[Jesus] asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” – Matthew 22:20-21
As a Christian, I know a lot of men and women who lean very far to the right on the political spectrum. That isn’t to say that a lot of wonderful, blood-bought, Jesus-following Christians aren’t left-leaning. It just seems to be the reality that in a Midwest Christian church most people wind up on a certain side of the political aisle.
One buzzword I’ve been hearing a lot lately—and this regardless of the political affiliations of an individual—is “Constitution.” Everybody from Barack Obama to Paul Ryan, from the EPA to the NRA, has employed that word vigorously in the defense of their own stance. To one person, the President’s recent executive order to enforce stricter background checks for gun sales is in violation of their Second Amendment right to bear arms. To another that same President hasn’t done enough to take guns out of the hands of civilians. They cite “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in remembrance of those whose lives have been cut short by somebody with a firearm.
The cool thing about America is that you have the right to express those concerns. We Americans have a voice, and we can speak without worrying that we’ll be locked up or permanently silenced for voicing those opinions.
What do we do, though, when the government does start to run amok? When the federal systems that exist seem to ignore much of the ink scribbled upon that piece of paper that we call the Constitution? I have heard it suggested—not once, but a number of times—that when our government acts in a way which contradicts the Constitution as we perceive it, this creates the legal grounds for that “civil disobedience” that Henry David Thoreau encouraged. After all, the government has then stepped out of line. The only appropriate reaction is for us to step out line also, right? If they aren’t holding up their end of the relationship, we are absolved from holding up ours, correct?
When Jesus spoke those words of our opening passage—“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s”—he was responding to a question that had been asked of him. A group of Pharisees, who hated the Romans, along with a group of Herodians, who promoted the Romans, approached Jesus together. Why would these two groups of opposing political views join forces? Because they found common ground in their mutual hatred of Jesus. They asked Jesus whether or not they should pay their taxes to Caesar and the Romans.
They were, of course, trying to trap Jesus in his words. They didn’t like Jesus and his message, because he contradicted so much of their own teachings and undermined their own power and influence. So they thought that if Jesus said, “No, don’t pay your taxes,” the Herodians could report him and have him arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus said, “Yes, definitely pay your taxes,” then they could discredit him among the Jewish people as unpatriotic, because most of the Jews harbored no good feelings at all toward the Roman occupation.
Jesus did nothing to step away from the trap, though. Instead he asked them for a coin. This coin would have had Emperor Tiberius’ face on it, as well as an inscription which referred to the “divine Augustus.” Augustus had considered himself a god among men. The Roman emperors were to be worshiped as gods, which clearly doesn’t jibe with the worship of the One True God. But Jesus took the coin and asked the Pharisees and Herodians whose face was on it, and they said, “Caesar’s face is on it.” Then Jesus gave them his answer, not by cleverly avoiding their question, but by speaking the simple truth: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Give to the government the taxes that they say belong to them, and give to God the honor and worship that he says belongs to him.
Jesus’ answer may seem almost overly simple, but it had huge implications behind it.
First of all, the Romans had no legitimate claim to governing the Jews or the nation of Israel. In 63 B.C., Pompey the Great laid siege to Jerusalem. It was not his city. He had no right to it. But with the big, bullying might of the Roman army at his disposal, he attacked. After a few months, he conquered. To top it all off, he walked straight into the Jewish Temple. He marched past the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies, a place where only the High Priest could enter, and thus defiled their most sacred place.
Not only did the Romans have no legitimate right to rule Israel, but their king, Emperor Tiberius, was an illegitimate ruler of the Romans! The nation had existed for 700 years as a republic, governed by a senate, until Julius Caesar decided that he deserved more. He used his armies to establish himself as the sole—albeit short-lived—authority over Rome until his assassination. But after that the reins were handed to Augustus. He, too, shed an awful lot of blood to consolidate his own position upon the throne and over the people! When he died, it was Tiberius’ turn to rule over a country which, by rights, had historically existed as a voting republic until the recent years.
And here is Jesus, promoting the authority of the Romans to collect taxes over a people not their own. At the same time he promotes honor and worship to God alone, not dead Augustus or his successor Tiberius.
The government we are to honor is the government that currently exists, for that is the one that God has instituted. Remember back to those words of Romans 13 in yesterday’s post: “There is no authority except that which God has established.” We may desire that our government adhere more closely to the fundamental articles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, at least as we interpret them. We may feel that the government has indeed run amok and that it has lost all sense of reason, or morality, or even concern for its own citizens.
Our desires or feelings may be misinformed. Or they may be right and good.
In the end, though, the present government is the one to which the Christian respectfully submits, just as Jesus submitted himself to an empire and an emperor who had bullied themselves into Israel’s borders. If that means paying higher taxes than seem reasonable, so be it. If that means that someday every American citizen is mandated to turn in their firearms, so be it.
In our willful obedience, we do not ultimately give glory and honor to that government. Rather it is the Lord who receives our glory and our honor in our submissive obedience to the governing authorities.
After all, my life is defined neither by the percentage of my income that I keep, nor by what the government decides it will provide for me. My life is not defined by being a gun-owner, nor is it defined by being an anti-gun activist.
My life is defined by a Savior who submitted himself to death for my sins and rose again so that I can live forever. That’s all the definition that I will ever need.