Matthew 22:15-22 We are blessed by God to live in this great nation. The United States of America is still a land of freedom and opportunity and prosperity that stands as a beacon of hope for millions of people around the world and a model of what young nations should aspire to become. This is still the greatest nation on earth and I cannot imagine living anywhere else.
That said, there are things that are not right in our nation, things that burden us as Christians—not just matters of policy about which citizens may legitimately disagree—but moral issues that strike at the heart of what we know to be true from God’s Word.
Parents are allowed to murder their children. The basic institutions of marriage and family are becoming unrecognizable. Religious speech by Christians is often impeded or shouted down and our presence in the public square denied.
And so how is the person who is both a citizen of the kingdom of God and a citizen of the United States to live out their lives in a way that gives to both God and the state that which is their due? This is not a new question or a difficulty unique to us—believers have always faced this pull that comes from being part of two different kingdoms. The Bible says that:
The Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Jesus in his words. And they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
It’s hard to imagine two groups farther removed from one another on the political spectrum as were the Pharisees and the Herodians. Both groups were Jewish but the Pharisees saw the secular rulers as enemies of God’s people and dreamed of a religious Jewish kingdom.
The Herodians were essentially secular Jews who (even though they were no fan of the Romans) had made peace with the powers of the day and enjoyed the influence that came with their political support of Herod.
As far apart as they were politically—what united them was their opposition to Jesus because he pointed the people (not to a political agenda and earthly power which is what both of them were all about) but to the one thing needful: a life with God. The Pharisees wanted to throw off Roman rule—the Herodians wanted to get in bed with them—and both of them were mistaken because they saw life primarily through the lens of politics and power.
So it still is today among Christians. A few years ago the religious right seized power in the Republican Party using abortion is the catalyst. These days, we are told by those in the religious left that Christians should support the welfare state and immigration reform because Jesus says to care for the poor and the outcast. People are still trying to use and misuse Christ for their own political ends just like the group of Jews did that day. They said to him:
“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.
Even if their motive was impure—their words about Jesus were true. Jesus embodied the truth and he taught the way of God faithfully and did not change with the times or the person that he was speaking to. What that means is that if you want to know the truth about God’s view of marriage—about God’s attitude towards those on the margins of society—about God’s expectation on how we are to live our life as citizens—listen to Jesus. Jesus’ guideline that we are to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is the truth about Christian citizenship because his words ARE God’s Word. They asked him: Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
When Jews asked him: Is it lawful—what they were really asking was: is it right in God’s sight to pay taxes? Taxes were already the law of the land—the Pharisees hated them and saw them as pagan oppression—the Herodians supported them because it increased their political power. Both parties had political reasons for their actions and attitudes—but what was God’s perspective on the whole thing?
Now we know that they didn’t really care one way or the other—they just wanted to trick Jesus. If Jesus told the people not to pay their taxes the Herodians would have Jesus arrested. If Jesus told the people to pay their taxes, the Pharisees would accuse him of siding with Rome.
Both parties wanted to get rid of Jesus because he upset their political ideas and this question about taxes was their way of doing it. Instead, they received a real answer about what God thought about Christian citizenship. The Bible says that:
Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
You will notice that even though they claimed to despise Roman rule they certainly weren’t above benefiting from it. Rome’s currency was a stable, fixed form of economic exchange backed by the greatest power of the day. Their economic life was built upon it. They may not have liked seeing that coin come out of their pocket and go to Rome in the form of taxes but they sure weren’t opposed to having it in their pocket. There’s a lesson here for us.
The state is given to us by God for our temporal benefit and no matter how much we may dislike our government—no matter who much we may kick and scream about our taxes—we all benefit from the government. We drive on city streets and have clean water in our homes and are protected bands of marauding criminals and countless other blessings that come from God’s good gift of the state.
When Jesus asked the Pharisees for the coin he made an important point about Christian citizenship: that we ought to be thankful to God for all of the temporal blessings we receive in the gift of government-- even when there are hardships that come with living under the rule of imperfect men. The Bible says that: Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.”
Can you imagine the pain that answer caused?! Here was the face of the man who was their conqueror—a man who despised their religion—a man who looked upon them with contempt. I bet with just a bit of reflection you can understand what that answer cost them.
If not, when you get home do a Google image search of George Bush or Barak Obama and you will find the image of our latest presidents defaced in the most despicable of ways. The growing hatred for political opponents in our country is visceral and sinful.
When Christians engage in it they show that they do not understand the basic teaching of the bible regarding the state: that those who govern are God’s ministers for our good.
This does not mean, and God has never promised, that we will be ruled by those we like or those who share our faith or even by those who are admirable. Nevertheless, God expects Christian citizens to give them that which is their due. Jesus says: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's.
And so what are those things that we are to render to Caesar? What do we owe the state as Christian citizens? Paul talks about some of those in our epistle lesson.
First of all, we give our subjection or obedience. There are limits to that—but unless the government commands us to do something that God plainly forbids, we are to obey our government—and not just because we fear its punishment but because we know that those who resist the governing authorities resist what God has appointed.
Secondly, we pay the state the taxes and revenues and fees required of us. In our nation we are blessed to be able to vote for leaders who will work for tax policies and spending measures we support, but whether or not our candidate is elected, Christians pay their taxes.
Finally, we give the honor and respect that is due to those who serve as God’s servants for our temporal good. The president’s marine honor guard serves as an excellent example. They saluted Pres. Clinton despite his moral failures. They saluted Pres. Bush despite the fact that he sent them to Iraq and Afghanistan. They salute Pres. Obama even if he doesn’t return their salute. A salute is due the president of the United States and these marines give it no matter what they think about the man personally.
So it is for the Christian citizen who gives to Caesar the respect and honor that is due those who serve in the government even while we refuse to give them that which is due to God alone. Jesus says: Render to God the things that are God's.”
Christian citizens want to make sure that we give to the state the temporal and civic duties which belong to the state but we cannot give the state that which belongs to God.
Our American and Lutheran forefathers understood this. The Pilgrims who settled this country fled the Christian nation of England which wanted to impose its own form of Christianity upon them. Our Missouri Synod forefathers fled the Christian nation of Prussia for the same reason. The state has no right to say anything about spiritual matters—that belongs to God alone—and so, ultimately, does the state itself.
Jesus’s command to Christian citizens that we “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” does not make these precepts two co-equal sources of authority. The state is always subservient to God and it only has the right to govern the temporal affairs of men using God’s gifts of a mind guided by reason and a conscience informed by God’s law.
And so when the state tells Christians that they cannot witness to Jesus Christ we must refuse to keep silent. When the state tells Christians that they must abort their children to meet population guidelines we must refuse to kill the defenseless. When the state tells churches that they must marry homosexuals we must refuse ask God’s blessing on a sin. When the state tells a chaplain that he cannot pray in Jesus’ name he must speak it boldly. When the state and its officials portrays itself as our savior and provider and protector we must turn a deaf ear to this idolatry for these things are true of God alone who saved us by the sacrifice of his Son on the cross.
The Bible says that: When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. They marveled because they knew they had heard God’s truth about Christian citizenship from Jesus’ lips and it was simplicity itself: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. As we leave this place and celebrate Independence Day this week, may God grant that we would always be faithful Christian citizens! Amen.