Mark and I worked in a shantytown in South Africa for a few months during the decade where I was not in parish ministry. This was long after the end of apartheid, but the structures of that system were still very much in evidence. Most of our time was spent out among the shacks day to day, but we did get to visit key sites like Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and the District 6 Museum, honoring a neighborhood where more than 60,000 people were forcibly removed and their homes bulldozed after it was declared an area for whites only.
One of the most hated symbols of the apartheid regime was the passbook, which black males over the age of 16 had to carry at all times. Inside the passbook were things like your fingerprints, photograph, personal details, notes from your employers, and permission from the government to be in a particular neighborhood -- which could be revoked by any official for any reason at any time. It became one of the main means of government control, to the point that every year about 250,000 black men were arrested for technical violations of the passbook law – and as you can imagine, a lot of these so-called violations came down to not being white. Many of the public protests that history now looks back on as heroic steps in the end of apartheid were at their heart protests against passbooks.
So, if you’re required to by a law that is clearly unjust, do you carry a passbook? Do you just go along with the system as deferentially as possible, knowing that playing the game may get you work that will feed your family? Do you comply, but only the very least you can? Do you participate in protests and run the risk that the police will open fire on you, like the victims of the 1961 Sharpeville Massacre? One of the ugly realities about that kind of colonial situation, where those in power are making life as difficult as possible for an oppressed group, is that members of the oppressed group will be forced to give different answers to those questions and thus end up in conflict with each other.
Well, we see that in today’s Gospel. The Roman Empire used many symbolic things, among them currency, as instruments of subjugation and control of conquered minorities like the Jews. The coin from today’s reading, for example, was required to be used to pay the Roman poll tax. On it was, of course, an image of the emperor (presumably Tiberius who was in power at the time) along with an inscription calling him “Son of the divine Augustus." The other side honored him as the "Pontifex Maximus" or "chief priest" of Roman polytheism—which is to say that the two sides of the coin ascribed to the emperor absolute civil and religious authority.
To any Jew, this kind of a graven image was religiously idolatrous and politically humiliating, and to give a divine title to a human ruler was blasphemy. Just by its existence, the coin violates the first two of the Ten Commandments. That’s one reason why the Jews had their own internal currency, so they could buy things with coins that did not demean their ethnicity and their values. You may remember, for example, the story of the money changers in the Temple. You can’t use an idolatrous, blasphemous Roman coin inside the temple precincts; you have to stop outside and change it for Jewish currency first. But the Romans won’t take Jewish currency; they make you use the idolatrous and blasphemous kind as a daily reminder that they have conquered and subjugated your people.
So what do you do if you’re a Jew in Jerusalem under the Roman Empire? Do you use the currency that insults your deepest convictions? Do you just go along with the system as deferentially as possible, knowing that playing the game may get you work that will feed your family? Do you comply, but only the very least you can? Do you join in protests knowing that it may get you arrested or killed?
The Pharisees, who strove for absolute Jewish purity, surely would have at least claimed to be deeply offended by the coin, although that claim is not what’s on their mind when they come to Jesus in the Temple precincts and ask whether the Bible permits using it. What’s on their mind is trying to ruin him. If you’ve been at Mass the past three weeks, you know Jesus has just told three stinging parables in a row depicting the Pharisees as either utterly clueless about God or full-blown villains. They’re done. They want to trap Jesus into saying something damaging that they can then quote and share and retweet out of context because they want him gone. So they come to him in the Temple precincts, and try to act collegial. “Rabbi, you know the Law of Moses so well. Is it lawful to pay the Roman poll tax or not?” They don’t really care, I don’t think, which side he takes; they just want him to take a side so that those on the other side can be persuaded to hate him. You know how it works. It’s very big these days. Any clear side-taking can be capitalized on to do plenty of damage.
If Jesus agrees that the Jews should obey the Romans and pay Caesar’s poll tax with the idolatrous coin, they can go all Ideological Purity on him, and tar and feather him as a stooge of the colonial oppressor: a Jew In Name Only. If he agrees that Jews should violate civil law and withhold taxes from the Roman government, they can then go all Law and Order on him, and tar and feather him as a political protestor with no respect for authority. There is no right answer here, for Jesus or for any Jew of the time.
What does Jesus do? It’s so unbelievably masterful. He says, “So, you Pharisees got one of those Roman coins they require for the tax?” Well, it turns out they do. And they, the most rigorously law-abiding sect of 1st century Jews, go so far as to produce, right there inside the Temple precincts, past the moneychangers, the coin that proclaims the absolute religious authority of the Emperor. Jesus deftly namechecks the two violations of the Ten Commandments that the Pharisees are toting around with them on what is supposed to be Jewish holy ground, “Oh, look, a graven image. Who’s that again? Oh, look, a divine title. Who are you calling God again?”
Instead of being trapped by them, Jesus has forced them to reveal that they’re complicit in proclaiming the emperor’s absolute Lordship in the very Temple of the God they claim to be serving with such single-mindedness. You Pharisees got one of those idolatrous coins? We Jews all know who they belong to. Go on and keep using them for the Emperor who foisted them on us if you like carrying them around so much. But give to God the things that are God’s. Just how compromised are you?
Give to God the things that are God’s. The brilliance of that answer, to those questioners, in that context! Give to God the things that are God’s. So, Pharisees – so, readers of this Gospel – so, me and you: what things are God’s? Anyone from any monotheistic tradition, whether Muslim, Jew, or Christian, knows the right answer. This is not tricky; this is basic kindergarten level monotheism. What things are God’s? Everything. God is Lord of everything. Even the things the Emperor thinks he owns.
But just like the Pharisees, we’re very used to finding ways to compromise that truth, to hit the mute button on the message and avoid letting it actually mean anything costly or inconvenient. To say we believe it but quietly engage in what feels like a reasonable amount of accommodation to the emperor du jour -- and of course there have been thousands of emperors du jour over the years, and still are.
Though this is a particularly brilliant and delightful example, Jesus here is doing something he does many times and will continue doing for each of us: he just shows us our compromise and opens up the door for us to align with what’s true. Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. So what things are God’s, again?
(I am indebted for this reading of the passage, and specifically for the South African analogy, to Zambian scholar Dr. Joe Kapolyo in "Matthew," The Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo.)