“God and Caesar”
February 23, 2014
Give the state its earthly due, but give yourself to God.
I. One more plot against Jesus (Matthew 22:15-17)
II. Giving God and Caesar their place? (Matthew 22:18-22)
III. Where is the line between God and Caesar?
Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Given the state of our taxation, I heard somebody say this week, he would have probably chosen the former. That’s especially true this time of year as many of us are trying to figure out whether we paid in enough, and some of us are wondering whether we ought to be paying at all. It seems there are always some advocating tax resistance, from the peace movement groups that don’t pay taxes because they are used to fund wars, to Tea Party conservatives who object to the use of tax dollars for excessive spending. With the implementation of Obamacare, some are wondering if they can participate in a system that uses their payments to fund abortion; important questions.
In Jesus’ day the issue of tax resistance was important. Israel had been occupied by various foreign powers since the Babylonian exile, and these foreign empires inevitably imposed taxation of many kinds. The most recent oppressors were the Romans, who had ruled the region since 63 B.C. They demanded both taxes and allegiance, and after the rise of the Caesars, they also began to promote the worship of the emperor as a god. Prior to this time Roman coins had not had the images of men on them, but beginning with Julius Caesar the Roman denarius always carried the image of the emperor. In Jesus’ day this would have been Tiberius Caesar, who ruled from A.D. 15 to A.D. 37.
The addition of the image led to an increase in tax resistance in Judea, and the poll tax, a census tax on each person in the country was the focus. In A.D. 6 Judas of Galilee led a failed revolt against the Roman procurator because he took a census for poll tax purposes. Zealots – of whom Jesus’ disciple Simon was almost certainly one - claimed the poll tax was a God-dishonoring badge of slavery to the pagans. In this environment one’s position on paying taxes was an important signifier of one’s political leanings. The Sadducees and the family of Herod taught that submission to these taxes was right. The Pharisees opposed the tax, though they probably paid it, because of the seeming reverence for an idol implied by Caesar’s image. And the Zealots violently opposed paying the tax as one part of their resistance against Rome.
So it’s not really a surprise that Jesus eventually gets publically asked the ‘tax resistance’ question. It’s an attempt to get him to position himself politically, endearing himself to one party but alienating himself from the others. But Jesus won’t fall into this trap. He brilliantly answers the question in a way that is still a wonderful challenge to us today: Give the state its earthly due, but give yourself to God. Give the state its earthly due, but give yourself to God.
The text is Matthew 22:15-22 and the opening gambit, the attempt to trap Jesus is found in verses 15-17: Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
Last week we studied two parables Jesus gave in response to the opposition of the Jewish leaders, warning them they were headed down a path that would bring them to judgment. They paid no heed to these warnings. In the first 14 verses of this chapter Jesus tells another parable about a wedding feast where he warns them that if they do not respond to his invitation they will be cast out and others, the common people and Gentiles, brought to the feast of the Messianic kingdom. It is in response to these warnings that the Pharisees and the other leaders of the Jewish nation went and plotted how to entangle or ensnare Jesus in his words. The trap they chose was the question of tax evasion, for they were sure his answer would alienate him from at least part of his following, or possibly leave him open to a charge of treason.
Both Matthew and Mark specify that Pharisees and Herodians approached Jesus. These two groups were normally at odds with each other, but as the saying goes, ‘a common enemy makes strange bedfellows.’ Here the common enemy is Jesus, and the alliance with the Herodians when questioning Jesus about taxes is a natural one. Unlike most of the Jews, the Herodians openly supported the reigning family of Herod and its pro-Roman allegiance. Clearly both Pharisees and Herodians are more than mere envoys: they are active participants, seeking to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place.
In verse 16 they use flattery to pressure Jesus to speak: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” If he does not reply after such flattery, then he is not a man of integrity and is swayed by men. But notice that the Pharisees and Herodians spoke better than they knew, spoke the clear truth about Jesus without believing it for a moment. He is true. He teaches the way of God truthfully. He is not swayed by appearances but looks on the heart. John says of Jesus: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. Jesus knew the heart issues that lay behind this question. He knew the trap they were setting and would teach the way of God to them – and to us –truthfully.
So, having tried to flatter him, not with lies but with the plain truth, they finally get to the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Recognize that this is not, as it would be to us, a legal question. It’s theological, as all such questions inevitably were to a first-century Jew; not what is right in terms of the laws of the nation, but in terms of the law of God. And the wording of the question, with its deft "or not," demands a yes or a no.
So this is at first appearance, just one more attempt to trap Jesus, but unlike some of the attempts we’ve seen, this is a question that has a bearing on every person in Judea and the Roman world of the New Testament. It is one that impacts every believer under every government since then. So what will Jesus answer? Verses 18-22: But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
Jesus is aware of the malice and will not be trapped by them. He chooses to answer them on his own terms. First he asks for the coin used for paying this tax. That he has to ask may reflect his own poverty or the fact that he and his disciples had a common purse, the perhaps his own reluctance to traffic in such coins. As we saw in Children’s corner, the coin commonly used for payment bore an image of the emperor's head. The coin’s inscription would have said “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus" on one side and "pontifex maximus"—which Jesus would understand as "high priest"—on the other. This combination of image and inscription would offend most Palestinian Jews.
Without any seeming effort they hand Jesus a denarius. Some commentators have seen in this a subtle reversal of the confrontation in that Jesus is pointing out to the surrounding crowd that the very people asking are already trafficking in the supposedly offensive coins. He takes it and asks his questioners a question—this time one they have to answer: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” “Whose image is this?” The question has tremendous implications. Jesus is acknowledging that the coin contains an image, and the worship of images was explicitly forbidden in the Ten Commandments. But that’s not the only use of this word. In the Old Testament the only thing made in the image of God that is not condemned as an idol is humanity. Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” So the coin bears the image of Caesar, as the Pharisee’s acknowledge, but the audience bears the image of God.
Verse 21: They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Some have seen this as merely ‘What are you doing with Caesar’s coin; it’s his coin; give it back to him.” But there is more here. In ancient Israel, religion and state were one and the same: it was a theocratic nation; God was the ultimate ruler. But the nations that conquered Israel, Rome in particular, were also nations where state and religion were deeply linked. Rome was in the process of deifying the emperor, declaring him a god on earth who must be worshiped. Soon Jesus followers, the early Christians would face the wrath of Rome because they refused to participate in emperor worship, refusal the state judged to be atheism and treason. Jesus is, even here, giving guidance for that development and for all the other church / state conflict that would follow.
So what does he say? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s” Caesar’s image is on the coin; give him his coin back. God’s image is on you; give him yourself back.’ We are to give our money to Caesar but our very selves to God. All of us is God’s. Everything in life is God’s first. John Piper says “When you realize that all of life, including all of Caesar’s rights and power and possessions, belong to God, then you will be in a proper frame of mind to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
In fact, once you recognize that all of life is God’s, anything you render to Caesar you will render for God’s sake. Peter says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors as sent by him” “For the Lord’s sake” is Peter’s way of saying, “Everything is God’s; and this limits what is Caesar’s and how you render it to him.” Namely, render to Caesar nothing that you cannot render for the Lord’s sake. Any authority you ascribe to Caesar you ascribe to him for the sake of God’s greater authority. Any obedience you render you will render for the sake of the obedience you owe first to God. Any claim Caesar makes on you, you test by the infinitely higher claim God has on you. Everything is God’s first, and only becomes Caesar’s by God’s permission and design.
What things can we give back to Caesar? Paul helps us in Romans 13: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. He is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Taxes, revenue, respect, honor – these things may rightfully be given to governing authorities, because they are set up by God and because in honoring them we are recognizing God’s divine design. Therefore we not only pay our taxes, but we respect our president and elected officials. But there is a limit. Both Peter and Paul recognize that ‘we must serve God rather than men.’ When the Apostles were told to stop preaching the Gospel of Jesus, they refused. When Paul was tortured and imprisoned by the authorities, he kept sharing Jesus. When the early church was told to save their lives by saying ‘Caesar is Lord’ they said ‘Jesus is Lord’ even at the cost of the lions or the stake.
I’ve often told the story of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna during a time of intense persecution in the 2nd century. Though he was old, he refused to leave the area and was arrested. He was taken to a public arena, where the Procounsel tried to persuade him to recant his faith. But he refused. The procounsel threatened him, and then said "Swear by Caesar and I will release you - curse the Christ". Polycarp said: Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” There is a line, a limit: We give respect, allegiance and taxes to Caesar unless to do so would violate a direct command of God at the level of conscience.
Let’s apply this to several contemporary issues. Taxes, I think, we can cover quickly. We may feel our government is pagan, immoral and wasteful. So was Rome, but Peter, Paul and Jesus all agree you pay the tax. Now I can imagine times you wouldn’t. I can imagine not paying taxes in Nazi Germany, as part of a larger protest against its treatment of the Jews and the Gypsies and others. I can imagine having such a strong pacifist conviction that I would symbolically withhold that portion of my taxes are used for war-making, but only as part of a specific, intentional protest against that government policy. But the idea that I can refuse taxes just because the money isn’t being used as I would use it, or is excessive wouldn’t hold much water with Paul or Peter, especially since we live in a system where we are permitted to change things politically.
But what about abortion and health care coverage? If the government says it’s ok and funds it, must I comply? I don’t think so. I agree with Hobby Lobby and other privately held companies who say it’s a violation of religious conscience to be forced to implement a health care program that provides for abortion.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments from Hobby Lobby March 25th, and the government is making its case through the media. White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett, writing in the Huffington post says ‘A Woman's Health Care Decisions Should Be in Her Own Hands, Not Her Boss's.’ In other words, according to the White House, a person’s religious convictions cannot, in our country, extend to the company they own. Hobby Lobby, if they lose, is willing to shut down the company rather than violate their convictions.
Take the issue of homosexual marriage. Where is the line? I think if a pagan culture wants to act pagan they will. But should Christians be required to condone any sinful behavior? No. So if you are a cake baker and you can’t in good conscience make a cake for a homosexual couple or a cake for a divorcing couple and thus participate in the celebration of their sin, I believe you are justified in refusing. You might have to bear the consequences, and I believe you do that peacefully. That’s how Paul handled his conflicts with the state.
Gail and I have often had the recognition that I could easily end up in jail someday. Right at the moment a pastor is not forced to perform a wedding that violates his conscience, but it could happen. And I would go to jail rather than do that. The culture may not know what marriage is, but the Bible does, and I have to serve God rather than man. Some of my brothers in the chaplaincies of our armed forces are going to be faced with this choice sooner rather than later.
But to give another personal example, a court in Michigan I believe recently ruled that it was unconstitutional for a pastor to receive a tax break for a housing allowance, a historical tax break that grew out of the days when most pastors had their housing provided directly by their churches. When they didn’t, the government said, the portion of their income used for housing should be exempt from income taxes. And if that tax break goes away, will I protest? No, I’ll pay the government their taxes and continue to put God first, I hope.
And of course in many countries it is the sharing of our faith itself that is persecuted by the government. Believers through the ages have chosen time after time to serve God rather than men, and to suffer the consequences. In Chine, in Iraq, in North Korea and around the world our brothers and sisters are suffering today because they speak about Jesus. To cite just one example, in Mogadishu Somalia a Muslim convert to Christianity was killed by gunmen who accused him of spreading the faith. Two men armed with pistols shot Abdikhani Hassan, seven times outside his home. He is survived by his pregnant wife and five children ranging in age from 3 to 12. Before killing him, one of the assailants told a neighbor, "We have information that Hassan is spreading wrong religion to our people, and we are looking for him."
But most of us don’t face that kind of persecution. In fact most of us don’t even think too hard about our taxes. Right at the moment we may be scrambling to get our tax data together and file, but it’s only a minor irritant. We may have a bigger problem with things our government is doing, and we may recognize that someday conscience will force us into civil disobedience, but it’s not a present imposition. We tend to have an ‘ignore it, follow the rules and hope it will go away’ attitude toward our government and social institutions.
What worries me is that many of us can be tempted into the same nonchalance toward God. We do the minimum we think necessary to identify ourselves as his people and reap the future rewards he promises, but we don’t have a compelling conviction that all of life is God’s and because we are made in God’s image and remade in the image of his son, we must give to God all that bears his image which is every bit, part, parcel and thought of ourselves.
We are called to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Fine. But we are also called to give everything: But give everything: time, money, devotion, service, family, work and leisure to God. It’s all his, its all got his name on it; we are only stewards, not owners. I read a prose poem recently which put this well:
You, made in God’s image, stamped with God’s likeness, you are God’s valuable coin. God intends to spend you according to His desire, to spend you on life, on what delights Him. Will you be a coin that has rolled under the sofa, or the one stuck to the bottom of the piggybank, “saved” but never spent, never redeemed, waiting for some future that never comes?
No, beloved, be spent! Let God give you away and have a blast doing it, let God hand you over for the very thing God longs for, as thankful for you as a beggar is grateful for the coin that buys him lunch.
You are God’s, so give yourself to God, knowing God will spend you, and trust this: that spent, sent into the world by the God of death and rising, the God who loses nothing, tomorrow you will find yourself anew in God’s pocket.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s for the Lord’s sake. But give to God what is his, your very self, for the Lord’s sake, to be spent for his glory. Jesus’ answer has far more to do with our relationship to God than it does our relationship with our country.