon the cross.” Die with him, rise with him, ascend with him, and rejoice!
Look It Up: I Thess. 1:6
Think About It: Receive the word with joy.