“Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to trap Him by what He said. They sent their disciples to Him, with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that You are truthful and teach truthfully the way of God. You defer to no one, for You don’t show partiality. Tell us, therefore, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’”
Trying to trick Him, the self-appointed arbiters of righteousness in His day broached the issue of the relationship between civil government and the sacred. In 1st Century Palestine, the government was that of a foreign power. While there was a fairly high degree at the time of freedom of religion, the Jews resented being part of a Gentile empire, which, as any government does, taxed them for whatever provisions Rome supplied.
But no culture/state wants to be ruled by others. Every nation desires autonomy. In Judea was a rebel faction called zealots who sought the overthrow of Roman occupation by violent means. They hoped to convince Jesus, who was quickly gaining the following of the masses, to not only join them, but also be their “Messiah” and lead them to conquer Rome. He wasn’t so persuaded because overthrowing a political regime was not His mission.
His enemies then sought to use politics as a way to trip Him up and present Him as urging the people to refuse to pay taxes. Now there’s a way to win the approval of the people! But it wasn’t to win the favor of the citizenry that they posed this question to Him. It was to run back to the Roman authorities and charge Jesus with being a revolutionary and have them end His life and with it, His growing movement.
Jesus saw through their scheme. “But perceiving their malice, Jesus said, ‘Why are you testing Me, hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the tax.’ So they brought Him a denarius (a Roman coin). ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ He asked them. ‘Caesar’s,’ they said to Him. Then He said to them, ‘Therefore, give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Not only did Jesus recognize the place of civil, human government to look over the affairs of mankind, He also gave support to the ability of government to impose taxation. Note that when the opportunity arose He did not condemn either Rome or taxes. We know from another story in the Gospels that Jesus was a taxpayer Himself.
At the same time Jesus clearly drew a line. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, in a letter, called it a “wall of separation”. The framers of our Constitution also recognized Jesus’ “line” in the Bill of Rights’ 1st Amendment. Some areas are clearly the domain of the government, especially protecting our freedoms and rights. But others belong to a higher power – the Creator. He is the author of morals, faith, ethics and what we call “personal conscience”.
Jesus’ made it so simple. Give to Caesar (the civil authorities) those things that belong to “him”. Give to God those areas of life that belong to Him. It is when we mix the two or allow one to take over the other that we move away from Christ’s words of wisdom.
The message seems simple. Let the government rule over that which God has given it. After all, government is God’s idea. But don’t allow the government to rule matters of faith and the morals and institutions over which He alone should have control.
And giving back to God the things that are His can be far more difficult a choice than filling out a 1040 and mailing a check.
This article is taken from The Outer Banks Sentinel, April 18, 2012
Rick Lawrenson is the Lead Pastor of Nags Head Church.
Copyright 2012 Rick Lawrenson