What we give to God
The passage of Scripture that we have for today from Matthew’s Gospel relates to us one of the encounters that Jesus had with the Pharisees during the week leading up to the crucifixion. Remember that Jesus came to Jerusalem just before the traditional time for the celebration of the Passover that year. He had been warmly greeted by the people but was still the focus of intense scrutiny by the religious leaders of the day.
Now it may seem strange that the Pharisees would choose the issue of taxes as a means of trapping Jesus so that they could have a valid reason for having him arrested yet the issue of loyalty to the emperor was very real in that time as the people of Jerusalem and the country as a whole were under the rule of Rome and Rome would tolerate allegiance to none other than the Emperor. Anyone who would claim that any other person should be owed allegiance over the Emperor put themselves in peril of imprisonment or death.
And so, the Pharisees were hoping that Jesus would say that it was not lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor. Such a statement in front of witnesses would have led to immediate arrest. But Jesus is wise to the ways of the Pharisees – the lawyers of the people – and he turns the question on them. When presented with the coin of the day, Jesus asks them whose image it is. “It is the Emperor’s,” they reply. If the image upon the coin is that of the Emperor, then it belongs to the Emperor and it is only right that it should be used to pay taxes to the Emperor. Jesus concludes by saying: “Give to the Emperor the things that belong to the Emperor but give to God the things that belong to God”. The Pharisees are speechless, and they go away.
It is clear then what belongs to the Emperor but what things belong to God? The people of Israel were given 10 basic commandments to direct their lives and keep them ever mindful of what their relationship to God and to one another was to be. The commandments clearly revealed the responsibility that the people had with respect to God and with respect to one another. In Deuteronomy 6:4-6, we find the Shema – a directive given to the people by Moses: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” Moses goes on to encourage them to recite them to their children and to ever talk about them wherever they may be. They are to be on their hands, their foreheads, and the doorposts of their homes.
The commandments that God gave the people were not merely suggestions to be followed when convenient; they embodied what the people owed God for their very lives and also what they owed one another. They are to love him with their heart, their soul, and their might. We might say today that we are to love him with our mind, our spirit, and our body. For the people of Israel, it was critical that no matter what happened in life, they were to continue to love their God. Every fiber of their being was to reflect their love of God.
From their time following Moses through the wilderness to the establishment of the people in the promised land and through their time of exile in Babylon and everything else that they went through as a people, the directive of the Shema was ever before them.
But it seems that the Pharisees had forgotten that directive. They had forgotten that they were the people of God and that they owed God their love and devotion. Whatever the Emperor may have demanded of them, they still had a responsibility to keep God first in their lives. Whatever laws the Romans put in place, they had a responsibility to honour and keep the law and commandments of God. God had been the one who had brought the people through generations of hardships and suffering. He had remained constant with them through the good times and the bad times. Deep down the Pharisees knew that Jesus had spoken the truth.
No matter what anyone in this world may believe we owe to them, we owe to God the things that he has given us: our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength.