Sometimes context makes all the difference in the world. At least it did for me this week. All week long, that phrase “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caeser’s and unto God the things that are God’s” has been rumbling in my head. I’ve been wondering what did Jesus mean?
Was he saying, “Just pay the tax and get on with things?”
Was he saying, “Everything belongs to God so forget the tax?”
Or was he saying something else. Something far more radical. Something far more profound. Something far more important.
Remember the setting. It is Passover week—a week that began with Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, one accompanied by shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” A procession of hope. One filled with joy. But also a procession matched by a one from the opposite direction. A procession of Roman soldiers marching into Jerusalem. A procession designed to install fear. A procession designed to impose order.
Each procession passes hills littered with crosses—markers of Roman power, markers of Roman oppression, markers of Roman rule. No wonder the air was charged—particles of fear ricocheting around particles of hope.
At the center of it all Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, who earlier in the week turns tables in the temple upside down. Jesus whose life was spent turning over tables—tables of fear, tables of scarcity, and tables of oppression.
Jesus’ ministry was one of proclaiming a new kingdom, a new reign, a new way of being in the world. An alternative to the reign of fear the Romans and their puppet rulers proclaimed with soldiers’ on the march and crosses on the hills.
I suspect it was never about taxes. Not for the Pharisees. Not for the Herodians. And not for Jesus. That tax question. That was a ruse. A vain attempt to trap Jesus.
Jesus’ response: “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”—that’s not about taxes either. That’s about the coin of the realm—Caesar’s realm and God’s realm. The realm whose coin is fear and the realm whose coin is love.
Jesus is posing a choice—a choice between two realms, a choice between two currencies, the currency of fear and the currency of love.
We know that choice, you and I, we meet it time and again in our lives, for we live in a culture of fear. Fear is all around us. Flames of fear fanned by politicians eager for votes. Flames of fear fanned by drug companies. security companies, cosmetics companies. Flames of fear fanned by folks looking for an easy buck. Flames of fear fanned by promoters of walled communities and gated compounds, of constricted lives and limited dreams. Sometimes those flames of fear are fanned by well-meaning people who just want to make sure others are safe.
Fear is all around us and fear is in us as well. Sometimes it makes sense to have a healthy dose of fear. Fear, it itself, is not harmful. Fear can serve as a kind of alarm warning us that something is amiss.
But when we live from a place of fear we are not following Jesus. In a world marked by fear, Jesus offers a different way. A way of truth, a way of love and a way of reconciliation. In the midst of Caesar’s empire—an empire held together by fear, Jesus proclaims the reign of God—one in which “the blind see, the lame walk, and the poor have good news preached to them.” An empire of love where strangers are welcomed and those on the margins are moved to the center. One in which there is enough for all and leftovers for those who have yet to come to the feast. One in which even in the Garden and on the Cross fear is tempered with love. In the midst of Caesar’s world, Jesus lives the truth that things can be otherwise.
Things can be otherwise. That’s what we need to remember. Things can be otherwise. We don’t have to live from a place of fear. We can live from a place of hope. We can live from a place of love. We can live from a place of connection. Sometimes following Jesus is as simple as imagining alternatives to the products of a fear-driven culture. When neighborhood associations put out security alerts in the form of crime announcements, why not counter with connection alerts that tell the story of one neighbor helping another? When folks worry about strangers lurking in their neighborhood, why not point to the stranger who helped you when you were in need? When you hear about folks building walls, why not turn the conversation to those who build bridges?
What we focus on becomes our reality. We have a choice, you and I, we have a choice. Daily Jesus offers us this choice: The coin of Caesar’s realm or the coin of God’s kingdom? Fear or Love? What shall it be?