Good morning folks. And I guess you'd better have a seat because we need to talk about taxes. You don't often hear anyone say that in church do you? And you probably weren't expecting us to tackle that subject on Remembrance Sunday of all days. But we need to talk about taxes because Jesus does in Luke chapter 20.
And as we do so we will find ourselves entering a battleground just as crucial as those fought by those who we remember today. But it's not a battle fought by nations and governments – As it's a battle between Jesus and the Religious Leaders of his day. And neither is it a battle fought with guns and bombs – as it is being fought with questions.
I don't know if you've ever thought about this, but there is power in questions. So if I was to put out two chairs here and tell you that this is the chair for the person asking the questions. And this is the chair for the person answering them.
Which chair would you rather be in? It strikes me that when questions are being asked – you really want to be the questioner and not the questioned. That's true in an interview situation, isn't it? It's true if you ever end up in a tangle with the police! We see it on Newsnight or any news programme where politicians are being grilled – 'But minister how do you explain to the voters the discrepancy in your figures?'
In nearly every situation where questions are being asked – This is the one with the authority. This is where the power lies. With the one who is asking the questions.
Here in Luke 20 there are a whole load of questions being thrown about – because Jesus has walked onto the turf of the religious leaders of the day in the temple, and literally turned the place upside down. So they are battling with Jesus for authority:
- Asking him, 'What gives you the authority to barge around telling us what to do?' at the start of the chapter.
- Then Jesus has answered with a story about wicked tenants which is directed at them – 'You are tenants in God's world, yet you reject his prophets and kill his son and live as if you own the place. How do you think that's going to end for you?'
- Back and forth it goes question after question.
All because these religious leaders are desperately trying to stay in control. Still sitting in the seat of power.
And folks, I think we can be like that, don't you? Humanity thinks that we get to question God. So we sit in this chair and we put God on the spot in this one. And we say, 'God I've got some questions for you!'
And as I said the other week – there is definitely a place for asking questions about God. But too often we ask our questions not to gain understanding, not because we're looking for answers, but to stay in control – to hang onto the seat of power in our lives. And thereby we bat away the questions God has got for us.
Do you see any of that attitude in your heart when it comes to Jesus? Which chair are you sitting in?
Folks, I've been praying for us this week – I hope that doesn't come as a surprise! I can just see the headlines now: 'Minister Praying for Church Shock!" – but I've been praying that we will recognise that Jesus' questioning of us is much more important than our questioning of him.
Just as Jesus walked right into the confrontation room of the temple back then, I believe Jesus wants to walk right into our hearts and confront us today.
So I'm sure it would be a great help if you could grab a Bible. Let's track through this and hopefully things will become clear as we go along.
Let's look firstly at…
1. The Crafty Trap
The chief priests and the scribes had been schooled by Jesus before, so – verse 20:
"…they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. So they asked him, 'Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?'"
Do you see which chair these guys are sitting in? They are sitting in this chair, aren't they? The questioner's chair. They come to Jesus – but we're told why they come. They want to trap Jesus in his words. They're not interested in what he has to say – they just want to catch him and take hold of him. It's like when you go fishing. I've only been fishing a few times in my life, so I'm no expert. But when you go fishing what do you do? You put a bit of bait – like an earthworm – onto the end of the hook and you cast it out into the river. And when you do that – You're not saying, 'Here you go little fishy, here's something nice to eat.' No, it's a deception. Your aim is not to make sure that the fish get a nice meal. Your aim is to catch it. And my case I never did. Which is why I absolutely hate fishing.
But do you see how these spies bait the hook? Verse 21: "Oh teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly" – Here's your worm – "and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God." Do you see what's on the end of the hook? It's a bucketload of flattery! They are giving him the opposite of gossip – they are saying to his face what they would never say behind his back.
But ironically… it is true, isn't it?! Jesus does, "speak and teach rightly." He does, "and show no partiality..." Jesus is a man of integrity. He isn't swayed by anyone. He isn't slippery with the truth and never tries to butter people up. That's why you can trust him. He speaks the truth no matter who he is speaking to or what he is speaking about.
He's not like us! We are all swayed by who we're talking to, aren't we? Have you noticed that in your life? I have in mine! How many times have you been determined to be straight with someone and then copped out and backed down? Like with your boss or work colleague? Or with a non-Christian friend or a family member? But when it comes down to it... when they are standing right there in front of you... you say it quite differently. With flattery and half-truths and manipulation.
Not so with Jesus... he says it as it is. He "truly teaches the way of God" regardless of who is standing in front of him.
Folks, what a difference we could make in people's lives if only we had the courage, character and confidence in Jesus to follow his example, and "…truly teach the way of God." Let's not be like these flatters. They don't want to follow him – they just want to catch him out and get rid of him.
So they ask him the most crafty question – in verse 22: "Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?"
They are asking Jesus about the imperial Poll Tax – which had been imposed on the Jews by the Romans 20 years previously. This tax was nothing short of a national obsession in Jesus' day – like us Brits talking about the weather. It was hated by the Jews. Poll Taxes have never been that popular – just ask anyone who lived in Scotland in the early 1990s. And this one was no different. So much so that when Jesus was a little boy – it had even been the cause of a serious revolt in 6AD.
So this question was designed to hang Jesus on the horns of a dilemma – so that he would impale himself on one or the other. If he says, 'Yes you should pay the tax' – then that will upset and alienate the Jews who hate the Romans. But if he says, 'No, you shouldn't pay' – then they could get the Romans to arrest him for treason and inciting rebellion. It looks to all the world like this is Check Mate. It's clever.
But it's sad also, isn't it? This is humanity – seeking to trap, seeking to twist, seeking to find a way to bring Jesus down and deny who he really is – someone who "truly teaches the way of God!" But Jesus isn't ruffled for a minute. He is so calm. Look at him as we see secondly…
2. The Amazing Escape
Do you see? In verse 23 – Jesus:
"…perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 'Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?' They said, 'Caesar's.'"
There is a cupboard in our house which has three glass jars in it. And in each jar there is the golden treasure of all children… sweets. On each there is a name – showing who these sweets belong to. It has been known for one member of the family, to get into trouble for dipping into a jar that isn't theirs and removing sweets. I'm not going to betray them by saying who that person is. But maybe it was late at night. Maybe he was preparing a sermon. Maybe he got a little peckish and bread bin was empty. But it shouldn't have happened. The jars are all clearly marked – so he should know whose they are.
And folks, in Jesus' time you could have said the same thing about coins. Ancient coins were understood to be the property of the person whose picture and inscription were on them. If they were clearly marked then you knew who they belonged to.
So do you see how Jesus turns the tables here? When he asks for a denarius he is asking for these spies to pull out of their pockets a small silver coin worth a day's wages. It had been issued by the Romans to pay the tax that they were talking about.
On one side was the head of Caesar and the abbreviated inscription "TI CAESAR DIVI AVG. F. AVGVSTVS" – And if you don't know your Latin let me translate that for you, "Tibirius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, Augustus."
You see the point? If it's got Caesar's image on it. And it's Caesar's inscription that guarantees that it's worth what it says it is. Then it belongs to him.
So verse 22, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's…" – Give it to him.
But, but, but… Have you spotted the "but"? "Caesar, son of the divine Augustus." This coin is blasphemous! Of course you should pay your taxes, of course you should honour the government but you don't seriously do that when it is controlled by a man who thinks he's the son of a God, do you?
But before these smiling assassins can object, Jesus goes on: "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's… and to God the things that are God's."
He says, 'Yes you submit to human authorities. Caesar has authority over you. You pay him taxes. But he's not your God. You give that to God. You worship him.' You see if a coin is due to Caesar because it bears his image, then whatever bears the image of God belongs to him.
So – Question: What bears the image of God? Answer: Genesis 1.27: "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Yes, it is us. Humankind. You and me. We bear the image of God. We are stamped with his portrait. It's what makes us different from all the animals. You were created, you bear the image of God in the same way that a denarius bears the image of Caesar. Whether you believe in him or not you carry his image. That's why you love. That's why you laugh. That's why you enjoy beauty. That's why you worship. That's why you long for death not to be the end, but for there to be something more. Because you were created in the image of a loving, relational, creative, awesome, eternal God. So just as the coin is owed to Caesar, your life is owed to God. Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's.
Which brings us thirdly to…
3. The Challenge
In fact, let me quickly draw out two for you – the first is really obvious:
i.) Pay Your Taxes
To which you might think, 'How dare you!' of course I pay my taxes! Really? All of them? Never been tempted to take a short cut?
Before Fiona and I had kids we bought a wreck of a house and started doing it up. I remember we got some builders in to do the bathroom and when the job was finished the boss guy said to me, 'The cost is £3,000, but if you pay in cash you can have it for £600 cheaper.' I don't think Fiona and I have ever been flush for cash, but things were particularly tight then. So it was seriously tempting. And it would have been so easy to get away with! Ever found yourself in that kind of situation?
Or maybe you relate more to a friend of mine – who had his tax return done by a company who always tried to get him to record personal miles in his car as business mileage. Then again maybe you've found yourself coming back from holiday and you get to customs and you know you've got something in your luggage that you should declare, but you just can't be bothered with the hassle so you cruise on through the "Nothing To Declare" gate without giving is a second thought.
Well Jesus says you should. You should give it a second thought. As you should with the packet of fags you can get for £6 in some parts of the city that usually cost £20 elsewhere. As you should when it comes to declaring income on a rental property or second home. We shouldn't go looking for exceptions. We shouldn't try to find a loophole. It would be so easy to think, 'But the government will only waste it on MPs expenses, or sending it to Europe, or putting another bazillion Equalities Officers in city councils.'
But Jesus tells the Jews to pay, even though this tax was issued by a foreign oppressor. An incredibly organised one none-the-less – who provided roads, law and order, security and religious freedom. Which is why the apostle Paul writes in Romans 13:
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God… For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God… Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed."
We should pay to "Caesar what is Caesar's…"
ii.) But Give God Your All
Or as Jesus puts it – give, "…to God the things that are God's."
You see, it is quite possible to be rightly paying our taxes and be guilty of a far more serious tax evasion. The most serious fraud in the universe is the failure to give ourselves completely to Jesus Christ. He made us. We're stamped with his image. We belong to him.
Quite often when I talk to people about Jesus they try to justify themselves by telling me what good citizens they are. And folks, I am not going to knock that! But what an appalling tragedy it would be to have always paid our taxes, to be able to account for all our expenses – in financial terms to be completely squeaky clean but when we come face to face with Jesus Christ to hear him say, 'But you haven't given me what's due to me. You haven't worshiped me as Lord. You've largely ignored me!'
Or even worse – maybe like with these religious leaders to hear him say, 'You've actually been working against me. Trying to trip me up and snuff me out.'
I wonder if we ever question God in that way? Just trying to find a loophole. Just trying to find an excuse to not obey him. When it comes to our time? And our willingness to stand up and speak God's truth? When it comes to our sexuality and our identity? When it comes to our money?
Folks, I think I've got to stop trying to second guess Jesus. I think we've got to stop looking for loopholes. Stop treating him with such suspicion, stop putting him on the spot with our questions and start trusting him – And listening to his.
After all, at the end of the day Jesus is not after just a bit of our time or money, or for us to meet him halfway to his view of the world. He wants us! All of us!
He loves us so much that he will not settle for anything less. Because only he is worth it. And only he can be trusted. And only he can stretch and satisfy the longings of our hearts. So we must give to God what is God's. We must give him our lives.