Get a Grip on Citizenship

Matthew 22:15-22

With America’s Independence Day celebration just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to look at getting a grip on citizenship and how Christians are to relate to government and country. We’re going to talk about politics and religion today. With America’s Independence Day celebration just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to look at getting a grip on citizenship and how Christians are to relate to government and country. We’re going to talk about politics and religion today.

These days politics and religion are hot topics. Maybe they always have been. It can be wise to avoid bringing these subjects up at social gatherings, because they can make for some very lively conversations. People have strong opinions about these things, and rooms can get heated fast. If you want to see real fireworks, ask about how politics and religion work together. Yet I think it is important to have an understanding of how a follower of Jesus lives out their life in relationship to government. What does God expect from us? What does He want?

If you are a Christian, you know that those of us who know and trust Jesus are described in the New Testament as aliens, exiles, strangers on earth, citizens of heaven, and ambassadors for Christ. We have a dual citizenship working in our lives. So how does a citizen of God’s kingdom conduct himself as a citizen of the nation? Jesus has some great answers for us in Matthew 22.

As you probably know, Jesus had very strong opposition to His earthly ministry. Religious authorities like the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t know what to make of Him. They didn’t particularly like Him. They saw Him as trouble. Other groups, like the Herodians in the story today, were a type of quisling group who worked quietly in the background with the Roman government. They didn’t like Jesus either. He was popular with the people, which worried the authorities. So they were constantly trying to wreck His ministry by questioning Him and challenging His authority. They wanted to destroy Him.

In today’s passage, we find these groups attempting to trick Jesus and make Him look bad. They challenge Him with a question about politics and religion. First of all, notice who it is that brings the question: the Herodians and the Pharisees who didn’t even like each other. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum from one another in terms of agreeing on anything, but they didn’t like Jesus even more. So they got together to knock Jesus off.

They open their approach with some flattery, perhaps to catch Jesus off guard, before they went in for the kill with their question. They describe Him as one with integrity and moral courage, who knows and teaches the ways of God. It’s only sweet talk. But then comes the tough question to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people or to get Him in trouble with the Roman government. “Jesus, is it lawful for us as God’s people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Should we or shouldn’t we pay taxes? Here is where a little background would help.

Paying that tax, which is one of three taxes, was a very sensitive issue of the day for the Jewish people. First of all, they hated Rome because Rome had taken over their land and was pushing them around. They were in subservience to Rome. That was bad enough, but then the Romans insisted on taxing them to keep the infrastructures going. And to make matters worse, the coinage used to pay this poll tax had an image of Caesar on it declaring his divinity and his being a great high priest. It was propaganda that was offensive and blasphemous to the Jewish people who followed the one true God and His command of not making images.

So these opponents of Jesus, when they brought this question to Him, thought they had Him cornered. If He says to pay the tax, the haters of Rome, which is 99% of the Jewish population, would now view Him as unpatriotic and unfaithful to God, and they would turn on Him. But if He says, don’t pay it, the Roman authorities would say, Destroy Him! Arrest Him for sedition and inciting people to break the law. Well, Jesus, knowing their intent, responds by calling for that very coin used for the tax, a silver Roman denarius. He knew what was on it. He also knew these people were hypocrites. They would have one – this unclean coinage. They were using it.

Then He asked, “Whose head, whose inscription is on this coin?” Whose portrait is there? Who does this coin belong to? It’s Caesar’s. Then His statement: Give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s and give to God what’s God’s. End of conversation. They’re amazed. Jesus has escaped their intentions. They left Him and went their way to plot for the next round.

But there’s more to Jesus’ statement than mere intellectual and witty debating skills. His statement lays the foundation for the Christian perspective on exercising one’s citizenship. We are going to look at principles found in these words for those of us who are citizens of God’s kingdom.

Jesus is telling us, first of all, to be a responsible, good citizen where you are. Pay the tax.

William Barclay, a Bible scholar I look up to, writes, “Every Christian has a double citizenship. He is a citizen of the country of the world in which he happens to live. To that country he owes many things. He owes the safety against lawless men, which only settled government can give. He owes all public services to the state. The Christian has a duty to the nation for the privileges the nation brings to him.”

Jesus seems to be implying here that respect and honor is due to the authority of the government as He recognizes Caesar’s authority. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Actually, it makes sense. It is possible to see government as a gift. It keeps things together, holds things together. We need law and order. Modern day Egypt is an example of what can happen when anarchy rules. What a mess!

Paul picks up on the theme Jesus gives us in Romans 13:1. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Government is God’s idea. In I Timothy 2:1-2 Paul says, “First, I urge that supplications, prayers, and intercessions, thanksgivings be made for all people, for Kings, and for all who are in high positions that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Pray for those in authority, Paul says, that they may maintain order and uphold the law so we can live peacefully. Jesus seems to be saying as well that allegiance to God and government is not necessarily incompatible.

It is possible to show allegiance to a lesser authority because that authority has been instituted by a higher authority to whom we always answer first – God. So it is possible to be a good Christian and a good American simultaneously. Patriotism is a good thing as long as it doesn’t become idolatry, putting things above God. We are reminded in this passage that God and government are overlapping – yet distinct – spheres. Jesus talks about both of them as realities.

When Jesus came into this world and opened His ministry, He said, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” Later, as He was standing trial, Pilate says, What have you done that these people are so angry with you? Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” I’m not what they expected. Jesus didn’t come to establish a new earthly government, a theocracy. He came to establish God’s kingdom, a new reality.

We know that one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God. Until then, we have these distinct, overlapping spheres. Jesus is Lord, but His reign will come in its fullness at the end of the age. While we wait for that great day to happen, you and I live as responsible citizens where God has placed us – obeying the laws, serving our nation, participating and making it work. But always with this in mind: the state is not God.

Jesus is saying that too. These two kingdoms are not one in the same. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s. The state, the government is not God. It is not divine. Human government is run by human beings and can easily be influenced by sin and greed. It is corrupt and less-than-perfect. It’s not divine.

The final implication, then, is that God and state are not equals, according to Jesus. We declare as much in the Pledge of Allegiance. We are one nation under God. We owe our ultimate allegiance, our very lives to God. So when we talk of love of God and country, and duty to God and country, we remember that as followers of Christ we keep that order – God and country. The power of the state is legitimate but it is limited. It’s not God. We are bound to His will ultimately over everything else. We see that played out in the New Testament. Peter and John were told by the authorities not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But they replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (Acts 4).

Recently I was watching a movie about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great Christian martyr during World War II, and his involvement with trying to get rid of the evil leader, Adolf Hitler. During his interrogation, he quoted Romans 13, about submitting to the authorities. Bonhoeffer’s conscience was bound to a higher power. He held his own. His higher power was God.

Martin Luther King said the Church must be reminded that it’s not the master or the servant of the state but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, never its tool. God, then country. Giving God His due is always more important to the Christian than giving Caesar his due. Why can I say that? Because remember, Jesus asked, “Whose portrait is on this coin?” They said, “Caesar’s,” which means it belonged to Caesar. That word portrait is literally image, the Greek word icon. “Then give back what belongs to Caesar the things that are his – the coin, the honor, the respect due.” Interestingly enough, the word image is used the same word used to describe God creating human beings. “In His own image” (Genesis 1:27). We belong to Him. God’s image is on you and me. So when Jesus says give back to God what is His, He’s talking about YOU! Your whole self, all of you. He demands it all. A life of worship and devotion. Give back the coin that bears Caesar’s image. Give it back to Caesar, Jesus says. You bear God’s image! Give yourself back to God, holding nothing from Him.

I love this statement: “If it is an offense to withhold taxes from the United States treasury, how much more offensive is it to withhold what should be rendered to the One who made you, from the King of the universe, the One whose image is stamped upon you? You might be able to hide a few things from the IRS, but you cannot hide from God. You belong to Him. Give God all of who you are. He wants you. He came after you as His own, to bring you home to Himself when you were lost in your sinfulness. He gave His perfect, obedient Son to die on a cross to pay the penalty for your sins. Give yourself over to Christ. Come home to God.”

I would also say this: if you are in Christ, you been bought with a price. His inscription is written all over you. You are a free child of God. In response to that gift, use your life to His honor, loving Him above all things, loving Him with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
When you think about it, this statement of Jesus was His personal platform from which He operated Himself. His program of obedience as a citizen of the kingdom honoring God and government. However, His ultimate allegiance was carrying out the will of God, even being willing to go to a cross to save the likes of you and me. Wow!

God, then country. Keep that order. Be a responsible citizen of this great land in which we live. But remember where your ultimate allegiance lies – with the One who made you in His image and redeemed you through His Son Jesus Christ. May His will be done in our lives and in this country. God owns you. His image is on you. You have been bought for eternity.

Give the government (Caesar) the coins, the respect, and the service that is due. But give God yourself without boundaries.

God and country – in that order. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer