The Pharisees are the actors on the stage in our gospel passage today. Jesus was a thorn in their sides. They had set themselves up as the defenders of public morals and enforcers of the Law of Moses, while Jesus was continually showing them up in public for their arrogance and hypocrisy. It’s always easier to shoot the messenger than to heed the message. So, they conspired together to develop a plan that would neutralize their main critic.
Israel was a subjugated nation, and their oppressors—the Romans—demanded tribute in the form of a poll tax from every Israelite. Many of them were opposed to paying the tax, considering it not only a first-rate insult but also blasphemous—the people of God paying tax to a pagan nation. The Pharisee and Zealot parties both opposed the tax, the Pharisees by peaceful means, and the Zealots by force. The Herodian party, however, were staunch supporters of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch, who was solidly aligned with Rome. The Herodians imagined Israel as a loyal Roman territory, enjoying all the benefits of membership in the empire. They saw paying the poll tax as their civic duty. They disagreed with both the Pharisees and the Zealots. What they did agree on, however, was their opposition to Jesus. Thus, the Pharisees and the Herodians joined forces in this confrontation.
There were further differences between the Pharisee party and the Herodians. The Pharisees were a religious party, whereas the Herodians tended to be much more secular in their politics. That’s why the Pharisees assumed that Jesus, as a rabbi, would take their position—that paying tax to the Roman occupation was contrary to the Law of Moses. That was clear in that whole diatribe about Jesus being truthful and not swayed by others’ opinions that they presented as a preface to their question. They wanted him to come out publicly as opposed to paying the tax because, once he admitted that publicly, the Herodians could have him arrested for treason against Rome.
The way Jesus answered was typically masterful. It relied on the Pharisees’ own practice. There was a wide variety of foreign coins in circulation at the time, but, by Jewish law, paying the temple tax and purchasing animals for sacrifice had to be done with temple coinage called Tyrian shekels. That’s why the money changers were so vitally important for the temple’s functioning. Without the use of temple coinage, the temple sacrifices would stop. So, using the same principle, Jesus pointed out that the money used to pay the Roman tax was Roman coinage. It belonged to Rome. In this way, Jesus clearly distinguished for them their secular obligations from their sacred ones. It was an argument that the Pharisees could not refute and one that thoroughly satisfied the Herodians.
Does this have any meaning for us today? In the saying that concludes this parable—“repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”—Jesus is not necessarily constructing a wall between the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane. He’s pointing out to us that these are two distinct realms, interconnected but each with its own rules of engagement. The fact that these two realms exist and overlap one another has caused Christians untold amounts of confusion and pain over the centuries. Yet, the fact that there are two realms—the temporal and the eternal—isn’t the issue. Problems only arise when people misinterpret the relationship between them. This isn’t only a Christian issue, it’s a human issue.
If we go back five hundred years before Christ to the earliest Greek philosophers, Parmenides and Heracleitus, we find the same dichotomy between the eternal and the temporal. Parmenides took the side of the eternal. He said that being is, and non-being is not, and that is unchanging. Change is an illusion. Heracleitus took the side of the temporal when he said that everything flows, and the only constant is change. Since then, all human thought, secular and religious, has been an attempt to reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable positions. Trouble arises when one takes either extreme. One pole has God so perfect and unapproachable that the universe becomes an unreal illusion. At the other extreme, the universe is all that is real, and God is either so distant as to be irrelevant or he is a totally made-up illusion.
Saint Augustine added an extra layer to this controversy, and his influence has permeated Christianity down to the present day. Augustine taught in the line of Parmenides and elevated God and spirituality almost to the point of being divorced from the material world. But that’s not all. Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine had been a Manichaean. That was a group that not only divorced the material from the spiritual, but they also characterized the material as tainted—as evil. For Augustine, the flesh was worse than impermanent. It was opposed to the spirit.
That attitude that sees the spiritual as “good” and the material as “evil” persists even today. Manichaeist dualism masquerading as Christianity is alive and well. The extreme positions that are tearing our country apart—and many others—come down to this: if spirit is good and flesh is evil, then it becomes a moral obligation to stamp out everything having to do with the flesh. The logic is inexorable. Once you take that morally dualistic stand, there can be no compromise between good and evil, spirit and flesh. Furthermore, once you characterize yourself as good and your opponent as evil, then any means can be justified to overcome that opponent.
That’s not what Jesus or the early Church preached. Jesus preached the infusion of the temporal by the eternal. They’re not enemies. They never were. They can’t be. The spiritual motivates and empowers us to transform the material and physical world. We return to God what belongs to God so that we may return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…only better. We bring our spirit to Caesar so that Caesar can transform the lives of all—especially those who are unable to transform themselves.
What this parable is really about is Incarnation—God becoming flesh among us. It’s the Spirit transforming the material. Those who say that religion has no part to play in politics and those who say that their religion trumps politics are both deniers of the Incarnation. Spirituality is the motivator and the conscience of politics. Politics is spirituality in action in the material world. Both theocracy and fascism are the oppressive results either of replacing what belongs to Caesar with what belongs to God, or of replacing what belongs to God with what belongs to Caesar.
We, humans, hate the Incarnation because the Incarnation is messy, and we want things clean and simple—God’s up there and we’re down here and that’s just fine with us. But what happens when God gets down here with us, getting his hands dirty with physical things, and making himself known in the world of sexuality or the world of injustice, poverty, hunger, disease, war, and death? That gets uncomfortable. That’s not just fine anymore, is it? If the Word Made Flesh has anything to teach us, it’s this: if we can’t find God down here, we’re not going to find him up there.