Sometimes, Jesus puts everyone in a difficult situation and it’s really hard to deal with.
Jesus doesn’t pull punches, but in that sense, he also makes it so that we have to receive the punches. We have to take our lumps. It’s hard. It’s hard to actually do what Jesus says, because we have a history and an inclination to do the opposite. As he puts the pharisees in their place today, Jesus puts us in ours as well. He asks us the most difficult question he could ask us: where is your loyalty? Who is your authority? And What are you going to do about it?
Jesus’s statement on taxes, a response to a trap from the religious authorities, is a trap for us too.
It’s almost flippant how he says it, but the implications are drastic. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render to God what belongs to God, or so the older KJV English will say. It’s almost off-handed. But here’s the thing–it really isn’t. The effortless paradox he presents us with has vexed the faithful for generations. It’s obvious what he’s implying–that everything belongs to God–but because it’s obvious it makes us question what everything entails. It makes us question: is it really right to pay taxes? Is it really right to do this, when we know that everything truly belongs to God? And if that is the case, what then belongs to Caesar, the emperor, the government?
I have been told all my life that there are three things you don’t talk about in public: money, politics, and religion, and here Jesus has combined all three in this glib challenge to the Pharisees. So you see how difficult of a position we are truly put in! Jesus doesn’t care about our self-made rules so that we can go along to get along. He doesn’t care what inner conflicts this presents us with. What he cares about is righteousness: who is righteous, and what do we do to be righteous?
The Idol In Our Pockets
Let’s get this one piece of this puzzle squared away first: Idolatry is the sin that Jesus is confronted by in this story.
Now it’s obvious that the Pharisees and Temple Priests wanted Jesus gone. They either wanted him to be irrelevant, or be killed by the mob or Rome, whichever comes first. The best way for them to do this was to get him to answer the most difficult and dangerous question they could think of, one with no good answer: Should we pay taxes to Rome? Rome, the occupying empire, had after all brought many good things to the people of Israel, like solid infrastructure, roads, and the like. All Israel had to do was pay taxes, and live with Roman soldiers on every street, and support the Roman government.
Some people had few problems with this. These people were privileged enough that they could pay the taxes, and that they were friendly enough with the romans that they had no worry of arrest or attack. Many of these people were in the Temple authorities and the Pharisees circles. Seen as collaborators, there was widespread suspicion of these people by the general population. If Jesus answered yes, you should pay taxes, the people would see him as a collaborator with the Romans, and abandon him. If he said you shouldn’t pay taxes, well, that’s a great reason to get thrown in jail and killed by Romans. So they had him caught. But Jesus knew better.
Sometimes I really wish I had Jesus’ ability to quip a meaningful retort at the right time. I frequently experience something known as esprit de l’escalier, or “the spirit of the staircase.” It’s a French term for that feeling of coming up with the perfect comeback too late, as you’re going down the stairs out of someone’s house. But while esprit de l’escalier is upon me, the Spirit of God is with Jesus in his inspired challenge: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.
To illustrate this point, he uses the fact that the Roman currency had the faces of their emperor on them.
This, of course, is a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make graven images, or idols. In a very real way, by even handling Roman money, the people of Israel were complicit in idolatry. It was a heated topic of debate among the Jewish people at the time. Does having Roman coins with engraved images on them count as Idolatry? For a people as careful as the Jews were about going out of their way to not be sinful, they treaded a fine line with currency.
In a very real way, there was an idol in everyone’s pocket, and if you didn’t have it, the taxman cometh and taketh you away. So what to do? Jesus says give to Caesar what belongs to him–that which has his face on it. He also says give to God what’s God’s–meaning everything else. But is that right? Are we too small to grasp what he really means?
So let’s get down to brass tacks: what belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar, the emperor, the nation, the government, the world?
What, exactly, is a nation owed? Nations, after all, are man-made constructs. A political boundary may have some kind of physical marker or dividing line, like a river or a mountain range, but in the end, a boundary is artificial. We collect ourselves into nations for many reasons: sharing of resources, general administrative duties, defense, infrastructure, and many more. But a lot, if not all of this is voluntary; we pay taxes to support these artificial constructs, and those taxes are compulsory. We are made to pay taxes because, as citizens, we have a civil contract to uphold.
Some go above and beyond to support a government. Some are active in politics and campaigns. Some volunteer for military service. Some work in the bureaucracies, both local and national. Some people uphold laws in police forces. Some people teach in the public schools because they believe in an informed citizenry. There are many benefits to a nation.
So perhaps let’s come at this in a different way: What does a Christian owe a nation?
A citizen owes a nation many things, but Christians are resident aliens, citizens of a kingdom not of this earth. We belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. And that requires a whole different set of rules, values, and actions, ones that sometimes rub against the values and requirements of a nation.
We are called, as God’s children to ten main commandments, and one over-arching commandment. They are (put very simply):
The Lord is our God, and have no other gods before God.
Don’t make idols.
Don’t use the Lord’s name as if it had no significance.
Take a sabbath every seven days, and keep it holy.
Honor your parents.
Don’t commit adultery.
The over-arching commandment, covering all of them, is to Love your God and to Love your neighbor. These are our ideals, our virtues, our teachings, our commandments, and as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we ought to follow these above and beyond all other laws.
So when do the ten commandments rub up against the laws of a nation? You might be surprised to see how often it happens.
Let’s start with the first couple of them: Don’t worship anything else but God, and don’t make false idols. Well, shucks, we constantly mess up on this one don’t we? There are many rival gods for us to worship in our nation. Between the trappings of patriotism, the graven images found on our currency, and our flag, we have competing idols all around us. And yes, there are some who elevate the flag above the cross, and as Christians, we must be clear about who we are allegiant to. Patriotism can absolutely conflict with our convictions and commandments as Christians, especially in the battlefield of the heart.
Let’s push further. Our currency has the phrase “In God We Trust” on it. A nice thought, perhaps, but is it not ironic that we use the Lord’s name on money, a something that in and of itself isn’t evil, but can be elevated to the status of an idol? Can that not be claimed as using the Lord’s name in vain?
How about the Sabbath? I’m not saying that we ought to close all the stores on Sunday, but we certainly don’t value rest in our culture. We don’t make allowances for much outside of work, to be honest. There even was an article earlier this week entitled: “Work, Sleep, Family, Friends, and Fitness–Pick 3.” The article in question was basically a manifesto that in modern working life, you only have room for 3 of those activities in your life. How tragic. How monstrous. How utterly demonic a mindset is that! That certainly goes against the 5th commandment of honoring your parents/family?
The other five are less complex, and align more with our nations laws, but we still have soldiers who kill. We still don’t punish or shame adultery nearly enough. We glorify those who rip people off in the name of capitalism and consumerism. Our legal system is nothing but a network of liars and corruption. Our entire monetary system is based on our covetousness.
Now don’t take this as a screed against our country, or as me bashing the nation I was born into, and am a citizen of. I very much appreciate this nation, the freedoms it offers, and the people who serve it.
But I will not waver and say that my true allegiance does not lie with this world or this nation. My true home is not here. I am, and always will be, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and I will do what believe to be the best citizen of that nation that I can. As we all should. If you are a Christian, you are a citizen of another kingdom, unlike any other. If you claim the name of Christian, you will be held accountable to the commandments of God, to love God, and to love your neighbor, even if that means defying the values and norms of our earthly home.
Jesus makes the concession that we must give that nation what it is owed, but always with the understanding that God supersedes it always. God’s kingdom takes precedence.
So give to the world what it is owed, but first give to God what is God’s. That is your challenge today, and always, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Question when God’s laws and principles rub up against what we are supposed to be like or value on this earth, in this nation. Know that you are an alien among other nations, not of this world. Act like it too. It may not be popular. Heck, it may not be safe. But in the end, you will have fulfilled God’s command, and in doing so, you will make this world a little more like heaven. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.