(A) Introduction. Read: Luke20v20to26

This passage contains one of the famous sayings of Jesus, the enigmatic: "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." Lk20v25. There have been innumerable interpretations of this phrase. (See Wikipedia article on, 'Render to Caesar ... .') I will not spend too much time on this!

(B) A cruel purpose.

(1) A common hatred.

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. Mt22v15.

A common hatred of Jesus united bitter political opponents: the Pharisees and Herodians. The Pharisees were fiercely nationalistic, proud of their Jewishness and despised the uncircumcised Gentiles who occupied their country. They hated Jesus because he exposed their hypocrisy, formalism, legalism and greed.

The Herodians commenced as a party when the Romans appointed their puppet, Herod the Great, to be king of the Jews. They came to accept the benefits of collaborating with the Romans. The Herodians hated Jesus because they feared he would provoke a popular uprising that the Romans would put down and then by way of retaliation take away such political power as the Sanhedrin exercised. The Herodians included Sadducees like the High Priest Caiaphas.

All through the centuries a common hatred of Christianity has united political opponents. It is a strange thing that British secularists speak on behalf of minority faiths in an effort to squeeze Christianity out of public life. Some left leaning liberals seem almost sympathetic to Muslims. Lawrence Auster posted this comment on the internet about the liberal media:

“Anti-Muslim bigotry” cry The New York Times and The Washington Post about conservative Christians who have been pointing out the militaristic emphasis of the Koran and questioning the holiness of Muhammed’s character. Yet, as Marvin Olasky reminds us, these noble newspapers, so worried about any possible offense to Islam, have not exactly been concerned about gross insults to Christianity. When an artist painted a picture of Mary using elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines and had it displayed at the Brooklyn Museum, the Times called it “witty ... attractive ... colorful and glowing. The first impression it makes, before you decipher the little (porn) cutouts, is that it’s cheerful, even sweet.” And the Washington Post said of Terrance McNally’s play “Corpus Christi” which portrayed Jesus as a homosexual: “What’s wrong with letting individuals decide what they want to see?” |

(2) A despicable aim.

The aim of Jesus' opponents was to provoke him into saying something that would justify an arrest and a trial before Pilate. They sought to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. Lk20v20. It seems from this that the Pharisees hoped Jesus would oppose paying taxes to Caesar. The Jews wanted rid of Jesus and they were desperately keen that Pilate, the Roman Governor, should do their dirty work. We know that Christ's opponents succeeded in the end by making up charges including one of refusing to pay taxes to Caesar. See Lk23v2.

(3) Unprincipled behaviour.

Of the two groups the Pharisees, the religious party, were most guilty of unprincipled behaviour. I believe they invited the Herodians to join them because they thought Jesus would oppose paying a tax to Caesar. The collaborationist party would then be sure to report Jesus to Pilate. The Pharisees were quite willing for this to happen even though they resented paying the tax themselves. They would do anything to get rid of Jesus.

Matthew described the behaviour of Christ's enemies as evil, Mark as hypocritical and Luke as duplicious. Their action was conceived with evil intent, cloaked by hypocrisy and presented with duplicity.

Such marks the actions of Christianities' bitter 21st century opponents. There is no doubt, for example, that atheist authors like Richard Dawkins are given plenty of free publicity by the media. Natural History programs are presented by the likes of Richard Attenborough with the tacit assumption that a creator does not exist. Christians are very rarely portrayed sympathetically in TV drama. Scientists are allowed to present programs as if theirs is the only truth and they never make mistakes.

(C) A crafty plan.

(1) Unexpected praise.

"Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are." Mt22v16.

This is not exactly flattery because what Jesus' enemies said was actually true! Jesus was a man of integrity and taught the truth without fear or favour.

Sometimes those who recognise our virtues don't necessarily value them. The Jewish politicians were not men of integrity. A majority were like the high priest, Caiaphas, who said of Jesus: "You do not realise that it is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." Jn11v50.

When I retired my headmaster kindly wrote that I was a teacher of honour and integrity. He didn't always appreciate my integrity!

(2) A political hot potato.

The delegation of Pharisees and Herodians questioned Jesus on a political hot potato. They asked: "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Lk20v22. This was a topic everyone had strong views about. The Jews were required to pay a poll tax of 1 denarius a year to Rome. This was not a huge sum - something like £60. However it was disliked. People don't enjoy paying taxes especially to an occupying power whose rule is resented.

(3) A ruse.

The composition of the delegation suggested that a ruling was honestly desired. It contained the two parties whose views on the subject were at variance. The Pharisees were against paying the tax and the Herodians in favour. So it seemed as if the representatives from the different political parties were asking Jesus for a decision on who was right. However, the question was a ruse. The Pharisees in particular just wanted to catch Jesus out. At best they would put him in the wrong with the Romans and at worst destroy his reputation with the Jewish rank and file.

(4) A simplistic response demanded.

The delegation posed its question in such a way as to demand an answer: yes or no. We have all heard journalists on the radio or TV do the same. They say, "Just answer the question: yes or no!"

However, the question asked Jesus was not one to which a yes or no answer could be given. Many of the questions the world poses Christians cannot be answered briefly or simply. For example: Why does God permit suffering? Why does God allow earthquakes? Why do people have to believe in Jesus to be saved? Why doesn't God save everyone?

(D) A convincing pronouncement.

In response Jesus delivers:

(1) A stinging rebuke.

Jesus said to his opponents: "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?" Mt22v18.

There was nothing mealy mouthed about Jesus. He hated the rank stench of hypocrisy and always denounced it. Nor should Christians be fearful of denouncing it either. Local authority officials who use expressions like 'winter festival' for 'Christmas' and pretend it's to avoid giving offence to members of other faiths are hypocrites because that is not their real motivation. Adherents of other faiths do not object to Christmas! It is the growing number of people of no faith, who find everything and anything to do with Christianity offensive, who want to abolish Christmas from public life.

(2) An object lesson.

An object lesson is a good way to capture attention. I have often used an object like a pair of wicket keeping gloves or a simple tub of Copydex to base a children's address around. See story on the maker's instructions. On Sunday our visiting speaker, Greg Noller, played the themes tunes of, 'The Great Escape,' 'The Godfather' and 'Friends' to emphasise the three important lessons found in Matthew 28. It was surprisingly effective.

So Jesus called for a denarius - a small silver coin minted by the Roman. He said: "Bring me a denarius and let me look at it." Mk12v15. One was readily supplied despite the Pharisees supposed hatred of a coin carrying the image of Tiberius Caesar. To them it was 'unclean money.' The priests would not allow its use in the Temple to buy animals for sacrifice.

Then Jesus asked the key question: "Whose portrait and inscription are on it?" Lk22v24. There was only one answer: "Caesar's." Caesar was responsible for the currency that was accepted throughout the empire and beyond. It was used for trade everywhere and benefitted the economy of Judea. The Jews enjoyed several benefits under Caesar: a reliable currency, good roads, public buildings, improved water supply, law and order, security and so on.

(3) The punch line.

Jesus dumbfounded his critics by saying: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Lk20v25.

This was not just a clever answer to astonish his opponents and leave them speechless. When I was young this is what I used to think! No, Jesus is rather teaching an important lesson. Caesar must be given his due. That is what the Greek means. Something was due to Caesar because the Jews enjoyed the benefits his rule brought. In common justice they should pay a tax for the upkeep of the roads and the maintenance of law and order.

Jesus did not forget God! He, too, must receive his due for all the benefits bestowed upon his people. God's due included: honour, thanksgiving, worship, obedience, prayer and virtue.

(E) A continuing principle.

Jesus pronouncement: "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." has never lost its relevance. I believe this brief response to a difficult question teaches three things:

(1) God must have his due.

This must be the Christian's first priority. Jesus said: "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." Mt6v33. This priority is evident in how the Lord's Prayer begins: "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done."

We must put God's will first for all that he has given us: the world we inhabit, our lives, his word, his son, his Spirit, the fellowship of kindred minds, our salvation and blessed hope of eternal life.

God's will is summarised most succinctly in the Great Commission Jesus gave his disciples: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Mt28v19and20.

Now, if obedience to the Great Commission brings a Christian into conflict with the State, God's will takes priority. When the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, ordered Peter and John to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus they replied: "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard. Acts4v20.

Whenever the State in anyway tries to stop Christians evangelising and worshipping they will inevitably disobey the State at whatever cost. Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Jn14v6. This is a truth Christians have to proclaim however much it might offend others.

(2) It is part of God's will that Christians give the state its due.

Jesus statement about giving Caesar his due is the basis for other Scriptures like 1Pet2v13to15: Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.

Our rulers are part of God's common grace. They are vital for law and order, security, stability, economic activity and the welfare of the weak and vulnerable. Good government contributes enormously to our well being. This being the case we should give our rulers their due. We should show them some respect, obey their laws and pay our taxes. We should even keep laws we find inconvenient and irksome - like all those to do with health and safety!! This is the purport of Jesus teaching: "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." Jesus is referring to the detested Roman practice, sanctioned by law, which gave the army the right to press a man into carrying a load for 1 mile without pay.

Christians must be careful not to illegally avoid paying tax! Few of us are not guilty in some small way of doing this.

(3) The state's responsibility.

According to Jesus the state has two responsibilities:

    (a) To put its citizens under an obligation. If the state does not provide benefits to its citizens what is its due? If a corrupt dictator uses taxes to line his and his toadies pockets and does not deliver services or maintain justice what is his due? A case could be made for withholding taxes from someone like President Mugabe and his henchmen!

    Blind obedience to the state is not justified when the state promotes or permits blatent injustice. Black people in the South of the U.S.A. were justified in performing acts of civil disobedience in the 1960's because of the discriminatory laws that existed. It was wrong for so many of the German people to turn a blind eye to what was happening to the Jews under the Nazis.

    (b) To avoid making it difficult for Christians to give God his due. Sadly through the centuries rulers have made difficulties for God's people. Whenever this happens true believers have no choice but to defy their rulers.

    The Old Testament has stories of those who defied kings. Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego were thrown into a blazing furnace because they would not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's image of gold. Darius cast Daniel into the lion's den because he disobeyed the edict prohibiting prayer for 30 days. We read: Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. Dan6v10.

    Members of the early church suffered because they would not recognise the deity of Caesar. Many Christians (and Jews) refused to offer a sacrifice in honour of Caesar and were persecuted heavily for it. Although actual personal belief in the divinity of Caesar was of little to no importance to Roman authorities, the unwillingness of monotheists to go through the ritual motions was taken as evidence of disloyalty to the Roman Empire.

    In 21st century Britain the state is coming ever closer to coming into conflict with Christians. Public servants like teachers and nurses are prohibited from talking about their faith during the course of their job. I spoke about my beliefs during my 37 years as a teacher - without doing any of my pupils any harm!! It seems as if the present coalition government wants to introduce gay marriages with services conducted in church. I assume this must depend upon church leaders being willing to conduct such marriages. It is but a short step to making it illegal for church leaders to refuse to marry gays.

(G) Conclusion

Jesus gave the shortest possible answer to a difficult question. The marvellous thing is that notwithstanding his brevity Jesus gave the clearest possible guidance to both the church and state about their relationship to one another and to God.

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