“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What a timely Gospel reading for the moment we find ourselves in, just a few weeks away from an election! Right here, in this brief exchange between Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Herodians, we find a central question that should confront every Christian sooner or later. What does religion have to do with politics? How does our devotion to God relate to our responsibilities as citizens? And even if that question hasn’t occurred to you before, it probably will make itself known in the coming weeks.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We see here in Jesus’ answer that there are two authorities, each one making certain claims upon their subjects. This is supposed to clear things up, but still, what are we supposed to do, exactly?
This would have been an urgent question for the audience that gathers around Jesus in today’s Gospel too. And the two parties mentioned represented two different ways of dealing with it. For the first party, we see that there are the Pharisees who want to entrap Jesus, and so they send some of their people with a question that they think will stump our Lord. But significantly, they also invite along some members of another party, the Herodians, to spice things up even more. They’re out to cause a scene, stir up some drama, and hopefully get Jesus cancelled. But unless we know something about who these groups were and what they represented, what follows will probably make little sense to us. So who were the Pharisees and the Herodians?
We hear a lot about the Pharisees in the Gospels, as they are Jesus’ most recurring antagonists. But the Pharisees were also the most devout and committed group of Jewish leaders when it came to the Law and the Prophets. They were keenly aware that the Jewish people were the covenantal people of God, the elect nation which receives the promises of God that are given to no other nation. And because of that, the Roman occupation of Israel presented not just a political inconvenience, but a theological crisis. For Rome to colonize the Promised Land and claim it as its own amounts to blasphemy. In the eyes of the Pharisees, the Holy Land is desecrated simply by the Romans’ presence. For the Herodians, on the other hand, while the Roman occupation may have certainly been less than ideal, it was more or less “the way things are” and their plan was basically to make the best of it. When in Rome, and all that. So they had done their best to accommodate themselves to the status quo and figured out a compromise between being nice and obedient Roman subjects and being faithful Jews. Not coincidentally, they also tended to be upper-class -- as is often the case with those who cozy up to power -- and were more or less “collaborators with the colonial regime.” 
Now, for these two parties to gather around Jesus puts him in a difficult bind. Think Thanksgiving dinner with your extended family, but times a thousand. They pose to him the loaded question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Again, this question is comes straight out of the immediate context of the Roman occupation of Israel. This is not primarily a general question about taxes as such. For those gathered in the text, this is a question about how to be faithful to God when the Promised Land has been colonized by a pagan power.
But what about this question could potentially “entrap” Jesus? Why does it put him in a bind? Well, consider his possible answers. On the one hand, Jesus could say that everyone should just go ahead and pay their taxes and do as they’re told -- that the Romans are in charge, so everyone should just be obedient subjects. But if he answers this way, he will confirm the Pharisees’ main criticism of him, which is that Jesus is subverting the tradition -- the religious order of the Law and the Prophets that defines Israel as God’s chosen people. For Jesus to recognize the legitimacy of Rome’s claim to taxes would mean that he has rejected the ultimate legitimacy of the nation of Israel. Furthermore, this answer would happen to align Jesus with the Herodians, who are also gathered around him. Because this, again, is basically what the Herodian party platform was: “we may be Jews in terms of our private religious lives, but we’re Roman subjects in terms of our public political lives -- so we can pay our taxes, no sweat.”
On the other hand, however, if he says that it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then he will reveal himself as just another revolutionary that Rome would be more than willing to get rid of -- and it would likely be the Herodians who would report him to the authorities. So this is the set-up that the Pharisees have placed Jesus into: it’s a lose-lose situation, as either answer will invalidate him.
Leaving this very specific historical context behind and coming back into our own day, this trap that has been set for Jesus is one that we are familiar with as well. We are very accustomed to thinking of “religion” and “politics” as these two separate activities that ought to have little or nothing to do with each other. Like they’re two different realms that operate according to different rules. And many Christians are quite vigilant in policing the boundary between them. “The Church shouldn’t get political,” one often hears -- the idea being that religion is mostly a personal, private matter of spirituality and therefore ought not be disturbed by or mixed up with public and political matters. Somewhat like the Herodians in our text today, such Christians tend to think that we can neatly organize our lives into these little boxes: I can be a decent and law-abiding citizen in this box, and I can go to church and maintain my personal faith in this other box. And again, because religion and politics are two fundamentally different things, I don’t have to worry about what my religion might have to say about my politics, because it simply doesn’t say anything.
The problem with this is that these imaginary boxes simply don’t exist. There is no absolute distinction between this thing called “religion” over here and this other thing called “politics” over there. When people insist that “the Church shouldn’t get political,” the assumption is that the Church isn’t already political simply by being the Church in the world. There is only life, with all of the various activities it entails. And religion, or at least the Christian one, is about the entirety of life being transformed into worship. It’s not just a private matter -- it demands all of us and everything, our public and political lives included. So we would do well to dispense with this false distinction between religion and politics that has made American Christianity such a comfortable and easy affair. Because if we rightly understood our religion, we’d realize really quick how truly difficult it is to be a Christian in America. But we haven’t heard Jesus’ answer yet, so let’s listen to our Lord:
While there might be something to this reading, it wouldn’t have been a statement that would have likely caused the people around to be “amazed,” as the text says. This would have been more or less the standard position of the Pharisees and thus would’ve been pretty familiar to people. But they were amazed. Jesus has somehow thrown a twist into the familiar categories of the day. Basically, Jesus has rejected the question as it’s been framed for him. The conflict is not ultimately between whether to pay taxes to the emperor or not because the ultimate conflict is not between the nation of Israel and the nation of Rome. Jesus is bringing into the world a conflict that transcends the whole question. He’s bringing into the world a “liberation [that] goes beyond political liberation.” He’s fighting a different fight altogether. As Herbert McCabe puts it in the essay that I’ve been drawing from this morning:
So let these earthly powers that remain for the time being have what they need -- maybe they’ll get it right every once in a while and actually maintain the cause of justice. But if and when they don’t, we know that Christ has been seated at the right hand of the Father, where all things will be put in subjection under his feet. Amen.
 Much of the historical and theological analysis of this passage was derived from: Herbert McCabe. God, Christ and Us. "Render to Caesar," 125-132.