What is the Christian's Duty in Relation to Human Government?
I can’t imagine what it would be like or how I would react if I were arrested and thrown in jail for hosting a Bible study in my home. Try to imagine being sentenced to five years in prison simply for sharing your Christian faith with a friend at Starbucks. Let’s be honest and admit that it’s hard to envision such things happening. After all, with few exceptions, it’s easy being a Christian in America (so far). We feel relatively safe and secure and free living for Jesus. Continue reading . . .
I can’t imagine what it would be like or how I would react if I were arrested and thrown in jail for hosting a Bible study in my home. Try to imagine being sentenced to five years in prison simply for sharing your Christian faith with a friend at Starbucks. Let’s be honest and admit that it’s hard to envision such things happening. After all, with few exceptions, it’s easy being a Christian in America (so far). We feel relatively safe and secure and free living for Jesus.
Of course, we should never lose sight of the fact that, tragically, we do live in a country where it is more acceptable for a woman to have a wife than it is to pray in Jesus’ name in a public ceremony. We live in a country, tragically, where spanking children is called into question but it’s legal to abort them!
Nevertheless, the idea of having to choose between loyalty to our God and loyalty to our government probably isn’t one that keeps us awake much at night. The idea of being forced to choose between obedience to our heavenly Lord or obedience to an earthly law is foreign to most of us. But there are Christian men and women who have to make that choice every day of their lives.
For example, we recently dedicated ten infants to the Lord here at Bridgeway. There are countries around the world where that is against the law! Raising your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to use the Apostle Paul’s terms, is forbidden by more than a few governments. There are countries around the world where your refusal to bow down to a particular god or goddess is grounds for imprisonment, perhaps even execution.
It raises the question: What is the Christian’s responsibility to the state? What are we supposed to do when our allegiance to God conflicts with our allegiance to government? What should we do if the state or federal legislature passes laws forbidding small group gatherings or public worship services? These are not academic questions but ones that intimately touch the lives of many believers today, and may well affect us in the days ahead.
The question of a Christian’s allegiance to both God and government was once posed to Jesus. Let’s look at this very familiar but often misunderstood passage:
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)
Just prior to this incident Jesus, to put it mildly, had been raking the religious leaders over the proverbial coals. It all started the day following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem: his judgment against the temple, his cursing of the fig tree as illustrative of the consequences of their religious hypocrisy, his refusal to answer their question about his authority, and the parable of the landowner and the tenants. The religious leaders, to be quite frank, are fed up with this carpenter-turned-itinerant-preacher from Nazareth who now dares to claim that he is Israel’s Messiah. Having been under constant attack from him and having been repeatedly exposed in public as hypocritical, self-serving, power-hungry manipulators, they decide to go on the offensive!
So they start peppering Jesus with questions. Here in Mark 12:13-17 they ask him about the propriety of paying taxes to Caesar. Later in the chapter they will ask him about the resurrection, and then also about the greatest commandment. Scholars have called this the Day of Questions.
All these inquiries by the religious leaders were not designed to gain an understanding of who Jesus is, far less did they actually want answers to the questions they asked. They simply wanted to entrap Jesus (look at v. 13). They wanted to catch him in some public gaffe. They wanted him to slip up verbally so they might have grounds for taking him down. They couldn’t have cared less about the truth. They simply wanted to take him down. Luke’s gospel is even more explicit:
“So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor” (Luke 20:20).
The question of paying taxes to Rome was a burning issue among the Jews in the first century. Times haven’t changed. No one in any age or in any country enjoys paying taxes. The Jews of Jesus’ day were no exception.
I can understand why the Jews resented paying exorbitant taxes to Rome. After all, this was the land God had given to Israel. God alone was Israel’s King. What right does this pagan, Gentile ruler have to demand taxes from Jews? Thus, for the Jews of the first century, paying taxes to Rome was a religious offense.
Their strategy for approaching Jesus is unbelievable! They employ two tactics hoping to ensnare Jesus. First, according to v. 13, “they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians.”
So what, you say? What’s the big deal about that? Simply this. It would be impossible to find two more hostile, politically antithetical, religiously opposite groups than these! You know who the Pharisees are: the religious leaders of Israel, the leaders of the occupied nation, those who suffered under Roman rule and insisted on the strict observance of all OT Mosaic laws. The Herodians, on the other hand, were staunch allies of Rome. They had received various high political appointments in the government. The Pharisees resented the Herodians and looked upon them as oppressive and pagan. The Herodians hated the Pharisees and looked upon them as religious fanatics and a constant social nuisance.
This would be somewhat similar to the ACLU joining forces with the Tea Party! It would be like members of the Ku Klux Klan seeking partnership with the NAACP!
So why this partnership? Isn’t it obvious? If Jesus should fall into their trap by objecting to the paying of taxes to the state, the Herodian Roman sympathizers would serve as credible witnesses against him. The Pharisees were known to be enemies of Roman rule, so no one in the government would believe their testimony. But the presence of the Herodians solved this problem. So the Pharisees enlist them to aid in setting a trap for Jesus. It’s really quite stunning: people who otherwise disagree on virtually everything from politics to religion unite in their hatred for Jesus!
If Jesus had said, “Yes, pay the tax,” and simply left it at that, the Herodians would have been thrilled but the Pharisees and most of the Jewish population would have been enraged. If he had said, “No, don’t pay the tax,” and simply left it at that, he would have pleased the Pharisees and the people but angered the Herodians.
So, they think that by their question they have put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma from which he can’t escape. They have cornered him, forcing him to take side for God and against government, or for government and against God. It seemed to be the perfect trap.
And to make it even better, the other element in their strategy is flattery: “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” (v. 14a).
Their description of Jesus’ personal integrity and theological insight is, of course, quite true. But they didn’t believe a word of it. They try to butter him up by acknowledging that he’s an independent thinker beholden to none but God. “You are your own man, Jesus, and we respect you for that.” Baloney! They are hoping that Jesus’ ego is sufficiently inflated by their praise that he will let down his guard and walk straight into their trap.
To be continued . . .