Summary: When his enemies sought to trap him, Jesus showed his followers, including us, a balanced allegiance to earthly authorities and to our ultimate Heavenly Authority. We give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and we give back to God...our very selves!
For God and Country
My sermon title today comes from the Army chaplain motto: “Pro Deo et patria,” “For God and country. Politics and religion are the two taboo subjects at any cocktail party, but let’s talk about both today! Dave Barry noted, “People who want to share their religious or political views with you almost never want you to share yours with them.” Do you ever find yourself getting ticked off at another person (even a Christian for goodness sake!), who ought to know better and see things like you? Where is the line between politics and religion? Is God a fan of the U.S.A.? Was Jesus a Democrat or a Republican? Are Americans the new chosen people like the Israelites of old? And how does one be a good citizen as well as a faithful follower of Christ?
The tension between politics and religion appears in today’s story. Two unlikely partners—the Herodians and the Pharisees—teamed up together to trap Jesus. The Herodians, as their name suggests, were large proponents of the Herod family. They were into Roman rule. The Pharisees prided themselves on their Jewish faith and rejected Roman rule, although they behaved themselves to stay out of trouble. These two groups—Herodians and Pharisees—didn’t much like each other. But “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They discovered a common mission in discrediting Jesus before the people.
So they thought they had set the perfect trap: after they buttered up Jesus, saying he was a man of principle, not easily swayed by public opinion, they threw out the key question: “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
To understand why this was a trap, you have to understand both the imperial tax and the coin used to pay it. The Romans only levied the imperial tax or poll tax on a conquered people, not on its own citizens. Each Israelite, then, had to pay a denarius—one day’s wage—annually to the Roman government. These people who viewed themselves as belonging to God received an annual reminder of a Roman claim of ownership over them as well.
And what made matters worse was the coin itself: one side bore the image of Caesar, believed by the Romans to be a deity. The other side referred to the high priest of Roman paganism. For Jews, this coin violated the first two of the ten commandments. Even so, they were forced to use it to pay the tax.
So the catch-22 for Jesus is this: If he says, “Yes, it’s right to pay the tax,” then he loses favor with the masses, who absolutely hate paying it. But if he says, “No, it’s not right,” then the Herodians and Pharisees can accuse him of stirring up dissension against the Romans. Jesus is caught between a rock and a hard place.
I’d like to frame the rest of the talk around the two parts of Jesus’ simple but profound answer. First, he says,
1. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
If you think our taxes are bad today, consider those of ancient Israel: The Herod family collected taxes in the name of Rome to support its military ventures, building projects, and lavish lifestyles. The family also paid a tribute to Rome, so it added heavier taxes to compensate. The prefect of Judea and Samaria collected the land and imperial taxes directly for Rome. The Jewish religious authorities exacted their own taxes for the temple (Matthew 17:24–27). Some scholars estimate a Jewish family may have paid out nearly half its annual income in taxes and bribes! You can imagine how the Israelites felt about this.
But Jesus said to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Indeed, Paul says, in Romans 13:1, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Other scriptures tell us to pay our taxes (Romans 13:6-7), to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3), and to obey their laws (Romans 13:1-4), unless they violate God’s law. At which point we would have to say with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than man!” (Acts 5:29).
“Give unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s.” The idea behind the Greek word is to “render” or “give back.” To give back implies that Caesar has done something for you. In Jesus’ time, the government—while corrupt—did offer roads, water, police, and sometimes relief for the poor. Today we must admit that, as big and inefficient and sometimes misguided as government can be, it also does some great things: it offers protection with the finest military in the world. We also have outstanding police and fire fighters that ensure our protection and need our prayers. Our government offers help to the helpless; even with the imperfections of the welfare system, many who truly need help receive it. Our government helps maintain society. And it even delivers the mail! So we give back to Caesar.