Render unto Caesar – a few thoughts for Sunday’s Gospel

13 October 2014

Matthew 22.15-22

At a hustings during the 2010 General Election I took some people by surprise when I declared that I would like a government to increase my taxes. So often we hear that we would like the NHS to be more efficient, the holes in the road to be properly repaired, the schools to be better resourced and so on. These things cannot be done without funding and funding should come from a fair and just taxation system. In my naïve mind-set simplifying the system would help so that those who can pay more should do so in order that the inequalities of today’s society are lessened.

Jesus was in an altogether different environment when he was asked about taxation. The system seemed anything but fair and just and the process was open to corruption. Taxation seems to be a source of discontent anywhere at any time but throughout the first century Roman Empire it was a particularly touchy subject.

The question put to Jesus has always been recognised as a tricky one to answer and preachers have often lauded the response as showing the superior wisdom of Jesus. But it has sometimes left the Church exposed to the charge of being ineffective in the face of injustice: ‘leave the politics to the politicians and religion to the Church’ has become for some a logical extension of rendering ‘unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’.

A better way of translating the response is to suggest that one should honour what is rightly someone else’s to possess. This is brought out in the version found in the Gospel of Thomas (100) where the response concludes ‘and give me what is mine.’ But take what is not yours well that is a serious matter.

In Khaled Husseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ Amir is taught by Baba his father that the greatest sin is theft, ‘There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft….when you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.’

At first glance then it would appear that Jesus is withdrawing from the possibility of challenging Caesar but in fact he is throwing down a challenge, ‘take what is rightly yours but do not overstep the mark for then you will be committing sin, an offence to God and you will be judged accordingly.’

When I recently saw in a local newspaper that a woman had been evicted from her council house after many years because of an unpaid £200 bedroom tax bill I couldn’t help but ask whether there had been some form of ‘theft’ on the part of the authorities; they may have acted correctly in the eyes of the law but what of the moral code that should undergird all law? She had been robbed of the roof over her head, rooms that contained the memories of anniversaries and birthdays.

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s is not tantamount to letting a government conduct its business without criticism.

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