READ : Luke 20:25
He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Luke 20:25 rsv
Have you ever had the feeling that you were being “set up”? You know, someone asks you a “loaded question.” It happens to political candidates all the time. The object of the inquiry is not to learn something; it’s to make the person who answers look bad. Perhaps a reporter is digging into some detail of Governor Clinton’s private life. He wants to know about this or that rumor. Or he’s demanding that President Bush explain what happened to a promise he made during the last campaign. The wolves circle about, waiting for the answer.
Such questions are bad enough, but even in those, the worst thing that can happen is that someone may lose votes. Sometimes questioners operate with far more malice. They’re bent on someone’s destruction. Listen to this experience Jesus had with those who once brought a question to Him. I’m reading from Luke, chapter 20, verse 19:
The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people; for they perceived that he had told this parable [that is, the one about the wicked tenants] against them. So they watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. [That is, they wanted to get Him in trouble with the Roman government. They wanted to see Him tried for treason.] They asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a coin. Whose likeness and inscription has it?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him by what he said; but marveling at his answer they were silent.
Now notice the dynamics here. They seem to address Jesus as those who hold Him in high regard: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly (that is, You always tell the truth. You’re a reliable instructor.) You show no partiality (that is, You aren’t swayed by pressure groups. No one can flatter or intimidate You into a desired response.) You teach truly the way of God (that is, whatever You say, when You teach, that’s God’s perspective on the matter.)” It was one of those times when the enemies of Jesus spoke the truth. He was that kind of teacher. But they, of course, didn’t believe it. Theirs was a carefully crafted ploy, a well-baited hook.
Then came the question itself: “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” They were sure that they had Him now. They had put Him in a no-win situation. If He said yes, His countrymen would revile Him as a traitor, a collaborator, for every loyal Jew resented the burden of Roman taxation. “Just watch His popular following disappear if He comes out in favor of this tax!”
But if He said no, He would be in even more serious trouble. Then He could be reported to the authorities as a revolutionary. And everyone knew how Rome dealt with those who dared to defy her imperial authority.
At that question, everyone got very quiet. Some of Jesus’ enemies may have been smirking on the outskirts of the crowd, but they held their breath now. The followers of Jesus shifted uneasily, then stood riveted. How would He possibly get out of this one?
They should have known better, these questioners. Jesus had handled such baiting before. And His friends needn’t have worried. Jesus was never at a loss at moments like this. He always seemed to take a new tack, startling His questioners. Before they knew it, He had them on the defensive. That’s what happened here. He didn’t give them what they were looking for, a yes or a no. Instead, it was “show me a coin.” Now the ball was back in their court. They had to produce something. When they had looked around and finally presented the coin, Jesus had a question for them, “Whose likeness and inscription has it?” They knew that without looking. Everyone knew what was on Roman coinage: Caesar’s image, Caesar’s name. They said so, “Caesar’s.” Jesus’ next words took everyone by surprise. I must have read them hundreds of times in my life, but they impress me again right now as I think about them. What a response! What a perfect squelch for His wily questioners! “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Let’s explore the logic of that first part. If coins have Caesar’s image on them, they must be minted by his regime. Since he produces them, since they all ultimately come from him, Caesar has a legitimate claim on them.
Isn’t this still today the rationale for paying taxes? Every human government does something for its citizens. It provides for their defense from enemies. It builds roads and parks for them, provides various public facilities, sets up a monetary system. It has a right to require then that a portion of everyone’s wealth, some at least of the coin of the realm which each possesses, should be given back. Everyone should pay his or her share of what the government contributes to the good of all.
True, some governments provide very little for their citizens. And some tax them exorbitantly, out of all proportion to any value given. But the abuse doesn’t destroy the principle. Governments do have a right to tax. “Tribute to whom tribute is due.” Caesar can lawfully require a portion of what he provides.
But wait a minute, Jesus. Are You condoning the tyranny of Rome? Are You siding with the legions who have robbed us of our freedoms? Worst of all, are You going along with the abominable idol-worship of the emperor?
Maybe that’s what the crowd was thinking. Maybe His enemies already had a speech prepared to make Him sound disloyal to His nation if He agreed to this tax. But Jesus was way ahead of them, “You’re only to render,” He said, “to Caesar what rightfully belongs to him, nothing more.” He can call for coins, can require services, but his claims are limited. And this is what sets the limits: “Render to God the things that are God’s.” What are those we wonder. What is it that we owe to God because it’s His? Take those coins that have Caesar’s head on them, and his inscription. Are they only Caesar’s, or are they in some sense God’s? Think about that. What are the coins made of? Something God created. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1). Everything belongs to God, including our money. God required of His people a temple tax to support the worship of His sanctuary. He required of His ancient people the first fruits of all their increase. He told them they were stewards. All that they had they held in trust, and they were to recognize Him as the owner and giver by offering the first and best to Him. So God has a claim on the coins too, really a prior claim.
What else is God’s? Not only all the material things we have but also lordship over the human conscience. All human laws gain whatever validity they have from God’s authority. As the apostle Paul put it, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). It is God’s will, for our good, that we should live under some kind of government. Almost any regime is better than total anarchy, as we’ve seen so tragically in present-day Somalia. No government, no laws, no police, no law enforcement. It’s every clan, every man, for himself. Centuries of culture and civilization are crumbling into chaos there.
The powers that be, says Paul, are ordained of God, but their powers are also limited by Him. Every ruler is subject ultimately to God, answerable to God. When human laws, the laws of any government or state come into conflict with the law of God, citizens are ultimately responsible to obey God. To Him they will finally give account. Suppose your government demands that you worship the emperor or the president as God. On the other hand, God’s Word says, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10). Here’s a clear choice. Then, as the apostle Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
This is what the Protestant reformers contended for. They insisted that no authorities in church or state can make laws as binding as God’s laws. “There is only one lawgiver in Zion,” they said. “Christ alone is Lord of the conscience.” Caesar can demand obedience. Because of the power he possesses, he can reward and punish. But his laws can never have ultimate significance. Further, if they defy the Word and will of God, they ought not to be obeyed. No earthly ruler has power to bind the human conscience.
Nor can any human government demand the highest loyalty of its subjects. All governments lean toward making themselves absolute, claiming for themselves supreme value. The wisest and best governments are those that guard, by a system of checks and balances, against the seizure of absolute power.
Check yourself on this. Is your highest loyalty to your nation? Then you have a nation-god. Is it “your country, right or wrong?” Then your country to you has a moral authority greater than God’s. Do you look on your fellow citizens in your country as of more importance and value than those of other lands? Then your loyalties are more with a human kingdom than with God’s outreaching love. We cannot have it both ways, friends. You cannot give the lordship of your conscience and the supreme love of your heart to Caesar and to God. It has to be one or the other. If you cannot serve God and mammon, as Jesus said, you cannot serve God and Caesar either. Most of the time, in relatively free societies, we can be at one and the same time good patriots and devoted Christians. But occasions come when the claims of human government come in conflict with the claims of God. Then we can only give God what is rightfully His by refusing it to anyone else.
I had the privilege of visiting a few months ago the country of Albania. Albania, as you may know, was until this year of free elections an officially atheistic country. It was against the law in Albania to believe in God, to own a Bible, to offer any kind of worship. You committed a crime against the state if you confessed any form of religion there. The issues were sharply drawn.
When we brought greetings in one of the new Christian congregations in Tirana, I said something about Albania having been an atheistic country, expressing the hope that some day it would become a truly Christian one. An old gentleman came up to me after the service. With great deference and respect, he said that he wanted to make a “small correction” to what I had said. “Albania,” he suggested, “had not been an atheistic country. It had had an atheistic government.” In spite of all the laws against religion there and all the persecution of believers, many had still clung to their faith. They refused to give to Caesar what didn’t belong to him. Enver Hoxha had connived to take away their liberties, but he could not claim their hearts. Those belonged to God alone.
Friends, that’s what we mean when we make the confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” It’s not merely a sectarian slogan; it’s an expression of worship. It’s ascribing to Jesus divine honors. It’s saying that He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that every knee in every regime will one day bow to Him and every tongue confess that He is Lord. It’s saying that the only ultimate loyalty belongs to the One supremely worthy – the One who came among us in Jesus and gave Himself to die that we might live.
Prayer: Lord, may we always be the best kind of citizens because we honor You most of all. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.