Luke 20:21-26 (CEV)
21 The spies said to him, “Teacher, we know that you teach the truth about what God wants people to do. And you treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are. 22 Tell us, should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”
23 Jesus knew that they were trying to trick him. So he told them, 24 “Show me a coin.” Then he asked, “Whose picture and name are on it?”
“The Emperor’s,” they answered.
25 Then he told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” 26 Jesus’ enemies could not catch him saying anything wrong there in front of the people. They were amazed at his answer and kept quiet.
Obligation or Allegiance?
“Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.”
That’s pretty clear when you’re holding a coin, right?
It’s clearly marked with the Emperor’s head on the back, so you know exactly whose it is.
But since this is Jesus’ response to people pretending to be good, my guess is that Jesus’ words are about more than just money.
My guess is that these words are more nuanced than that.
My guess is that they have more to do with piecing out the difference between our obligations and our allegiance.
Obligations are things like paying taxes.
Obligations are things like showing up for work on time – even on a cold, wintry morning.
Obligations are things like going to the dentist.
But none of those things get us excited – and none of them really should, right? It would be weird if I told you that I just couldn’t wait to pay my taxes. It would be bizarre if I told you that I liked to get up extra early on wintry snow days to make sure that I wasn’t a second late for work. You would probably write me off as a nut-job if I told you that I counted down the days until I got to go to the dentist. Right???
These are obligations. They’re things we have to do because if we don’t do them we get in trouble. Bad things will happen. Obligations are powered by fear.
And these enemies of Jesus are stuck, tied to their obligations to the religious and political power structures they had aligned themselves with.
Allegiance on the other hand might be to your sports team.
Allegiance might be to your family.
Allegiance might be to your mom’s incredible Christmas dinner.
These are things that get you excited. There’s no dread or fear involved here. The moment they cross over from excitement to fear, in fact, they stop being allegiance and go back to being obligations. Because allegiance is powered by love.
And so I read in Jesus’ response to those “pretending to do good” spies (that his enemies have sent to try to trap him) the invitation I promised you we would find today.
You see, Jesus fully acknowledges that the obligations have to be done. The taxes have to be paid to Caesar, the bills have to be paid – and that’ll only happen if you turn up for work on time – you have to go to the dentist or your teeth will all rot and chip and erode in your mouth.
The obligations are there, but I think Jesus is saying, “don’t let all of these rules dictate how you live your lives. Take care of your obligations, but then come back and realign yourselves with your ultimate allegiance.”
Just because the taxes have to be paid doesn’t mean we have to swear allegiance to the tax man. The tax man doesn’t get to decide whether I spend my money renting a fancy sports car on the weekend or filling blessing bags for the Scott Mission.
Just because the bills have to be paid doesn’t mean we have to swear allegiance to our jobs. The jobs don’t get to decide whether I spend my free time being a troll on the internet or building community.
Just because we have to go to the dentist once every six months doesn’t mean we have to swear allegiance to the dentist. The dentist doesn’t get to decide whether I make a triple layer chocolate cake and eat it all myself or take it out and share it with my friends to celebrate someone’s birthday!
The unspoken question of the spies in front of Jesus is whether or not Caesar (or power) gets our allegiance or not.
Jesus says no.
He says that power can demand obligation – but only obligation. It doesn’t get a say in our allegiance.
To me, this is Jesus offering yet another invitation of grace to the very people who view him as an enemy.
To me, this is Jesus offering yet another opportunity to live ‘freely and lightly’ to a group weighed down by overwhelming burdens.
To me, this is Jesus offering yet another tantalizing prospect of hope and peace and justice and shalom.
The question is just whether or not they (and we) will say yes to it.
- Do you feel overwhelmed by obligations?
- Do you feel torn by competing allegiances?
- Do you feel like all of your agency has been lost to the person or company or ideology with the loudest voice or the biggest marketing budget?
- What would it look like for you to stop and question your allegiances?
- What would it look like for you to put boundaries up around your obligations?
- What would it look like for you to choose between a life powered by fear and a life powered by love?
- What would it look like to be truly free – to life ‘freely and lightly’?