The Christian and the State


Mark 12:13-17

Remember, we are in a series of conversations the Lord had during the Passion Week with Jewish clerics and elders, they trying to trap him in some reply he would offer to their trick questions – like reporters still try to do today – and he turning the tables on them again and again. Within the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, were found Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, or teachers of the law. Beginning with the paragraph we are reading this morning, each of these groups separately will try to trap Jesus in respect to some matter of particular interest to that group: the Pharisees on the question of taxation and patriotism, the Sadducees on the question of the resurrection (which they didn’t believe in), and the scribes on the proper interpretation of the law.

Text Comment

v.13

The “they” who sent this delegation to Jesus is presumably the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees detested the Herodians – supporters of the Herodian dynasty – as a rule, regarding them as virtual traitors because the Herods had made peace with Rome and willingly accommodated Roman influences in Judea, something that deeply offended the Pharisees with their concern for ritual and national purity. But this is a case of the enemy of my enemy being my friend.

v.14

Their insincere compliment, meant to put him at ease and make it more likely he would let down his guard and say something incriminating, is ironic because, of course, it was a perfectly accurate description of Jesus.

v.15

Conversations about paying Roman taxes must have occurred many times every day. It was galling enough to be conquered by the Romans, but to have to pay taxes to fund the occupation of their country and the other business of the empire was a source of abiding bitterness. The question was meant to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma: if he said “No,” he would be in trouble with the Romans; if he said “Yes,” he would be discredited in the eyes of the people who resented the tax.

v.16

There may be some irony intended in the fact that Jesus did not have a coin for the payment of the Roman tax and had to ask for one and they had one to give him.

The imperial poll tax, a tax paid by every Jew, was the tax most offensive to patriotic Jews. When it was first imposed, more than twenty years before, it had become the occasion for a revolt which, though quickly stamped out, became the rallying cry for subsequent patriotic movements. Judas the Galilean, who had led the revolt, Josephus tells us, had accused his countrymen of being cowards for being willing to pay tribute to the Romans and for putting up with mortal masters in the place of God. The tax amounted to a denarius, the average daily wage of a laborer. It apparently had to be paid in Roman currency. The Roman denarius was in those days a silver coin bearing on one side the bust of Tiberius and the inscription in an abbreviated form: Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus, and on the other side an image of Tiberius’ mother, Livia, and the inscription, Pontifex Maximus, high priest. So the coins were an affront to Jewish religious sensibilities for two reasons: they bore a graven image and ascribed to that image a divine status.

v.17

As one commentator wisely summarizes this exchange: “If they did not take the question seriously, he insisted on doing so, and nothing in the gospels speaks more eloquently of the robust quality of his mind than his ability, in the momentary exchange of controversy, to enunciate a principle which has proved to be the basis of all future discussion of the problem of church and state.” [G.B. Caird, Luke, 222]

The word the NIV translates “give” means “to pay what is owing.” The use of the word is an acknowledgement that there are some things that are due to Caesar. [Morris, Matthew, 557]

The Lord in a single brief statement acknowledges the legitimacy of human government – even of pagan government – and, affirming that there are duties that man owes directly to God, denies that human government has any absolute or unqualified authority over human life. “Fear God, honor the king,” is how Peter puts the same principle in 1 Peter 2:17. But, of course, as any Bible reader knows, in such a statement God comes first. One honors the king or gives to Caesar only insofar as one can do so in loyalty to God. And so the disciples, when commanded to cease and desist from the work Jesus called them to do, would later tell the authorities, “We must obey God rather than men.” Still, the obligations we owe to God and those we owe to the state are not to be set over against one another as if they were incompatible. Both ordinarily may be maintained at the same time.

I come from a patriotic family. My father served in both the Second World War and the Korean War. My brother recently retired as a Major General in the U.S. Air Force and is now running for Congress in Colorado. One brother-in-law served in the army, both as an infantry officer in Vietnam and later as a chaplain. My father, as president of Covenant Theological Seminary, once told our Bob Case, then a student at the seminary, that he didn’t care for his tennis shoes because they were patterned after the American flag and he thought that a kind of sacrilege.

In the days of my youth there was nothing uneasy about the relationship between the American church and the American state. People, even politicians, still spoke naturally about the United States as a Christian country and there was the expectation that the institutions of our land would continue to support Christian morality and always maintain as a sacred duty the freedom of the church to undertake its mission in the world. In those days it was almost universally true that American churches would have an American flag somewhere on prominent display in the front of the sanctuary. They might have the Christian flag as well – an obnoxious wannabee – but it was the American flag that mattered there in the front, beside and behind the pulpit and the table. We were an American church and proud of it!

As an aside, in case you never heard, the so-called Christian Flag is a modern invention. There is no such thing as a Christian flag in any historic sense. I imagine that Christian people have often thought that the flag hanging in the front of their sanctuary was the very flag Constantine carried into battle against Maxentius outside the gates of Rome in A.D. 312 or that crusaders carried aloft as they stormed Jerusalem. But it is not so. What is called “The Christian Flag,” was first conceived on September 26, 1897, in Brighton Chapel on Coney Island. The superintendent of a Sunday school, Charles C. Overton, was forced to give an impromptu lecture to the gathered students, because the scheduled speaker had failed to arrive for the event. Overton saw an American flag in the front of the chapel. Drawing on that flag for inspiration, he gave a speech asking the students what a flag representing Christianity would look like.
Overton thought about his improvised speech for many years afterward. In 1907, he and Ralph Diffendorfer, secretary of the Methodist Young People’s Missionary Movement, designed and began promoting the flag. No Christians anywhere else in the world have ever heard of a Christian Flag. But in America it was thought that if we had a Christian flag opposite it would certainly be appropriate to have an American flag. But make no mistake, the American flag was the flag that mattered; there was one in almost every church, and its presence reflected the very comfortable relationship between church and state that existed for generations in our land.
Then came the upheavals of the sixties and their horrific aftermath in American culture and political culture. And suddenly we Christians find ourselves looking at the American state as in many respects a sinister force, very likely in time to prove itself an outright enemy of our faith, as it has already begun to prove itself an outright enemy of our morals. A Christian landlord can no longer refuse to rent to a homosexual couple; his moral offense counted as nothing against the modern state’s sensibilities regarding sexual ethics. In California, as of last week, it remains unclear whether Christian parents will continue to be allowed to homeschool their children without direct state control of the education. And on and on. Abortion and euthanasia, pornography and indecency, gambling, the disintegration of marriage: the state is often now found protecting, even promoting it all.

We are in the political season. And it increasingly appears that whomever we elect as our next president, he or she will be a child of the sixties, a hippie in the ethical and philosophical sense. I am not making a political judgment, only a theological one. And in all likelihood, the American state will continue to move in a direction likely to make it more an adversary of the believing Christian church. It is the bold man or woman who prophesies to the contrary, the signs being what they are.

And while I am hopeful that in fact it was more a careful thinking about the issue, it was more the recovery of a knowledge of the church’s past, it was more the result of thoughtful reflection on the Lord’s teaching in Holy Scripture about the place of human government and its relation to the kingdom of God, I realize that it may well be largely due to a growing disenchantment with American political institutions that so many Christian churches no longer have American flags in their sanctuaries. Not all churches, by any means; not all Presbyterian Church in American congregations by any means. But it is a fact that the American flag has been removed from large numbers of churches of many denominations all over our nation. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Surely the sanctuary of a Christian church, its worship and its preaching, do not belong to Caesar! The flag of a single, particular country, secular and indifferent to God, does not belong beside the furniture of the one, holy, catholic church: font, table, and pulpit.

Suddenly even American evangelicals are reading carefully the Barmen declaration, written for the Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Synod in 1934, to respond to the extravagant claims of authority over life and thought being then increasingly made and the overt hostility being expressed by the German government of Adolf Hitler.

“Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.”

Once again, there is the acknowledgement of the rightful authority of the state and the Christian’s obligation to submit to it, even to a government that rules in many ways foolishly and unjustly. Yes! the Lord Jesus said in no uncertain terms that they ought to pay the Roman tax. Rome had conquered the Jews. They were an occupying power. Jewish tax money was being used to pay for any number of things that Jews rightfully believed to be wrong. But Jesus paid his taxes and ordered us to pay ours. Let’s be clear about what we are being taught here. If our American coins no longer bore the inscription “In God We Trust” and were instead inscribed with atheistic or pagan slogans, if our government began officially to favor non-Christian religions and to persecute Christians for their faith, if our tax money were being used to pull down churches and erect temples to man or to pagan gods, if our tax money were being used to finance abortions, we would still have to pay our taxes, and we would be obliged to pay them precisely because we are followers of Jesus Christ! Some of the tax money Jesus himself paid went to build pagan temples around the empire!

And with that viewpoint the rest of the Bible expresses its agreement, as for example Paul in Romans 13:1-7, where he commands Christians to submit to the magistrate, even when that magistrate was the imperial government that had already imprisoned Paul more than once for his work as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Some years ago the then archbishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, refused to pay some of his taxes because he did not want to support America’s role in the arms race with the Soviet Union. Most of us had little sympathy with the archbishop because we did not agree with his politics. But, much more important for the evaluation of the actions of a Christian minister, his approach was profoundly unbiblical. The taxes the Jews paid to Rome and that Jesus commanded them to pay supported nothing more nor less than the first century version of the arms race. The archbishop was not giving to Caesar what was Caesar’s, which is precisely what our Lord and Master commanded us to do.

But, the Lord did not stop there. He also said that we must “give to God what is God’s.” That second statement, or the second half of his reply, was fully as radical, indeed much more so, than the first. As offended as the Jews may have been by the Lord’s categorical requirement that they pay the hated Roman tax, he also with a few words simply swept away the pretensions of the Roman emperors. There is a God, the living and true God, and he is not the silly, little men who occupied Caesar’s throne in Rome or the thrones of client kings such as Herod Antipas in Galilee.

As we often do not appreciate the full implications of the first half of the Lord’s remark, so we can fail to appreciate the breathtaking implications of the second half: “give to God what is God’s.” With those seemingly innocent and innocuous words, the Lord Christ as much as wrote the death sentences of untold thousands of his followers and committed vast multitudes more to great suffering and sorrow.

Jesus himself paid his taxes and paid them to the full; but he categorically refused to give to the government – either the Jewish government or the Roman – his obedience when it ordered him to do what his Father forbad or when it demanded that he disobey the will of his Father in heaven. He went to the cross, in part, because of that refusal.

Justin, who lived in the middle of the second century, wrote a famous Apology or defense of Christianity in which he countered accusations, frequently made in those days, that Christians were disloyal to the state; that they made bad citizens. “No,” wrote Justin. He said that the truth was the very opposite of what was being alleged. There are not more obedient, loyal, hard-working, productive citizens in all the empire than the Christians. These are the people, he said, who, of all the people in the world, live peaceable lives and can be counted on to obey the laws. He went on to say that Christians always pay their taxes with exemplary faithfulness, something that could not be said of the ordinary run of citizens in that day. The empire, Justin said, would run far more smoothly if only there were more Christians rather than less.

Well, as it happened, it was not long afterward that Justin was himself dragged into a Roman court accused of being a Christian. His accuser was apparently a rival teacher of philosophy who was jealous of Justin’s popularity and success. Six other Christians – apparently disciples of Justin – appeared with him in the dock. The judge was looking to find them guilty. Trials were often political affairs in those days. The judge commanded the accused to sacrifice to the state gods. They refused. The judge, who was well-known as something of a bully, questioned Justin about his beliefs, but the contempt in his voice made it clear that it was only a show. When he could learn no more about the Christians’ beliefs, he came to the point.

He asked each man in turn if he were a Christian. Each acknowledged that he was. Some were the children of Christian parents and had been Christians from their infancy. Others were converts to the faith in their adulthood. Most if not all of them had been taught by Justin. They were not all clever, but none of them wavered. They were threatened with flogging and with execution. Jeering, the judge asked Justin if he thought he would ascend to heaven. “I don’t think so,” Justin replied, “I know and am fully convinced of it.”

After one last but equally fruitless attempt to get them to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, the judge condemned them all to death by beheading. And so it was that Justin received the name by which he has been known throughout history: Justin Martyr.

Now isn’t it interesting and isn’t it also revealing and important that Justin loyally paid his taxes to the government that murdered him. He paid his taxes that built the temples for those state gods, that paid the craftsmen to build the idols that he and his six friends were commanded to worship. But worship those same gods themselves they would not, no matter that their refusal cost them their lives.

Don’t underestimate the implications of the Lord’s short sentence: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God’s what is God’s.” It makes Christians loyal citizens and martyrs at one and the same time. It is a way of thinking about what it means to be a Christian, to love and trust the Lord and to serve him in this world. Will we pay our taxes? The Lord sets up governments; they rule at his pleasure; and in that way our taxes are paid to him. But will we always be ready to give God his due? Will we offer our obedience to him no matter the sacrifice, the sorrow, the loss, the pain that such obedience, such loyalty may cost us?

I can’t help but ask these questions of myself. And as I look out over this congregation, I can’t help but ask myself if you will all stand fast if the hour of testing comes upon you. Will your children after you? Storm clouds are gathering. They may, in God’s good pleasure, dissipate and we may enjoy a new day of the Holy Spirit’s power. But, then again, we may not. We may suffer what a great many other Christians have suffered throughout history and in our own day elsewhere in the world.

When, at the end of the trial, the judge threatened Justin saying, “Unless you obey my commands you will suffer tortures without mercy,” Justin replied, “We desire nothing more than to suffer for our Lord Jesus Christ; for this gives us salvation and joy before his dreadful judgment seat, at which all the world must appear.” [Church Leaders in Primitive Times, 76]

Justin paid his taxes and gave up his life for the same reason. He wished to serve and please the Lord; he wished to do God’s will. We pay taxes, we obey the laws, all the laws as God has commanded us, until that moment when we are required to do what God forbids or forbidden to do what God commands. There is something very prosaic and ordinary about a faithful Christian life: he or she is a faithful payer of taxes, even taxes that are being put to silly or wicked use. It is for them an act of Christian devotion. But there is, at the same time, something wonderfully extravagant about a faithful Christian life: he or she will give up anything and everything for the sake of loyalty to God and Christ. There is the visible and the invisible, the worldly and the other-worldly, the ordinary and the extraordinary in every true Christian life. Every Christian is to be both: the faithful citizen and the martyr for God. In the world, but not of the world. That is because our Savior said that we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. It is a philosophy of life that he has given us. Something to do and to be every day of our lives.

Whether one is a tax-payer, or a tax collector; a citizen or an officer of the government, a civilian or a soldier – all entirely honorable positions for a Christian to hold and positions Christians in vast numbers have held from the beginning – the fact that one is a follower of Jesus Christ always alters the motivation and the approach. Christians are strangers in this world. They have no wish to destroy or harm the world, but rather to heal it, but they will always disturb it because they cannot be integrated into any world system. They must always remain an exception in the world because of their loyalty to Christ, to the one who stands above the world and outside the world. [Hans van Campenhausen, “Christians and Military Service in the Early Church,” Tradition and Life in the Church, 166] A Christian’s loyalty to God will never be sacrificed so as to secure the favor of a human government or a “place” in this world. Governments always think in terms only of the present world, never of eternity. They think of their own force and power, not of the power and judgment of God.

But Christians do not calculate. They adore and they obey. They obey the government because Christ has commanded them to; and they obey Christ come wind, come weather because he is God and because he is their Savior.