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Obedience to God and Government; Not Mutually Exclusive, Nor One in the Same


Every so often Callie and I will watch a series of YouTube videos of people who are living off the grid. There are hundreds of them out there, people who are living in remote areas, people who have built these simple, yet beautiful homes that blend into their natural surroundings, they generate their own electricity, figure out their own plumbing. They’ve found ways to keep their home cool when it’s hot, and their home warm when it’s cold, harvesting their own food by luscious gardens … These people are totally, completely off the grid. For a while there I watched all this thinking, “This is great, but there’s no way you could do this with young children” … until I then watched a couple living off the grid with two young children. Whatever.

Anyway, way off the grid these people are living their lives distant from civilization, away from society, detached from any governing authorities and governance itself. They are wonderfully and blissfully free and today’s scripture passage is not for them.

And yet, for the rest of us mere mortals, who live on city streets, whose children are enrolled in public schools, who vote in elections, who live under the jurisdiction of cities and counties, states and nations, and who, yes, pay taxes, today’s scripture passage will be plenty relevant indeed.

Because though the spies on this day asked Jesus a specific question regarding taxes, I think the scope of today’s text can even more broadly be seen as describing the relationship between God and government, and the authority that they each hold in Christian life today.

Or in other words, to borrow language that is used by the Apostle Paul himself,

How are Christians, whose citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven, how are we to be citizens of a particular country, in a particular place here on earth?

So with that said, let’s get after it. For today, I’ll set up the backstory and all that takes place leading up to Jesus’s famous statement in v.25 and then I’ll give 3 key takeaways and points of application.

Let’s begin by setting the scene. It’s the Tuesday of Holy Week and Jesus has been making his presence felt. He strode into Jerusalem to raucous applause on Sunday, then turned over the tables in the temple on Monday, and here he continues on Tuesday teaching in the temple. In light of the frenzy he stirred up on Monday and his controversial teachings on Tuesday, the religious leaders are more than ever before looking at Jesus as a threat to their very existence, a threat that needs to be dealt with.

And so, they come up with a plan to trap Jesus through the use of a single question, "Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Last week, I shared with you how untimely last week’s scripture was and yet, it’s just the opposite this week with tax season right around the corner.

Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Both a yes or no answer here will have serious negative consequences for Jesus. And the spies, who are asking this question on behalf of the religious establishment, know they have Jesus right where they want him, because as they see it, however Jesus answers this one, there’s no good answer here. And here’s why:

If Jesus answers the question “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?” with a simple “yes”, the largely Jewish crowds who have been following him will turn against him. At that time, the Jewish people were under Roman rule, Israel was occupied under the Roman empire, and the Jewish people were obligated to pay taxes to the enemy, the Romans. Say yes, and the Jewish crowds will see Jesus as a traitor, as a pushover, as a coward, unwilling to stand up against the bad guys. Say yes, and the crowds who have followed him will turn against him.

And yet, If Jesus answers the question “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?” with a simple “no”, the powerful Roman empire will turn against him. He’ll be seen as an enemy of the state, accuse him of insurrection and see to it that he’s executed. After all, this is why it says in v. 20 “They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor [Roman governor, Pontius Pilate]”

And so, the question is asked of Jesus, “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?” Yes or no? He’ll be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Or so it seems. Instead, Jesus asks,

24 “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

And here Jesus utters his famous words, saying to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

“Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

With great simplicity and brevity, Jesus stuns everyone in the temple that day with an answer so astonishing that it silenced the crowds. An answer that neither alienated him from the Jewish crowds nor Roman officers, an answer that somehow honored and respected them both. And because of it, the spies were unable to trap him in what he said.

And so with all that said, let’s now turn the corner to 3 key takeaways and points of application. And as we do, we’ll continue to tease out the implications of Jesus’s famous words for us today.

Christians are called to be good citizens, who yes, pay their taxes.

Let’s take a look at the first part of Jesus’s answer: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s”

The coin that has Caesar’s image on it, goes back to him. If they use Caesar’s money, they will have to play by Caesar’s rules and pay Caesar’s taxes. In other words, Christians are called to be good citizens who pay their taxes for whatever government they find themselves under.

And so, in a sense, paying our taxes is kind of like playing golf. Where one of the fundamental rules of golf is “play the ball as it lies, grass or sand, rough or divot, play it as it lies.” The same is true with Jesus’s views on taxes. You’ve got to pay your taxes regardless of the circumstances surrounding it.

For example, when Callie and I lived in Washington, we lived under 9% sales tax, and then when we moved to Montana one of the first things we noticed was that there was no sales tax here. Amazing! Yet another thing to love about Montana.

And then came tax time and we were introduced to this thing called income tax, which Washington doesn’t have. Now truth be told, I think I like the no sales tax setup more but truth is, it doesn’t matter what I think! Whether I’m Christian or not, if I want to live in the beautiful place that we call home, I’ve got to play the ball as it lies or in other words, give back to Montana what is Montana’s.

At their very essence and in their best version, taxes are a way of each person sacrificing a bit of their individual good for the common good. And Jesus desires us as Christians to be good citizens seeking peace and prosperity wherever we live.

And yet all of this raises an interesting and important question. What should we do if our government is mismanaging the money that it’s entrusted with? Should we still give our taxes then?

After all, isn’t this how we feel when the political party that we don’t identify with is in power? Or isn’t this how many of us felt or feel when all the roads around downtown Dillon were a hot mess and had and have these nice Zebra stripes right down the middle? Wasn’t that the narrative, “Look at our tax dollars hard at work.” Should we still pay our taxes then?

Well, believe it or not, yes! Because consider this: Whatever you believe about our government, the Jewish people under Roman rule had it far, far worse as their tax dollars were likely not going towards infrastructure in Israel, but rather in Rome. Now, how’s that for corruption? And yet, even still, Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Christians are called to be good citizens, who yes, pay their taxes. And if we’re frustrated with how our tax dollars are being stewarded, maybe find ways to influence your local government for good.

For example, on Friday, Callie and the boys and I went to the state capitol in Helena where they were having a “Have a Heart for Kids” day. It was an opportunity for Callie and many others who work in the early childhood world to share stories and advocate for things like childcare to be both more available and more affordable here in Montana and to raise wages for child care workers. Doing so not only is a win for individual families, but even more, when you make space for more people to enter the workforce, the economy wins, communities win, everyone wins. Anyway, after the service, I would encourage you to ask Callie about Helena on Friday.

Christians are called to be good citizens, who yes, pay their taxes.

That’s the first takeaway, and here’s the second:

Obedience to God and government are neither mutually exclusive nor one and the same.

Again, notice what Jesus says here. His words here come with great intention and careful precision.

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus’s words here show that obedience to God and government are not mutually exclusive. It’s not necessary to choose one or the other here because you can in fact obey God and obey your governing authorities at the same time.

After all, it is Jesus who said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” In other words, we are obeying God when we pay our taxes. We are obeying God when we submit ourselves to the governing authorities in our midst.

For example, when the police sirens flash behind you, signaling you to pull over, when you do so, you’re not simply obeying the governing authorities in your midst, you are obeying God himself. Obedience to the two are not mutually exclusive.

And yet, that said, once again this raises yet another interesting and important question. What should we do when our government is corrupt? Should we still obey our government when our government demands that we disobey God?

Well, this is where Jesus’s answer is so brilliant. It’s got a built in pressure release valve, an exception clause of sorts just for this very sort of thing.

When Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” he fully recognizes that though sometimes there is overlap between the two, that they are nevertheless two distinct categories and that they are not in fact one and the same.

Jesus could have very well said “Give back to Caesar what is God’s, and to God what is Caesar.” As if the two, God and government, church and state, faith and politics were one in the same, as if the two were simply interchangeable categories that happen to always be working in harmony together.

But no, instead he distinguishes the two, saying, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Though rare in America today, there are instances where our obedience to the government is in conflict with obedience to God. Martin Luther King Jr.’s demonstrations of civil disobedience are one example. Or consider Desmond Tutu under South African apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu was once asked by a journalist, “How long do you intend to go on defying the South African government?” With a gentle smile, the Archbishop replied, “We are not defying anyone. We are simply trying to obey God.”

And so all this said, maybe with this second takeaway, it might be worth reflecting on, what might be an example, past, present, or future, where obeying the government would demand disobedience to God? And would you be willing to go disobey the government if it came to it? What might it look like to be dual citizens (if you will)?

Obedience to God and government are neither mutually exclusive nor one and the same.

That’s the second takeaway. Now here’s the third, and we’ll finish with this:

Our ultimate obedience belongs to God

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

It’s an answer that raises a simple, yet important question. Ok, what exactly belongs to Caesar and what exactly belongs to God? How might we begin to understand those two categories?

Well, as for Caesar, what belongs to him and the governing authorities of our day? We could come up with a short list: Respect, honor, taxes. All good and important things.

And yet, what exactly belongs to God? Well, here we’ll finish where we started, with the kids' message. When Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that coin?” he’s saying more than we might think because that word image should catch our attention.

The logic here is give back to Caesar what bears Caesar’s image and give back to God what bears God’s image.

And what exactly bears God’s image? What out there in our world has been made in the image of God?

We have. And so to give to God what is God’s means nothing short of giving him our very selves, our very lives. We give to God our time, our bodies, our relationships, our schedule, our money, our possessions, our thoughts, our words, our actions. We give it all to God.

As one writer put it, when the spies were trying to trap Jesus with this question on a Tuesday, they were trying to put him in danger of losing either his popularity with the crowds or his life itself. And by Friday, he’d lose both. We can give it all to God because we rest in knowing that Jesus gave it all for us.

So friends, what might obedience to God look like for you in the week ahead? What of ours ultimately belongs to him?

May we sing and continue to sing,

“Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee”

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