Jesus was once asked to make a choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives (Matt. 22: 17-22): “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar...or not?” The assumption of Jesus’ opponents was that one must be loyal either to the State or loyal to God. By forcing him to choose between one or the other, they hoped to trap him in his own words. What Jesus does first is to ask for a Roman denarius, which his opponents easily produced. By this simple request, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy. The very ones who questioned paying taxes to Caesar were carrying his coins in their purses. By the change in their pockets they showed that they were actively trading in and benefiting from the currency of Roman Judea.
“Whose head and whose title does it bear?” Jesus asks his questioners. “Caesar’s” they reply. Jesus’ response is one for the ages: “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God's.” Jesus shows that the choice between loyalty to Caesar or to God is a false choice. In truth, we must embrace both possibilities because all of life...both the secular and the sacred is under God’s domain. In other words, we are dual citizens of heaven, and this world.
F. Dale Bruner points out that what Jesus literally says is not “give to Caesar” but “give back to Caesar what belongs to him.” Practically speaking, the minting of Roman coins served a very specific function...it enabled the economic order to function. For Jesus to say that one should “give back to Caesar what is his” was to recognize that because the Empire provided certain benefits and services it had a right to levy taxes for them, just as today we are taxed for the privilege of clean water, sewage, highways, defense, standards in food, buildings, and public education.
But when Jesus said, “and give to God the things that belong to God” he was drawing a line in the sand. He was making a distinction between the allegiance that the State may seek from its citizens, and the ultimate allegiance that God alone is due. Scripture says the State is God’s servant for doing good, restricting evil, and promoting the just ordering of society (Romans 13).
But this also means that the State becomes demonic when it asks from its citizens “the things that belong to God alone.” Jesus seems to say that as long as what the Empire asks for is a simple tax to promote the peace and order of society, well and good. So long as the State asks only for money, comply with that request willingly. But once the State asks not only for money, but first place in our hearts, it has violated its authority.
When the State or its representative demands our supreme allegiance, its claim is nullified for God’s people. The only One who may make a total claim upon us is God. When Peter was warned not to preach any more about Jesus, he said to his accusers, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). Martin Luther King Jr. is honored this weekend because he had the courage to stand up to the evil of segregation and those unjust laws that separated and demeaned people based upon the color of their skin. His convictions were grounded in the moral principles of his faith: “I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.”
Inscribed on our coins are not just the images of our leaders but the words, “In God We Trust.” This is an admission that when we do not honor God or seek God’s kingdom first (Matt. 6:33), the fear and tyranny of human beings will be the result. Hope to see you soon...