(This was originally posted on June 14, 2011, as “Render Unto God.” The introduction has been modified due to recent events.) As the United States approaches the mythical “Fiscal Cliff” there is much talk about taxation. One political party has pledged not to raise taxes on anyone, while the other wants to raise taxes on the wealthy. Battle lines have been drawn and both sides vow that they will not back down. A compromise must be reached in order to keep the nation from falling off the aforementioned cliff. It is like watching an exciting movie, as heroes race against time against incalculable odds. It is turning out to be a real cliff hanger (pun intended).
Taxation is one law that affects almost every individual, and is therefore watched very closely by almost everyone. In fact, the United States of America was born in a revolution which began primarily because of taxes levied by the British Parliament. It is very American (or insert the nationality of your choice) to gripe about taxes. If you want to be elected to public office, you must promise to cut taxes or at least promise not to let them be raised. Apparently, the trick is to find a way to create a new tax so that you can keep your promise not to raise taxes.
At least most of us are paying taxes to our own governments and not to a government of occupation, as were the people of Israel in Jesus’ day. As part of the Roman Empire, taxes were collected to run the machinery of occupation. Roman soldiers had to be fed and paid. The highways that connected the empire had to be maintained. Procurators and other officials had expenses as well. It would be one thing to pay taxes if you were a citizen of Rome. It was quite another thing to pay these taxes to an occupying army. The tax collectors were the most hated of all individuals. (St. Matthew was a former tax collector.)
The enemies of Jesus attempted to use this situation to their advantage. They asked Jesus what on first hearing seems to be a silly question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” The smart aleck answer would have been, “Don’t pay them and see how lawful that is?” Given their situation in first century Palestine, it is a trick question designed to entrap Jesus. If Jesus’ reply is that they should not pay taxes to the emperor, he could be charged with sedition and treason against Rome. If Jesus answers that they should indeed pay taxes to Rome, his own people would see him as a traitor and Roman sympathizer (equal to a tax collector).
Jesus’ clever answer is one of the most quoted verses in scripture. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” It has been used primarily by those in government to justify everything from collecting taxes to imposing a military draft. In short, it has been used to encourage people to “render unto Caesar.” I have never heard anyone use this well known verse to encourage people to give to the church. Our respective governments really do not care what you “render unto God,” as long as you keep receipts for your tax deductions. Our respective governments do however have the power to force us to render what is due them.
There is no power however, to force any of us to “render unto God the things that are God’s.” There is no Internal Revenue Service branch of the church, nor any police or military to enforce our giving, should we decide not to give. Due to the prominence of television evangelist, when we hear about giving to God, we automatically think of money. Indeed, money is an important part of our giving to the church. We invest our money in the things that are most important to us. But God is looking for more they just our money. God wants you. As a Christian, if you render unto God what belongs to God, you will have to stand in the offering plate.
God desires your heart, soul, mind and strength (all of you). We are to give our time and talents, as well as our money to support the ministries of Jesus Christ and his church. These offering to God should flow from our hearts, and therefore bring joy to the giver. St. Paul tells us that “God loves a cheerful giver.” (II Corinthians 9:7) Caesar really doesn’t care whether you are cheerful or not. “Render unto Caesar,” because you really do not have a choice. “Render unto God,” out of the love and gratitude within your heart.