The story from the perspective of an (imagined) eye witness.
My Dad and I were in Jerusalem that year, it must have been only my second pilgrimage I think – I was not yet quite an adult. We were staying with an uncle. As we got closer to Jerusalem, we met people along the way who told stories of this man called Jesus, who seemed to be gathering quite a lot of followers. They were telling stories of healing and teaching and spending time with people we had always been told were unclean, and would make us unclean if we got too close. This Jesus guy sounded to me like a very strange person, but still, someone I really wanted to see for myself.
When we got to Jerusalem and heard he was there too, we went straight away, following the crowds to get as close as we could. And we felt what the people on the roads had said they felt – that he was talking just to you, and wherever he was, that was where you wanted to be.
The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem didn’t like Jesus at all. They were saying terrible things about him, and if they heard you’d been in the crowds, they would get very aggressive and want to know what he said and what he did and who he was with. And they would tell you to stay away. I didn’t like them very much. They made my skin crawl.
One day that week we, my dad and uncle and I, happened to overhear some of the Pharisees talking about Jesus. It sounded like they were plotting an attack, so my dad and uncle got this idea that if we listened in and heard what they were planning, maybe we could warn Jesus. We were in a market, and the men were hiding in between some stalls. We kept out of sight around the corner, and listened in. Even though it was crowded and noisy with people and animals in the market, and we could only just hear what they were saying, I realised I was holding my breath, I was so frightened of what they might do if they heard us loitering around the corner.
The gist of their conversation was that they wanted to trap Jesus into saying something against Caesar so that the Roman soldiers would arrest him and he wouldn’t be around to stir up trouble any more.
We headed out early the next morning, to try to get close to Jesus before the Pharisees did. There was always such a crowd around him, though, that we couldn’t get close to him at all, let alone tell him what we had heard. The Pharisees posed the question, and really, it was so obvious what they were trying to do, sucking up to him like that. ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere (they didn’t think that at all), and teach the way of God in accordance with truth (they called him a liar most of the time), and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality (but they thought people should show deference to them and were angry that he didn’t). Tell us, then what you think. (dramatic pause as they tried to contain their anticipation) Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’
Oh, now for quite a few that day who were not sure about whether Jesus was a good guy or not, this swayed it for them that he was a good guy. Jesus was so calm, I didn’t even think about calling out to warn him not to answer because it was a trap. You could tell he had the measure of these guys. And he called them on it – why are you putting me to the test – you hypocrites! And he asked them to show him the coins we used for taxes. Whose head is this? The emperor’s. then give it to the emperor. Give to God what is God’s.
I heard people tell the story later, describing the Pharisees as being amazed, but it was more than that – they were speechless, deflated, and seething with anger.
As my dad and uncle and I walked home later, I asked them about Jesus’ response. The Pharisees might not have cared about the answer, but we certainly did. I had heard my parents and the other adults in the village talking and arguing and wondering about this question: whether it was right according to Torah to pay taxes to Rome. Was it right to show such allegiance to this emperor who called himself divine, an empire of people who worshipped many, many gods?
We talked about what Jesus had said, and decided that paying taxes to the empire isn’t giving our allegiance to their gods, because Jesus said to give to God what is God’s. Our hearts belong to God, our lives, our mind and our strength is all for God. So our money can go to Caesar, it is the money of the empire, and it supports the work of the empire, like building roads and buildings and aquaducts. And our allegiance, through prayer and studying Torah, and singing the psalms – our allegiance we give to God.
But then we wondered, if we’re supporting the work of the empire, are we showing our support for the unjust things they do? We don’t think their taxes are fair, they make poor people even more desperate. Shouldn’t we make a statement about our opposition to this injustice by withholding our taxes?
We talked about how, because we give our heart and mind and strength to God, and live according to Torah, we are taught to love our neighbours. So while our money goes to a sometimes corrupt and unjust regime, our time and our energy and food and shelter is shared with those who need it. So with our actions and the rest of what we have, we say, this is a more just way of living, this is what we do out of our allegiance to God.
This is what we thought Jesus meant by advising us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God. We know our lives to be a gift from God, so that means we have to – and we choose to – give our wholehearted devotion to God.
You’re still telling this story so many years after it began – what do you hear in the answer Jesus gave to the Pharisees?