What is the Christian's Duty in Relation to Human Government? Part Two
We’re giving consideration to what Jesus said about a Christian’s relationship with and responsibility to human government. Continue reading . . .
We’re giving consideration to what Jesus said about a Christian’s relationship with and responsibility to human government. The passage is one with which all of us are quite familiar.
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar's.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)
The particular “tax” in view was the poll tax, only one of many (land, real estate, export/import, crop tax = one-tenth of grain crop and one-fifth of the wine, fruit and oil, income tax, taxes on the use of a road, taxes on entrance into a town, taxes on animals, a salt tax, sales tax, taxes on the transfer of property, etc.). But the “poll” tax was the most burdensome of all. It was payable yearly.
We clearly see from vv. 15-16 that it is impossible to ensnare Jesus! You can’t blind-side him. He saw through their façade of cooperation and knew what their motives were for asking. He recognized their faint praise as nothing more than empty and manipulative flattery.
The denarius coin had a “heads” and “tails”, like ours today. On one side was an engraving or image of Tiberius, emperor of Rome, with the inscription: Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus. Since Augustus claimed to be the son of god, all Caesars subsequent to him laid claim to being divine as well.
On the other side was an image of the mother of Tiberius sitting on a throne in priestly robes with the inscription: Pontif(ex) Maxim(us) = high priest.
The coin was particularly upsetting to the Jews, for three reasons: (1) It represented the oppressive political policies of Rome. (2) The image of Tiberius violated the 2nd commandment of Moses. (3) It was a blasphemous claim to be divine.
Thus the dilemma appears obvious: If he should endorse, without qualification, the use of this coin to pay taxes in support of a pagan, foreign oppressor like Rome, he stands to lose face among the Jewish people. But if he says, No, you shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar with this coin or any other, he stands to lose his life at the hands of the Romans as a subversive anarchist.
How long do you think Jesus paused between the two halves of his response? No doubt the Herodians smiled with arrogant pleasure when they heard the first half of our Lord’s reply. The Pharisees were no doubt squirming. But then he adds, “Render to God the things that are God’s” and the joy of both Pharisees and Herodians turned to frustration and confusion!
The verb translated “render” means to pay back; it has in view a debt that is owed. What Jesus is commanding, then, isn’t optional. Payment of taxes to Caesar was both legal and morally obligatory. “Yes,” says Jesus, “you do have an allegiance to the state.”
Note well. Jesus doesn’t qualify his statement by saying: “Pay taxes to Caesar, but only if they are used to advance biblical and moral purposes,” or “Pay taxes to Caesar, unless they are used for obviously immoral and unbiblical purposes.”
Does this help us answer the question: What should we as Christians do when our taxes are used to subsidize and support obviously unbiblical and immoral laws or actions? Yes, it does. Jesus was well aware of the immoral lifestyle of the Caesars. He knew about the corruption and cruelty and barbarism and sexual immorality of the Roman proconsuls and governors and prefects. He lived during a time when the Jewish people were being oppressed and exploited. He was aware that Rome was invading foreign countries without provocation and subjecting the citizens of those countries to tyranny and slavery. Yet he insisted that his followers pay their taxes.
So what do we do when we discover that our tax dollars are being used to subsidize abortions? What should we do when our tax dollars are given to pay for works of so-called “art” that blaspheme Jesus and promote sexual perversion? What should we do when our tax dollars are used to support political regimes around the world that likewise endorse unbiblical practices and perhaps even persecute and imprison Christians? The simple answer: Pay them!
Remember: The government to which Jesus says his followers must pay taxes is the same government that in only a few days will unlawfully torture and execute the Son of God by crucifixion. Jesus doesn’t say: “You are justified in not paying your taxes because that money is going to be used to support and pay for a judicial system that will soon commit the most heinous and unimaginable crime of murder in human history.”
But there is a flip side to Jesus’ response. We must render to God what belongs to God, and everything belongs to God! Jesus is not endorsing a divide or separation between the secular and the sacred, as if to suggest we owe allegiance to the state in material things and allegiance to God in spiritual things.
All things, everything, whether material or spiritual, belongs to God. Even paying taxes to Caesar / U. S. government, is itself a spiritual duty, an act of Christian obedience. If you fail to pay every dollar of tax you owe to the government, you are in sin. You are in rebellion against God and you will answer to him one day for your disobedience. And No, you cannot try to wiggle out of your responsibility by pointing to all the policies of the U. S. government with which you disagree.
What Jesus is saying, then, is that whereas the government does indeed have a right to assess and collect taxes, it has no right to demand worship or religious homage.
Therefore, Jesus endorsed the legitimacy of the pagan state when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But he insisted that our ultimate allegiance is to God with the second half of that statement. He commanded obedience to the state but undermined its final or ultimate authority.
We should do what Caesar says because God has invested the state with authority. But we should not do everything Caesar says because the authority of the state is subordinate to the authority of God. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” is a subcategory of “Render to God the things that are God’s.” Whatever is Caesar’s is ultimately God’s. In rendering to God the things that are God’s you are honoring his absolute authority over Caesar.
If Caesar says, “Worship Caesar!” we refuse, because Jesus is Lord, not Caesar (see Luke 21:12,16). Caesar thinks that he is due the worship of Christ’s followers. But he is wrong. “Rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s does not include rendering obedience to Caesar’s demand that we not render supreme allegiance to God” (John Piper, 330).
Consider the interaction between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. Jesus said to him at his trial, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). When Jesus told his followers that they must render to God the things that are God’s, the words “the things that are God’s” included Pilate’s authority. It belonged to God and came from God. So whereas on the one hand Jesus acknowledges the legitimacy of human authority, he reminds us that it is not ultimate. It is legitimate, but not absolute. The power and authority of Caesar is from God, but it is not itself God.