Unlike most Australian students who take religious freedom for granted and don’t give religion much thought at all. Peter and Laura were born in a country and time when having a religion was not really a possibility. They moved to Australia where there is freedom of religious expression and opportunity to think freely about their ideas and beliefs. They are living in a society, whether we care to recognized it or not, whose values are grounded and formed by Christianity. Peter and Laura have encountered God revealed in Jesus Christ through people they have met in Australia, through prayer and through reading the bible and they have chosen to become Christians.
It’s hard to imagine how powerful this choice is for us who have grown up with religious freedom and freedom of speech. We might get a small glimpse into what it’s like to live in China when we read in the newspaper about Chinese officials being sent to Australia to spy on Chinese students who might speak against the Chinese government. There seems to also be some kind of spying on Chinese Australians citizens and payments by influential Chinese to Australian lobby groups. The Chinese President Xi Jinping recently made an evocative speech about eliminating corruption and any forms of descent. He seems keen to ensure that people don’t speak against human rights abuses or advocate for a different way of life in China. It seems that anyone with a voice of descent could end up in prison. We’ve also just heard about the United Nations inquiry, made up of 5 independent experts, into the treatment of three Chinese activists wrongly arrested and accused of subversion. It is said that their treatment did not conform with China’s obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN has called on the Chinese government to release these people as they shine the light on hundreds of people who have been questioned and detained as part of Xi’s crackdown.
This setting has some familiarity with the context of the Christian gospels. Matthew, for one, writes about a series of attacks on Jesus by his critics. Jesus is living under the Roman empire at a time when there was very little tolerance for
‘Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians saying: teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. ...and here comes the question..... tell us then, what you think, is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’ - Matthew 22:15-22
A thorny question!
A dangerous question.
Thinking about Chinese politics and international relations what comes to mind when we read about paying taxes to emperors? The Roman empire sounds to me a bit like communist China. The communist political ideology sees the role of the people as primarily to work and serve the state. Lives were taxes. In China, when Mao Zedong was the leader, he set himself up as the supreme being and every house had his picture on the wall. When he died people wept for weeks and weeks. The people gave their lives to the leader and the leader was considered the embodiment of the state.
The Roman Emperor did the same thing. The people were there to serve the empire. There was no such thing as individuals, people were supposed to just work and pay taxes! Not that different from the time when Jesus was with Herodians and Pharisees who were out to trick him.
The Pharisees were a strict Jewish group who wanted to enforce the Jewish law. They were critical of empire and having to pay oppressive taxes to Rome.
The Herodians were a Jewish political party which supported Rome and endorsed Herod, so Jesus trapped between the two conflicting groups.
How would Jesus have felt in this sticky situation?
What do you think Jesus should have said?
He could have said No. ‘No we are Jews we shouldn’t pay taxes to the emperor. For one thing, didn’t the Jews consider it adulterous to make graven images...the coins have an idolatrous image stamped on them. and for another thing, paying taxes would indicate that the Jews were in collaboration with the oppressive Roman regime. But if Jesus had said that then the Herodians would report him as a political revolutionary and the Romans would have been able to arrest him for treason.
On the other hand, he could have said sure go ahead pay the stupid taxes: what harm will it do? The Romans provide government and services back into this region. But if he’d said that the Pharisees would have had him marked down as speaking against his religion.
Ahh between a rock and a hard place!!
When we read the next part of the story we hear that Jesus asks for a coin. (isn’t it interesting that his pockets were empty) Someone gave him a denarius. ‘Whose picture is on this coin and whose title?’ he asks. And they all reply ‘The Emperor’. Well, then, it is simple. You give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and to God what is God’s.
And there was silence.
Jesus’ critics were amazed and went away….
Sounds like they were a bit stunned. I can just imagine someone watching and listening in to the whole discussion left wondering. ‘OK, I don’t get it. What is the answer? Should we pay taxes to the emperor or not?
Jesus does not answer the question.... or does he? Another silence.
Karl Marx said religion was the opiate of the people, and the political ideologies and policymakers that follow his teachings actively suppressed religion. The people’s lives belonged to the state – interestingly regimes that followed his teachings end up with a religious-like quality where the leader is worshiped like a demi-God. There is ideological control over people’s thinking that does not provide pluralistic perspective or a diversity of views. Chinese culture encourages people to be obedient to their elders and respectful of the cultural systems and customs – but surely there needs to be room for people to develop their own ideas and criticize the policy direction of the political party.
Jesus isn’t separating out the political and the religious, Jesus is saying that foremost our personal, religious and political thoughts and actions should give to God what is God’s.
And what is God’s?
People coming to seek Baptism in the Christian faith are taking an extraordinary stance. They are joining the core Christian affirmation that their living belongs to God. They are participating in the fundamental Christian identity as children of God, people who belong in the life of God.
From a Christian perspective, the bottom line is this: ‘the world belongs to God, the earth, and all its people’
In Baptism, we die to our old self and are born a new into life in God. We recognize ourselves as children who belong to God. If you have to pay taxes to the empire – go ahead, but more importantly, give to God what belongs to God:
Give God your heart,
Give God your soul,
Give God your being.
Then live as people of God.
People who stand with God against oppression,
who call for peace,
who uphold the dignity of all,
who share in God’s healing presence
and whose lives are an expression of love
as we give to God that which belongs to God: