I think most married men here today, would agree that their wives are very good at asking a question in such a way that whatever answer is given, it’ll be wrong!
To be fair, I expect that ladies probably make the same kind of criticism of their husbands, and maybe that’s why today’s gospel story leaves us all with deep admiration for the way in which Jesus answered the trick question which his enemies put to him.
When Jesus was living in Israel, there were two main powerful parties.
One group, the followers of King Herod, collaborated with the Roman occupiers, and in return were allowed quite a bit of authority in everyday life.
But the other group, the Pharisees, were noted for their religious purity, and had as little as possible to do with the Romans. Now, even though each group thoroughly disliked the other, they realised that the teaching of Jesus threatened them both.
So they joined forces and asked him a very tricky question.
If he answered that it was OK to pay taxes to Caesar, then he would lose the hearts of the ordinary people who were following him. But if he said that it was not OK, then he would have been arrested and tried for treason.
So, Jesus made a very clever answer. He said: “Give to Caesar, that which is Caesar’s and give to God, that which is God’s.”
You see, a true Jew wouldn’t even carry a Roman coin stamped with the image of an emperor who claimed to be divine. So, “Give to Caesar” could be taken to mean that they should give this money back to the place from which it came. Or, in other words “Romans, go home”, a good reply, which didn’t open him to a charge of treason.
And the other half of his answer was just as clever.
“Give to God, that which belongs to God” surely means that because human beings are made in the image of God , we all owe our very lives to him and should give those lives back in service, just as one might give a coin to Caesar.
And so, one short sentence, spoken by Jesus, did more than just show up the hypocrisy of those who wanted to be rid of him. It also pointed out quite clearly that the kingdom of God goes beyond the silly questions which crafty people asked Jesus then, and which they continue to ask us today.
You see, we mustn’t let life be divided into two parts. A religious bit and an everyday bit. But sadly, many Christians would be quite happy with this, because they see the worship of God as a private affair, which is just the concern of themselves and their little group. A group that doesn’t interfere with anyone else and who, in turn wants to be left alone to worship God.
And there are also many politicians who want to be left alone to get on with the business of government. They don’t want to interfere with religion and they certainly don’t want the Church to start telling them what to do, thank you very much.
You will know it’s very common to be called a “do-gooder” if you happen to be a Christian, who tries to make your Christian principles influence everyday life. Many people will tell you that you should concentrate on your religion and leave the real world alone, to be run by those who can handle it, without God getting in the way.
These people will often ask you trick questions, intended to trip you up into saying something which they can use against you. For example, they’ll use your answers to questions concerning sex and morality to try and show that the church is hopelessly out of touch with ordinary folk who don’t have any problems with sexual issues which as far as they’re concerned don’t do any harm. Just try criticizing the legislation concerning same sex unions and you’ll soon see what I mean.
And yet, the whole Christian tradition is against separating religion and everyday life. Jews and Christians have always seen the entire world and everything in it as created by God. All aspects of our world fall under his control, and so it just isn’t possible to separate things out like this.
Once we start to separate religion from everyday life, we’re placing ourselves on a very slippery slope indeed. Because it’s not much good praying for the sick, the poor and the homeless if you aren’t prepared to back up your prayers with action.
So, the answer which Jesus gave showed two sides of the same coin, if you like. You can’t love God without loving your neighbour. And if you love your neighbour, then actually, you’re very close to God.