Summary: The way we direct our lives says everything about our greatest allegiance(s), and thus we bear the image or the imprint of those allegiances.
About seven or eight years ago, my Dad decided he was going to sell the boat that he and my mother had bought for our family when my sister and I were teenagers. My family spent many wonderful weekends out on the lake, skiing, tubing, swimming, and just generally having fun. But with my sister and I out of the house and established in other cities, my parents decided there was no point in hanging on to the boat anymore either. So, my Dad ran an ad in the local paper. The first day the ad ran, Dad had four calls about the boat and two different people came by to look at it that same evening. Both of those individuals were very interested in the boat, and one of the guys gave Dad a cash deposit to hold the boat for him while he made a final decision. In the meantime, the other interested party came by. He offered to pay Dad the full asking price on the spot, but that man had one condition. He wanted Dad to put only half the price of the boat on the bill of sale. "That's the way we do it in these parts," he said. If my Dad complied, the man wouldn't have to pay half the state sales tax, which amounted to several hundred dollars.
My Dad was torn. On the one hand, he really wanted to sell the boat and get full price for it. But on the other hand, he knew what this man was up to, and he did not want to be a part of such cheating and lying. Thankfully, my Dad had a good excuse not to take the man’s offer. He explained that another person had already handed him a cash deposit to hold the boat and that if that offer fell through, he would call this man back. But as Dad sat at dinner that night, he shared his deep misgivings about that second offer. He told my Mom that he couldn’t even believe the man would ask something like that of him. For one thing, it would be breaking the law. But even more than that, my Dad reflected, doing what the man asked would mean going against his identity as a Christian because he would be participating in illegal activity and lying about it. In the end, my Dad decided that even if the first offer fell through, he would not call the other man back. He felt the most important thing was to be obedient to God’s standards. As it turned out, the boat was sold by the weekend and at the full asking price, with all the dealings “above board,” as they say.
Many times in the last 2,000 years, most especially in our modern age of extreme partisanship, this passage from Matthew has been cited as a clear statement of Jesus’ beliefs in the necessity of separation of church and state. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” Jesus says. To which we all reply, “Right, of course, separation of church and state.” But here’s the thing, and if you don’t go home with any other message today, make sure you hear this one, Jesus was NOT making such a political statement. Jesus was not advocating for the separation of church and state, or any other policy. Rather, Christ was challenging his hearers to consider the focus of their greatest allegiance.
Ironically, Jesus’ challengers thought they were doing the same thing to Jesus. As you heard, they were trying to trick him into a response that would get him in trouble. Either he would renounce the need to pay the tax to Caesar and thus be revealed as a traitor, or he would uphold the tax to Caesar and thus defy the Jewish traditions against making and worshipping idols. But Jesus did neither. You see, the Ten Commandments taught that the Jewish people were not to make any idols, and they were to put not gods before God the Creator. Yet, by using a coin with the image of Caesar on it and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest,” many Jewish people felt they were living outside the law of God, and they wanted Jesus to affirm their belief, to step forward as a revolutionary in defiance of Roman rule. But, even though Jesus was a revolutionary who came to establish the kingdom of God, Jesus widens the question of his challengers in such a way that it has nothing to do with coins or politics—nothing at all to do with the threat of being arrested.
The Bible tells us multiple times that we are to be good citizens and to follow the law of the land. And Jesus upholds that teaching as he responds to the Pharisees and the Herodites. But he takes it a step further. When Christ says to the people, “…and [give] to God what belongs to God.” He is saying in essence that all of our lives are to be a living sacrifice to God alone. And we all have to decide for ourselves what it is that bears God’s image. Because here’s the thing, what doesn’t belong to God? Caesar can stamp his picture all over the place, but he can’t come near the true ruler who gives us life. So when Christ commands that the people “[g]ive to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he is telling them that they should give Caesar what belongs to him, but they should do so on God’s terms, and according to their identity as God’s people. Because here’s the thing, if we actually give to God what belongs to God, then the coin is a non-issue! What matters is what we do with our lives.