'Next, they wheeled out a mixed group of the ultra-religious and politicians to trick Jesus with his own words. They said to him, slyly, 'Rabbi, you always speak honestly and you're not bothered about other people's opinions. You're not swayed by status but share God's guidelines. Is it kosher to pay tax to the emperor, or not? Should we pay up?'
It wasn't hard to tell that this wasn't a genuine enquiry so he said, 'One of your tricks is it? Bring me a coin, let's have a look.' They brought a coin. He asked them, 'Whose face is this, whose name is on this coin?' 'The Emperor.' Jesus said, 'So it's his money, do what he tells you, and don't forget to do what God says too.' They realised, again, that he had won.'
Mark 12:13 - 17 (extract from unpublished 'Jumbled up in Jerusalem')
One of the stranger stories of our time is of multinational corporations earning megabucks in the pursuit of 'Mammon' and escaping the reach of the 'Emperor'. Incredibly, companies like Amazon sell goods worth billions of pounds to UK customers and pay virtually no tax, because their tax affairs are handled from a tax haven. Pretty clever, don't you think? It is possible to have your cake and eat it. Facebook settles with the 'taxman' for a few thousand pounds, while young people straight from university pay more than that in income tax. A world gone mad. Perhaps if Jesus was here today representatives of HM Revenue and Customs would be asking him for advice on tax compliance. And would he be commending the shrewdness of the 'children of this world' in his parable about the crooked manager or 'the ingenuity of tax avoiders?'
Jesus often talked about money - the widow's 'mite', the lost coin, wealthy men with their loaded camels trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle - but only as parables, signifiers of something else. He does the same in the famous passage quoted above, to help his questioners answer their own question. They were squeamish about graven images on coins in ways that we are not, though these were accompanied by claims of godhood. Nevertheless, our own coins feature the Queen's head and make both dogmatic statements (fidei defensor) and appeals to divine agency (dei gratia), dressing up the authority of the 'Emperor' in religious language of another era ... Jesus might have something to say about this too, giving to Caesar what is God's ...
Jesus' answer, it is debatable whether it is an answer - 'give to Caesar what is Caesar's' - has often been taken as establishing the principle of the division of 'church' and state, though of course there was no church in his lifetime, as if he was setting out a demarcation in society between the sacred and the secular. In our Judaeo-Christian tradition and Western European political development we have striven to maintain a division between the secular and the religious - thus we can indeed have one law for the state and another for the church, perhaps this is a problem! Or secular politicians talk about the UK as a Christian country for political purposes, or right wing extremists use it as a badge of, and bludgeon for, racial and religious intolerance. How can any of these be sanctioned by Jesus? Yet even in the churches we get hung up over whether we live in a 'Christian country', without considering that Jesus never gave a mandate for dressing up Caesar in religious clothing. We wouldn't want to go to Jesus with our test questions, giving him a choice between two politico-religious options ...
Jesus never gave any political advice or rulings, nor do we need any reminders of his moral teachings on human interaction or self-awareness, he did however enjoin expediency. The parable of the crooked manager has already been mentioned, think too of the (religiously?) suspicious servant who didn't even entrust his master's money to the secular banking system. Jesus was not a political revolutionary or radical, as some of his followers would have hoped, he was not a rabble rouser (as was claimed at his trials). He never vented his spleen on the secular authorities, he reserved it for religious practices. We should really take his tax ruling (if that's what it is) in this passage and look at it alongside his treatment of the moneychangers in the Temple. No doubt they were performing a useful function, ensuring that God didn't receive pagan money but Jesus saw the corruption and abuse, and no doubt religious squeamishness, and trashed the whole system, he put nothing in its place. Consider also the 'widow's mite', she was making her offering to the Temple in the coin of the realm.
Perhaps we need some old ideas to improve things in our society.