Death and Taxes

For Sunday, 18 October 2020: Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

To Benjamin Franklin is attributed the saying: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Taxes have been part of the human story for an exceedingly long time, including as we hear in today’s narrative of the encounter with Jesus and his opposition. The Pharisees, strict nationalists who despised the foreign occupation of their lands by Rome, and the Herodians, who supported Roman rule through the dynasty of King Herod’s family, join forces to snare Jesus with a question about paying taxes to the emperor. Both groups know that in whatever manner Jesus answers, the result will be offense and infuriation since the Pharisees do not support payment of the tax and the Herodians do.

I am keenly aware that while I do not enjoy paying taxes, I appreciate that there are some positive outcomes that can come from the levies I am required to contribute such as sound roads and bridges, good schools, and safety nets for the poor and elderly, to name a few. On the other hand, when my hard-earned money appears to be wasted by politicians or used for purposes that do not contribute to the common good, I become exasperated.  In the end, I recognize that everyone must pitch in if we are to live as a community, no one gets a free ride, and that taxes have been a necessary part of human functioning for millennia.

When English colonizers came to this continent in the seventeenth century, they had a problem in that there was a shortage of money and England prohibited them from minting more. As a result, they began to imitate the Indigenous inhabitants of the land by using other currencies of exchange such as furs, tobacco, and maize. The colonizers even started using wampum to pay taxes!

Wampum was fashioned from white and purple beads and discs made from shells found in the ocean. The Narragansett and Pequot peoples would harvest clams in the summer for food and then make beads out of the leftover shells, weaving them together to craft adornments. The white beads represented light and birth while the purple signified darkness and death. The combination of white and purple represented dualities such as light and darkness, sun and moon, woman and man, and life and death.

An initial hearing of today’s Gospel story seems to indicate a duality between the state and the kingdom of God in that we should give to both entities what is due. How much money do we owe the state and what portion do we owe God? I think, however, that something deeper is being taught here. In response to Jesus’ question about whose image is on the coin comes the answer, “the emperor’s.”

It makes sense, then, to ask whose image is upon us. In the opening verses of the Bible we learn that the Creator made “humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Just as the emperor’s image is on the coin, so God’s image is on us. It appears that Jesus is telling us that we do not owe a mere tax to the kingdom of God, we are to give our entire beings back to the One who made us and gave us life.


The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.