August 12, 2015
13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
From the first century to the twenty first century the saying holds true: the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Jesus detractors brought these two verities together in this confrontational question.
This tax evoked great resentment among the Jews. It was a constant reminder of their subjection to Rome. If Jesus says it’s right to pay the tax he comes off as a sell out to Rome which would have diminished the authority of his word in the eyes of the San Hedrin. Had he said it’s wrong to pay the tax he would have drawn the fierce ire of Rome for an act of rebellion. The question was political in nature but it was also theological. Why? Watch how Jesus responds.
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.
The kicker comes with the inscription: “”Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus” and on the other, “Pontifex Maximus.” Translation: Caesar was Divine. The big question was whether paying the tax constituted an act of worship to Caesar; a recognition of his divinity. This is where the Pharisees wanted to trap him. If he said pay the tax he implied bowing to Caesar. Jesus response was pure brilliance.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
The denarius which bore Caesar’s image did indeed belong to Caesar. The denarius was the coin of the realm. Jesus acknowledged that to live under the governance of a state brought certain responsibilities with it, paying taxes being one of them. It’s part of the cost of living. Jesus drew a major line in the sand with the rest of his statement. “Give to God what is God’s,” meant that paying a tax to Caesar with a coin bearing Caesar’s image did not imply agreement with the coin’s inscription that Caesar was God. The God of Israel was to Caesar as Jesus was to Caiphas.
Living under the governance of a sovereign state and observing its appropriate authority in no way constituted worship of the state’s sovereign ruler. This was reserved for God alone. Caesar gets the tax. The coins belong to Caesar. The worship belongs to God. Caesar’s claim to divinity is another way of trying to bar God from the politics of the state. It can’t be done and to the extent a people attempt it they issue a death warrant for the state.
It’s a long step from the first century to the twenty first century. While our form of government isn’t analogous to Caesar’s, the words of Jesus hold true. A couple of observations: Paying taxes is the cost of living in a civilized state. Patriotism can be an expression of healthy loyalty and support for national sovereignty. But we must be clear. Only the true and living God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of our worship. The minute the state infringes on the freedom of its people to worship God, it makes the people of God an enemy of the state. It’s another conversation, but this gets us close to the context for Jesus command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
It’s one thing to separate Church and State but quite another to separate faith from politics. In fact, it’s the separation of Church and State that enables the healthy and much needed exercise of faith in the mix of politics and governance. Jerusalem fell because it put its religious establishment in the place of its God. Rome fell because it put its corrupted leaders in the place of the true God. America. . . . . I’ll leave it there for today.
Wrestle with this question today: Where is my primary allegiance; to country or to God? Am I an American Christian (or insert Nigerian or Saudi Arabian or etc.) or am I a Christian American? Are my values more shaped by my country than by my faith? This is not a question of choosing one or the other. It’s a matter of order and priority. It’s a discipleship issue.
SPIRIT OF THE LIVING GOD FALL AFRESH ON ME.
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J.D. Walt writes daily for Seedbed’s Daily Text. He serves as Seedbed’s Sower in Chief. Follow him @jdwalt on Twitter or email him at email@example.com. Get the Daily Text delivered to your inbox fresh every morning. Subscribe HERE.