It was a classic ‘no-win’ question that was asked of Jesus. When he was asked, “is it lawful to pay tribute to Cesar… or not?” it was a lawyerly question posed by an unusual alliance of Pharisees (who debated Jewish law endlessly) and Herodians (who were loyalists under Roman rule). It was a question intended to trip up this Nazarene preacher who was causing lots of turmoil in Judea.
It’s a ‘no win’ question – like “when did you stop beating your wife?” – because it calls for a simple answer (‘yes’ or ‘no’) when it is not a simple issue. The tribute tax was particularly galling for the Jews because it was paid to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome; and to add insult to injury, the coin with which that tax was paid – the denarius – bore an inscription with the image of Caesar: “Tiberias Caesar, majestic son of the majestic God, and High Priest.” So you can see that the payment of that coin in tribute to Caesar and in support of a pagan temple was a complex issue far above and beyond the lawfulness of it.
It was a lawyerly question because it was calculatingly prepared by enemies who became allies only to make Jesus their common enemy. They conspired to pose a question to Jesus that would place him at risk no matter how he answered it.
It was intended to trip him up. If he answered simply “yes, it’s lawful,” he would have been denounced as a Roman collaborator and thus alienated from the poor and oppressed to whom his preaching and ministry had been directed. But if he said, “no, don’t pay the tax,” he would have been regarded as a seditionist and condemned as a subversive.
It is ironic to say the least that, although Jesus sent them away “marveling” at his response, the Pharisees continued to assail his ministry — and the charge which eventually led to his death was treason against Rome. What the question had failed to do, the evil in the hearts of Jesus’ enemies eventually accomplished.
Well, enough about the question … what was Jesus’ answer?
It was beautiful: it was tactful; politically prudent; effective; and sublime in its force and simplicity. He was well aware of the malice of the questioners. So he let the questioners answer their own question: “bring me a denarius…” (The mere fact that they had one showed their hypocrisy. For Pharisees to carry a coin with Caesar’s image on it was idolatry.)
“Whose image and inscription is on it?”
“Then what’s the problem? Give him what is his – but remember — Give God what is his!”
In the ancient world, coinage was the sign of kingship. As soon as a king came to his throne, he struck his own coinage and that coinage was held to be the property of the king whose image it bore. Jesus simply said, “Give to that king in Rome what is his… And give to your heavenly King what is his.” With that simple reply, Jesus lays down a principle that is timeless: every Christian has a dual citizenship. A Christian is a citizen of the country in which he/she resides and he/she is a citizen of heaven. What God wants from us is to be good citizens in both realms.
I. We are to be good citizens of the land
A. “Because the Christian is a man of honor, he must be a responsible citizen; and failure in good citizenship is also failure in Christian duty.” (Wm. Barclay)
Consider the dilemma of the Jew of Jesus’ day. He had been taught from the scriptures that his nation was under the rule of divinely anointed kings and that his ancestors give allegiance to the kings who were God’s representatives. But he was born into a nation that was under the political rule of Rome; the Caesar did not know his God, in fact the Caesar claimed to be a God himself.
Different factions sought to accommodate this dichotomy in different ways. Some thought to overthrow Roman rule so that Jewish rule could be set up once again. Others sought to set up a dual system of justice, taxation, authority, etc. withinthe freedoms allowed by some Roman governors. Still others felt that capitulation to the rule of Rome was necessary to ensure peaceful freedom of worship.
B. I think that today’s Christians struggle with defining good citizenship in much the same way that first century Jews did. We pledge allegiance to a nation “under God” and see “In God we Trust” imprinted on our coins and currency, but our Constitution requires a secular government. We consider our nation a Christian country, but immigration from the Middle East and Far East is reducing the plurality of Christians… and the percentage of practicing Christians (church attendance, Bible-reading, etc.) is at an all time low.
What does God want from Christians in a secular society? “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
Implicit in that general principle, I believe, are the following:
- Respect the government. Keep the civil law out of respect for the authority of government. Obey the law because it is the law.
- But if civil law ever conflicts with God’s law (which gratefully is rare in the U.S.), dissent and disobedience may be necessary. In that case, our duty as citizens is to work to correct that which troubles our informed conscience. Making government better is our responsibility. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
- That which is good for society as a whole needs the Christian’s wholehearted support. We need to participate in the process of citizenship.
C. We live in confounding times. Participating in the process of citizenship is complicated. We know that we should oppose that which oppresses our fellow citizens such as racism; we know that we should seek to influence our society to value human life; we know we should set examples of holy living that impact our society toward honesty, courtesy, fidelity, generosity, etc.
But exactly what activities are we called to? Marching in demonstrations? Signing or circulating petitions? Writing to our legislators? I confess that I do not have good, Scripture-based answers to these questions. However, there are two things of which I am confident:
- Good citizenship means voting. Prayerfully considering the choices before me, and voting as a Christian who wants every thought and act to be performed in submission to my Lord Jesus Christ is what God wants from me.
- And Micah’s words are still true: What the Lord requires of us is to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with Him.”
But Jesus didn’t stop with our role in secular society; he went on to say, “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”
II. We are to be good citizens of Heaven
A. “There is an implicit warning here to give Caesar no more than what belongs to him. Also implicit is the affirmation that ultimately everything belongs to God – not just some token of God’s power, but one’s whole existence. “ (Furnish)
“While response to God is not in conflict with the duties of earthly citizenship, such response involves another greater rule and claim. All things rightfully belong to God, while only some things belong to Caesar.” (Thulin)
B. God wants Citizens of Heaven who serve him singularly, with wholeheartedness. No man can serve two masters. God demands our singular loyalty. James 1:8 says that “a double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Earthly citizenship is secondary to heavenly citizenship.
- God wants our worship … our obedience … our service … our life.
- God wants the gift of our time … our talent … our tithe.
C. I am struck by the reality that God – who has a prior claim on all that we have or are – is often stuck with the leftovers and yet we expect his gratitude.
- We pay our taxes, but fail in our tithe.
- We support our community with our participation and civic duties, but fail to participate in the faith community of our church.
- We voice our opinion on public affairs, but fail to voice our testimony of praise to God.
- We fly the flag or wear it on our lapel, but a cross or other Christian symbol is nowhere to be found.
D. God wants what our country expects: our money, our allegiance, and our lives and service. “A real Christian – and this is the permanent truth which Jesus here lays down – is at one and the same time a good citizen of his country, and a good citizen of the kingdom of heaven. He will fail in his duty neither to God nor to man. He will, as Peter put it, ‘fear God and honor of the king.’ (I Peter 2:17)” (Wm. Barclay)
Jesus said, this is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. The answer is a principle: give to God his due and give to your leaders theirs.
It’s not a case of ‘either/or’: either to Caesar or to God. It’s a case of ‘both/and.’ We are to be good citizens of earth andheaven.
That’s what God wants.