Give To Caesar


MATTHEW 22:15-22

give to caesar



In the words of Admiral Ackbar of Star Wars fame, “It’s a trap!!!”That is what the Pharisee’s are trying to do to Jesus today, they are trying to trap Jesus in a political land mine.  If you think politics in this election cycle is divisive, that is nothing compared to the dangerous politics of Israel and Rome during the time of Jesus.

This text is not about the size of Government. The Bible has little to nothing to say on that. It is not about socialism versus free market capitalism, again the Bible has little to say on that. It is about a people, the Jewish people, who are under the oppressive boot of the Roman Empire. And each and every person was required to pay a poll tax each year, not for any goods or services provided by the Empire, but just for existing, just for the “privilege” of living under Roman Rule.  The Jewish people were obviously upset about this. But they were also upset because the coinage they had to pay the tax with, had the image of the Emperor on it, a man who claimed to be divine, a man who claimed to be God, which violated the First and Second Commandments. As Walter Pilgrim points out in his book Uneasy Neighbors when this tax was introduced in 6 A.D it caused organized revolts, a large uprising throughout the country that was crushed by the Roman army.  Thirty years later it was still a hot button issue that could get you killed.

The society as a whole fell into different camps as to what to do with the tax. First, there were the Zealots. These were Jewish revolutionaries and their solution to the tax was fairly simple. Kill the Romans. The Herodians, mentioned here, were supporters of Herod Antipas, the Jewish Governor of Galilee who was appointed by Rome. They were sell outs, so to speak, they supported the tax. As did the Sadducees, who were the official priestly class of Jerusalem, the professional clergy. The Pharisees grudgingly accepted the tax but believed through faithful devotion that God would redeem the nation from the Romans. Notice that they themselves do not confront Jesus, they send their underlings to entrap him. They start with flattery saying to Jesus, “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.” While this is true, the questioners themselves do not believe this. Their intention is to trap Jesus in a loose, loose situation, a Catch 22, a political trap with no way out. To say that he supported the tax would be to ostracize many who had suffered under Roman rule. To say that he was against the tax would be an act of sedition against the Roman state and would result in his arrest and execution before the time that the Father had appointed for him. His response silenced his critics at the time and has been remembered through the ages even in nonreligious contexts. Jesus began, as he often does, with a question, “ Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 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.” The scripture tells us, “When they heard it, they marveled . And they left him and went away.”

This text is still relevant for us today. As we approach the Birthday of our nation, as we approach the Presidential Elections this fall, many Christians ask, what is the relationship between our faith and the nation we live in? Is our country a Christian nation? Can a nation even be Christian? How are Christians supposed to use power when they get it? How are we supposed to act towards our rulers? I think this text has a lot to say to us as citizens of America and citizens of heaven. So today I want you to understand three things. 1. What Jesus meant when he said Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give to God that which is God. 2. What would Jesus think about our current debate about the separation of church and state? 3. What can this teaching teach us about how we should conduct ourselves today.

First, what did Jesus mean by his famous statement? Again, Walter Pilgrim in Uneasy Neighbors lays out four basic possibilities. (pg 66)

  1. Two Kingdoms. God and Caesar. This view suggests that there are two Kingdoms, the earthly political kingdom of Caesar and the heavenly spiritual Kingdom of Jesus. The two don’t and should not overlap. We are to respect Caesar’s Kingdom and give ultimate devotion to God. This corresponds to what Thomas Jefferson called in his Letter to the Danbury Baptist a “wall of separation” between church and state. Sure our devotion is first to God but nothing good happens when we bring God into politics or politics into God. So pay your taxes, due your civic duties, and go to church on Sunday. The two should not overlap.
  2. One Kingdom. To God alone. When Jesus asked who’s face was on the Roman currency he meant that all Caesar owned was what had his image. Thus while he said we should pay taxes to not give offense we should give our devotion to the one who owns everything, the one who put His image on us, that being God. In this scenario there can be no separate spheres. God demands loyalty over any and all national governments. If Jesus were not a peaceful teacher one could see this turning into a theocracy, or a state controlled by a religion. But since Jesus, seemed to have little interest in running a state, practically what one might see based off of this interpretation are sects that isolate themselves and refuse to be involved in the greater world. The Amish might be an example to an extent.
  3. Two Kingdoms. God First, then Caesar. Here Jesus acknowledges Caesar’s authority to collect the tax. Indeed, while the Pharisees use the word “give” which suggests that Rome has no authority to collect a tax, Jesus uses a word translated as “render” which suggests that Rome does indeed have some authority to collect a tax. And yet Jesus makes clear that God has authority over Caesar. Thus, Jesus stood against the Zealots, who sought to overthrow Caesar by violent means and against the Herodians who blindly sold out to Caesar. Perhaps he is encouraging people to be like Daniel, to personally witness to the power of God in an unjust and Godless situation.
  4. Two Kingdoms. No peaceful coexistence. In this view Jesus is revealing the hypocrisy of the religious elite, who sought to entrap him with this questions, but whom themselves carried idolatrous coins with Caesar’s image on it. God owns everything. So what Jesus is suggesting is pay taxes to the unjust ruler but resist Rome, perhaps as Martin Luther King did during the Civil Rights movement through civil disobedience.

So what are we to say about what Jesus meant by this teaching? Well I think many of us project our modern notions of separation of church and state onto this passage and that is simply not what is happening here. Recently, I was watching the new movie Risen. The premise is that a Roman Centurion tries to find out what happened to Jesus’ body after the Resurrection and thus comes to believe in Jesus as Lord. He brings in one of the Disciples and ask him if they are planning an insurrection against Rome. The disciple, I think it was Andrew, said that Jesus told them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and thus they had no problem with Rome because Christ’s Kingdom is in heaven. I remember thinking, “that’s not what Jesus meant.” Indeed, the phrase “Kingdom of God” or Kingdom of Heaven” does not mean the place we go when we die.  It means God’s rule, God’s Kingdom coming to Earth as it is in heaven.  So I think the first option about two separate Kingdom’s is out. I also think the second view, which suggest that we should just cut ourselves off from the world, is out as well.  I think the third and fourth view are the most likely options for what Jesus was talking about. Jesus recognized the necessity of earthly Government but he said our first devotion should be to God. So serving, righteously in an unjust government, as Daniel did, or resisting Government as Martin Luther King did, might be what Jesus is talking about. Government can be good. But it is not the ultimate good. Our attitudes as Christians should not be one of rebellion where Government is the source of all evil and can never do anything good nor should it be one of utopia where Government can fix all our problems.

Our second questions is what would Jesus think , based off this teaching, about our current debates about church and state. As for Jesus, I believe he saw no distinction between the secular and the sacred. It was all God’s. But he bid men come to him freely without compulsion. He challenged power when it went outside of God’s Will. But monopolizing power and beating his opponents was not his way. If Jesus wanted a nation under God, ruled by political rulers who knew only Him, he would have overthrown the Romans and done it himself. He did not. It is not right that people follow other god’s but so that they may follow freely the One True God I think Jesus would support the non-Establishment clause in our Constitution. As to whether he would care to see the Ten Commandments on a public square I am sure he would. But he would make sure to ask us if the Law is written on our hearts, if we are born again, or if we are justifying ourselves and our nation through outward display of religion, when on the inside we are a whitewashed tombs. The thing about whitewashed tombs is they may look clean but they are still hold dead bodies.  Notice what happened when society began to change, when it no longer was expected that to be a good person you had to go to church. People stopped coming to church. That’s because the vast majority of America thinks Christianity is about being moral and not about being transformed by Jesus Christ. Jesus warned us against outward displays of religion for the sake of making people think we are Holy. Let us not think that because we get prayer back in schools or the Ten Commandments on the Court House lawn that we are winning the spiritual battle. That is only the surface. There are deeper things to consider.

Finally, what does Jesus’ command to Give to Caesar’s that which is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s say for our current political discourse? Well I think first, he says to us, that just because your motivations are religious in nature, doesn’t mean you should be excluded from the public square.  It is not so much about what we say in the public square that Jesus is concerned about as much as how we say it. And here I see two principles for political discourse.

1. God is no respecter of Persons

  1. Jesus has a heart for Truth and reconciliation.

First, notice the flattery that the Pharisees give Jesus. They say he does not judge by appearance. Now clearly, they have heard his reputation, they know this to be a fact about Jesus, but they want to use it against Jesus. They say, “Jesus you don’t care what people think and we admire that.” They mean, “ you don’t know when to keep your mouth shut and we are going to use that to get you.” But fundamentally, what they say about Jesus is true. To put it another way God is no respecter of persons. This phrase is found here in the Gospels and again in Acts 10:34 and Romans 2:11. The word literally means God does not see faces. For the scriptures teach us God does not judge by appearance he judges by the heart.  But we can’t really judge the heart if we are constantly fighting with each other. If ideas are more important to us than people.  When I look in the Bible for God’s Politics, I find I can find scriptures to justify my viewpoint, as well as scriptures to justify the other guy’s viewpoint. But what I find that is consistent is that God judges the heart. God cares about character. And that doesn’t necessarily mean one has to be a Christian to serve God in the capacity of a public leader. God used leaders throughout the Old and New Testament that didn’t know him. But to have someone who has a general level of integrity and treats people with dignity is important to God. And when we make our decisions based on the lesser of two evils I believe it doesn’t matter who wins our elections, we as the American people have already lost.

Finally, notice that when Jesus is asked to choose a side on a hot button issue he chose to find a Third way, to elevate the conversation.  This reminds us that our ministry as Christians is not only to proclaim the Truth but also reconcile people to God and to each other. The Greek word for reconciliation literally means that people see eye to eye, so close in fact that their eye lashes touch.  This does not mean that we shouldn’t be involved in politics, whether our causes be liberal or conservative, but it does mean that our politics should be defined by grace. Christians should use power differently than nonbelievers. What did Jesus say in Matthew 20:25, “ You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus had all the power in the world but he never used his power to beat others he always used his power to help others. Perhaps, they didn’t consider it help, perhaps they didn’t like the Truth that he brought, but he always used his power with a surprising grace that threw people off guard. Because the old adage that says there are only two things in life that are certain is incorrect. In fact there are three. Death, taxes, and that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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