Summary: A study of Jesus’ answers to the Jewish leaders on whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar.

Between Two Worlds: Our Civil & Spiritual Responsibilities Luke 20:20-26

Some wise wag said, “While there are just two certainties in life: death and taxes, at least death doesn’t get worse every time Congress is in session!”

A man on vacation was strolling along outside his hotel in Acapulco, enjoying the sunny Mexican weather. Suddenly, he was attracted by the screams of a woman kneeling in front of a child. The man knew enough Spanish to determine that the boy had swallowed a coin. Seizing the child by the heels, the man held him up, gave him a few shakes, and an American quarter dropped to the sidewalk. “Oh, thank you sir!” cried the woman. “You seemed to know just how to get it out of him. Are you a doctor?” “No, ma’am,” replied the man. “I’m with the United States Internal Revenue Service.”

According to Peter Ferrara, general counsel for AMERICANS FOR TAX REFORM, “Federal, state, and local taxes consume about 40 percent of the income of the average family. That is more than the average family spends on food, clothing, and shelter combined.” It didn’t used to be this way. The first federal income tax in 1913 demanded what today sounds like pocket change–about $50 per family. And that’s in 1990 dollars. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that anything that can demand 40 percent of what you earn can also affect the way you live–and that’s certainly true of our tax system. For starters, taxes play an important role in decisions of whether both parents should hold outside jobs. Because of taxes, some families find it necessary for both parents to work outside the home simply to compensate for income lost to taxes. But even those families that sacrifice the mother’s paycheck so she can stay home with the kids still hear the taxman’s “Gotcha!” They discover on tax day that the federal child-care credit gives a tax break only to parents who pay for childcare. There’s no break for parents who raise their own kids. So, the tax policy creates an incentive for daycare. There are other perverse incentives as well. Under the Internal Revenue Code, couples who simply live together actually pay less taxes than those couples who get married. Last summer, Congress tried to eliminate this penalty as part of a larger tax bill. The President, however, unfortunately vetoed it. Our tax code expresses a value system of our government: In addition to the unspoken assumption that people work to support the government, the Code is indifferent, if not hostile, to the family. It penalizes couples for having children. It penalizes them again if they leave the workforce to raise their children. And, it also punishes people for getting married.

With a tax system that is intrusive, is it any wonder that many believers are asking, “Should a believer pay taxes – particularly to a system that is so anti-biblical and anti-God?” This question though is not new. Jesus’ enemies asked Him virtually the same question some 2000 years ago.

Paying taxes has never been popular. Taxes are not a donation nor are they a voluntary contribution. Failing to pay them or paying less than you’re supposed to is also a sure way to get the government’s attention. You’ll quickly learn how strongly the government feels about the payment of taxes.

This dialogue from Luke 20 about taxes is very important. It was recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Dr. William Willimon captures the spirit of the conversation well, he points out that this was man’s question of Jesus, not Jesus’ question of us – we’re the ones who are consumed with politics and political questions...just look at the newspapers, listen to the nightly news.

Most studies of this question focus primarily on Jesus’ wonderful answer. This morning though as we consider our dilemma of being Between Two Worlds: Our Civil & Spiritual Responsibilities, we want to focus on the whole conversation and exchange. To me, there is much more here than just Jesus’ answer. There are many Lessons for us contained in this dialogue.

1. Lesson #1: Sometimes truth comes from the most unlikely sources. On March 30th of 1981 when then President Ronald Reagan was shot in the left side of his chest by a deranged John Hinckley Jr., Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital. When one of the doctors told the President that they were going to operate on him, Reagan, with his characteristic wit quipped, “I hope you’re a Republican.” To which the surgeon replied, “Today, Mr. President, we’re all Republicans.”

If I had a heart attack or got cancer, I really don’t care if my doctor is a Buddhist a Hindu or even a Communist. I do care though that he or she is the best doctor that I can get. Over my life time I’ve watched a fallacy develop in the church which is completely foreign to the NT and is also anti-Pauline. This erroneous thinking is that if something is not said or taught or practiced by a Christian, then it is false or at the very least, suspect.

When I was in Bible college, there was a philosophical “book burning” in the English Department of some of the classics by Mark Twain and even the writings of C.S. Lewis, because their belief systems were suspect. The Apostle Paul was schooled in the thought and philosophy of his day – even the secular philosophy. That’s why he could effectively speak in Athens to the Polytheists. Paul’s letter to Titus contains a quote from a pagan prophet that he uses to prove a point and encourage Titus in his ministry in Crete. One of my favorite quotes is from the founder of Russian communism, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “Truth without practice is sterile.” Though Lenin was an atheist, his statement is still accurate. Though I have major problems with Roman Catholic theology, I agree with them on abortion. “All truth is God’s truth.” Recently, I stumbled across this quote by 19th century pastor and writer, George MacDonald, “Truth is truth, whether it’s spoken by the lips of Jesus or Balaam’s donkey.”

Remember the old saying, “politics makes strange bedfellows,” that’s the situation in Luke 20. The Pharisees and the Herodians, two opposite ends of the political landscape, have united to defeat a common enemy: Jesus.

There are two disparate powers that can bind people together. One is love, and the other is hatred. Sometimes people of diversity unite behind a common cause in love – that’s to be the case with the Church of Jesus Christ. Too often a stronger and more common uniting element is hatred. Hatred often serves as a devilish cement among otherwise diverse people.

Such was the case with the Pharisees and the Herodians. There could hardly be two groups with such opposing outlooks and agendas. The Pharisees were nationalistic, an ancient B’Nai B’Rith but the Herodians had sold themselves out to the Romans and were their stooges. The Pharisees were the conservatives; the Herodians the liberals. The Pharisees were the right-wingers, hardliners; the Herodians were the left-wing extremists. But they united to take on a common enemy – Jesus. Today it would be like the ACLU joining hands with the Christian Coalition; or Rush Limbaugh on the same platform with Gloria Steinhem, or PETA and the NRA getting together to fight a common enemy.

The Pharisees hated Jesus because He was disrupting their religious agenda; the Herodians, because He threatened their political arrangements – they both wanted Him dead...and the sooner, the better.

Were they trying to trap Him? Sure. Were they flattering Him as they sought to set Him up? You better believe it. Flattery is a powerful weapon. Someone has defined gossip as saying behind a person’s back what you would never say to his face; flattery as saying to a person’s face what you would never say behind his back.

Though they baited their trap and had the basest motives–they still spoke the truth. Jesus was “a man of integrity.” He did “teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” He wasn’t “swayed by men” and He didn’t pay any “attention to who they were.” Jesus could not be accused of favoritism.

Though they were wicked men with vile motives – their portrait of Christ is meticulously accurate. While believers must be discerning, we need to be familiar with the philosophy, literature, music, arts, values and teaching of this lost world. We need to be looking for the “redemptive qualities” in Hollywood films. When we find a “truth” that a pagan has discovered, we can often use that truth as the foundation to lead them to One who is “the way, the truth and the life.”

2. Lesson #2: Heavenly people must know their earthly responsibilities. Though the question comes from a bad source with a horrible motive, it still is a valuable question. It also, potentially, put Jesus in a dilemma. If He said it was unlawful to pay the tax, they would promptly report Him to their Roman oppressors as a seditious person – and Jesus would be arrested and possibly even executed as a revolutionary. But if Jesus said that they should pay the tax, He would be discredited in front of the people. Not only did the Jews resent the tax as everyone resents taxation; they resented it even more for religious reasons. For a Jew God was the only king; their nation was a theocracy; therefore to pay tax to an earthly king was to admit the validity of this foreign king and in their mind, was an insult to God. It was an issue of religious patriotism. These leaders wanted to trap Jesus so that either the people would become incensed with Him or the Romans would take care of Him for them.

As Paul states, though we are not of this world, God does not want us to “leave” this world. We are to be “in” the world, but not “of” the world – because we are “in” the world, we have certain responsibilities, functions and obligations that we need answers for. And a major concern is: What is the believer’s responsibility to human government? Their question opens the door for a legitimate discussion on an important and valid issue. We are “in” this world, thus, it is imperative that we, as Heavenly people know our earthly responsibilities.

3. Lesson #3: We must deal with root issues rather than fruit issues. One of my dear friends has had a running disagreement with his wife over the years. He tends to be a big picture and quantity production person, she on the other hand is a small picture, very detailed person. In the past when they were cleaning the house for guests, he’s the White Tornado screaming through the kitchen and main rooms, hurling dirt and dust out of his way. But though company might be coming in a couple of hours, his dear wife would get absorbed in straightening a drawer or re-organizing the cupboards – and he’d get so frustrated. In his mind the root issue was getting the house presentable overall, but her predisposition for detail had her focusing on non-essentials and fruit issues.

Matthew writes, “But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me’?” (22:18). Jesus will answer their question but before He does, He addresses the central issue – their evil hearts.

Too often Christians have a tendency to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. The boats going down because it’s got a gaping hole in its bow but we’re focused on the trivial and non-essential. Though Jesus might clean up the fruit problem, He never did it to the neglect of the root problem. Look at Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” When Jesus dealt with the Samaritan woman, as recorded in John 4, He encouraged her interest in “living water” but then He went for her root sin issue, “immorality.” He told her to “Go, call her husband” knowing that she had had five husbands, and was currently living with a another man.

Some spouses waste immeasurable energy seeking to appease an unhappy partner. They’ll buy a new car, furniture...even a new house. They’ll help out more, take more vacations. Too often those are all window dressings, they could be the perfect partner but their mate would still be miserable – because the root problem is not external circumstances. The root problem is that their mate has chosen to be unhappy and discontent. Friend, you will never make an unhappy person happy unless he/she chooses to change and be happy. The root problem is sin. Discontent, a critical-bitter spirit is sin. Until the root issue is solved, the fruit problem will just keep re-appearing.

4. Lesson #4: Man has both civil and spiritual responsibilities. While sometimes you and I may feel like P. J. O’Rourke, when it comes to taxes, “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys,” our feelings do not alter the Biblical truth that we have responsibilities to government.

This tension though about what are our responsibilities is anything but new. D.L. Moody was once reprimanded by an overly pious Christian, when Moody told the man he was on his way to the polls to vote. This pharisaical believer said, “Mr. Moody, do you not know that your citizenship is in heaven?” The ever practical evangelist replied, “Yes, I know that, but remember that I own property in Cook County (Chicago).”

Warren Wiersbe in his commentary on the book of Mark writes of carrying on a brief correspondence with a man who objected to Wiersbe’s interpretation of Romans 13. This man said that all government was of the devil and that Christians must not bow to the authority of “the powers that be.” Wiersbe pointed out that even this man’s use of United State’s mail service was an acceptance of governmental authority. The money that he had spent buying the paper and stamps also come from “the powers that be.” And for that matter, the very freedom he had to express himself was a right guaranteed by – the government!

Jesus does the same thing when He asks His inquisitors for a coin. Remember the Jews were still under Mosaic Law, thus, their interpretation of the 10 Commandments and the prohibition in the 2nd commandment against “graven images” (Ex. 20:4) caused them to violently oppose, at the cost of their lives, even allowing banners with Caesar’s image to enter Jerusalem...yet they carried it on coins in their pockets every day.

Can you see one of them, without thinking, reaching into his robe to pull out a small silver denarius? There’s a touch of humor here. Jesus ends up embarrassing His challengers. It is they, not He, who are the ones carrying the offensive coin. Any scruples against it cannot be their own. The very ones who hated Caesar’s image were willing to make an exception for coinage showing that they really valued money more than they valued the Law. They already paid a kind of tribute to Caesar just by possessing his coin.

Jesus could have stopped right there and made His point, but He didn’t. He went on to ask what image was on the coin and what superinscription. They replied, “Caesar’s,” and then Jesus answered by creating a proverbial saying that has become one of the great “sound bites” of world history, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Jesus says the dilemma is a “both/and” not an “either/or.”

With His unique wisdom Jesus does not lay down black & white rules and regulations; that’s why His teaching is timeless and never is outdated. What Jesus does though is outlay some vital Principles to help us navigate between the Two Worlds of our Civil & Spiritual Responsibilities.

a) Man has responsibilities to transient, God-ordained authority. Jesus said “Show me a denarius.” The image would have been of Tiberius, the reigning Emperor, though all the emperors were called Caesar. On one side would be the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, Augustus,” on the reverse side would be the inscription “the high priest of the Roman nation.”

Coinage is a sign of power. Whenever someone conquered a nation, the first thing he did was to issue a new coinage. It was a guarantee of governmental authority and power, and wherever the coin was used the government’s power held sway, i.e., ancient Israel. And because a coin had the king’s head on it, it was held, in some sense, to be the property of the king and to be his personal property. Just by using the money of Caesar, these Jews were acknowledging his political power in Palestine. It even had Caesar’s name on it. By giving it back to him you are giving back to him that which is rightfully his. That’s because...

1) The state is ordained by God. Jesus assumes the validity of the secular state and its demands, even when it is controlled by a man who thinks he is a god. A poorly run state is better than no state at all. The overthrow of Communist Yugoslavia and the current anarchy and civil war in that region is a powerful illustration of that fact.

Apart from the laws of the state, life would be chaos. God ordained government as an authority over man to help man live together without killing each other. The state also provides many valuable services, water supplies, sewage systems, roads, highways, transportation systems, fire and police protection, military protection.

2) We cannot accept the benefits which the states gives us and then opt out of our responsibilities to the state. Roman government brought a sense of security the ancient world had never before known. Pirates and bandits were cleared out, civil wars were settled – it was the time of the “pax Romana,” the peace of Rome. The same is true today. We cannot honorably receive all the benefits which living in the U.S. brings us and then opt of our responsibilities of citizenship.

While these are not absolutes and there are exceptions, believers are to be submissive to governmental authority and obey it. We are to be markedly different in that we are law-abiding, (that would include traffic laws), never cheat on our taxes, show respect to government officials, participate in elections and pray for those who rule over us. We are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Our faith should make us better citizens, not worse ones.

b) The believer must sometimes resist transient authority. It is one thing for government to require men to owe them taxes, but it is quite another thing when governments think that they have the right to own people. This is only the prerogative of God. The coin has the government’s image stamped on it; man has God’s image created in him. And while governmental authority is divinely ordained, it is also a limited authority.

As believers, we must resist authority when we are asked to violate a command of God. Peter summed it up for us in Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men!” We must also resist when we are asked to do an immoral act, whether it be sexual immorality or an unethical act. We must also not violate our consciences to obey government. This is for each man or woman’s conscience to test. It might mean not participating in some forms of entertainment. Personally, I could not work for the Wisconsin Lottery. It would violate my conscience. It might mean refusing to fight in what you believe is an unjust war. This is why it is so imperative that Christians immerse themselves in God’s Word so that our ethics are radically Biblical.

c) The Church and State are not co-equal in power or authority. The Church is not to dominate the State, nor is the State to dominate the Church. This is a Biblical understanding of the often confusing term “separation of Church and State.” Scripture does not teach a “Church-State” for this age. We do not today live in a theocracy. That was for Israel. Nor is the Church to be subjugated to the State, as in Nazi Germany or in the former Soviet Union. Both extremes are wrong and unbiblical.

Unhealthy unions between church and state have been the undoing of both churches and states throughout history. We must always be cautious about politicizing the church, because it will distract us from our true mission, world evangelization, even if its members are fighting for a good cause. It is too easy for the church to become identified solely with political agendas and parties and not the proclamation of the Gospel and glorifying God – which transcends society and government. While the Church must bravely confront moral wrong, it must also be far enough removed from the political machine to allow it to speak prophetically, i.e., the spirit of John the Baptist.

d) God’s transcendent authority is superior to transient governmental authority. We are also to “give to...God what is God’s.” I wonder if Jesus flipped the denarius over where it said, “the high priest of the Roman nation” when He uttered that phrase, giving a powerful object lesson. The state tends to overreach its authority and dominate the family and the church. By this inscription Caesar was encroaching on God’s sphere, the spiritual sphere. When the state moves away from the sphere God has assigned to it, it becomes demonic, as we see at the end of the age in the book of Revelation (chapter 13). Just a few days later this would be demonstrated as Caesar’s authority was used to crucify the Christ. Their very question was part of their hellish plot to use the state to destroy God’s Son.

The denarius was Caesar’s coinage, Man is God’s coinage. We bear His image and we owe God what belongs to Him, our lives and our allegiance. This, to Jesus, was the crucial issue.

When they produced the forbidden coin, Jesus asked them whose image was stamped on it. The Greek word used here for image is eikon. It was a code word for the Jews, because it carried with it the rich meaning inherent in the story of creation, where it says that God created human beings in his own image, that is, His own eikon. Literally, we are eikons of God. When Jesus referred to the eikon on the coin, He was alluding to creation. Because we bear His image, there is not a secular arena beyond the interest of God. Everything we are reflects on God, the One to which all things are ultimately accountable. For God there is no graven image. There is only you and me. The emperor may have his coins, but God has us. And we know that regardless of whose image is on the coin temporarily, even the coin ultimately belongs to God. What we do with the coin, therefore, is not governed by the emperor alone, but by God. Whether we pay taxes or not does not depend on our relationship with the emperor, but on our relationship with God.

Much harm has been done by people who have tried to divide life into two parts–the sacred or spiritual part about which God truly cares, and the secular or worldly part about which God doesn’t care as much. For example, a young adult is choosing a life career either as a politician or a pastor. Most believers, without any hesitation would say, “Be a pastor.” Why would they say that? Because they think being a pastor is a holier calling than being a politician. They’re wrong, of course. Martin Luther clearly and rightly taught that every calling in life can render service to God. He said there is no higher or lower calling, but all callings are equal in the sight of God. The issue is not the calling but the faithfulness one renders to God as a bearer of His image in whatever calling one follows.

Christians are “dual citizens” of both heaven and earth – but our foremost responsibility is to “Give to...God what is God’s.” It is His image we bear.

5. Lesson #5: Even spiritual enemies are often amazed by the truth. Matthew’s account says, “When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away” (22:22). While they sought to “trap” Jesus, they ended up only trapping themselves. Our Lord’s answer, accompanied by His total control of the situation and His own emotions, were disarming. Mouths were gaping – minds were reeling. How could it have gone so wrong? It had seemed like such a great plan! Jesus had won–again. One must give government its due; one must also give God His due. Those “two world” obligations are often not in conflict, as His questioners had assumed. In spite of themselves they were filled with awe and wonder.

Don’t miss this! Though they saw “the truth,” they still rejected the One Who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” They left Him and went away.

Many times you will be able to give lost people truths about family, marriage, work, morals and money. They may even accept them and apply them. And they will to some extent work for them. It’s also an opportunity to begin to build bridges for the Gospel. Stewardship demands that we wisely go through those open doors. But accepting “truths” of God’s Word, is not the same as embracing “the Truth” of salvation and surrender.

Conclusion: God does not have a philosophy of government that matches any of our political party’s agendas. One could make a case that the record of each party is mixed from a Biblical standpoint.

There are two extremes to be avoided in our outlook on government. The first is to see government as the enemy of God, and to be always opposing ourselves to it. The other extreme is to view government too highly, as man’s salvation and security. It is very easy to look to government for those things which only God can give and it is very easy to turn from God to government. In our text, we see Israel’s leaders looking at Jesus, the Messiah, as the problem which they must be rid of, and a heathen government, Rome, as their deliverer. Just as Israel rejected God when they demanded a king so that they could be like the other nations, (1 Sam. 8), we too often reject God and look to government to “save” us.

Some Christians oppose government unnecessarily and unbiblically, using God as their pretext for rebellion and disobedience. Others seem to view government as the solution to all our earthly (and spiritual) problems. Some think that we can establish a righteous government on the earth and so clean it up that Messiah will come. My friend, only the Messiah can clean up this mess. It is only after He comes again that a truly righteous government will exist. Let us keep government in perspective. It is not the enemy of God, but God’s agent. Let us obey government as unto the Lord, in every way possible.

I find it very interesting that the religious leaders of Israel could not find a religious solution to the problem of Jesus. Jesus was not the problem, but the solution, and yet they failed to see it, or to accept it even if they did understand that He was the Messiah. Unfortunately, I find many professing Christians resorting to political means and methodology because of our spiritual impotence. When we turn from dependence on God, we turn to human means and instrumentality. How often we depend more on politics than we do on the power of God to solve our problems. Let us find Him sufficient. Let us go about our task using the implements of spiritual warfare, not the secular crutches of politics. Let us look to God and not to men for the establishment of righteousness on the earth.

Let’s remind ourselves that the gospel is our Lord’s “Declaration of Independence.” It is only by faith in His death on the cross that we can be truly free. He is the Truth that sets men free. May you experience that freedom today.

For the believer Jesus’ words suggests two important questions. Whose image do we bear? The answer is self-evident: the image of God. The second question is the critical one, “Have we given to God, what is God’s?” If we think that God wants our money, or our time or our talents – or even those nearest and dearest to us – we are wrong!

The Father wants us. We must give to God what is God’s! We must give Him our lives. And He will not settle for less than all. If we resist Him, we will not have His rest or His peace. Dear friend, give to God what is God’s – Give yourself!