The Christian and the State


Matthew 22:15-22

Text Comment

v.16     The Pharisees detested the Herodian dynasty but this was a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”   The Herodians, were the partisans of the Herodian dynasty and so of Herod Antipas, Rome’s client king in the area, whose allegiance was to Rome, whose patronage he required to continue to rule.  The Pharisees were Jewish patriots – the Herod kings were not Jews – and deeply resented Gentile rule over the Jewish people, whether Herodian or Roman.

They are flattering him, of course; buttering him up, imagining that this will induce him to say something that he will later regret.   But the fact is, what they say is true.  Nothing that had happened in Jerusalem the past few days contradicted the Lord’s reputation as a man who fearlessly spoke his mind.  He was not time server, no respecter of persons who tailored his words to secure the favorable opinion of those who heard him.

v.17     The particular tax being referred to was the poll tax, a tax levied head for head upon the Jews and paid directly to Rome.  There were other taxes – sales and business taxes of various kinds – but this was the tax that most galled the Jews because it was the most obvious demonstration of their subjection to Rome.

In A.D. 6, some 25 years before, it had been the direct imposition of this tax that had prompted the unsuccessful revolt of Judas the Galilean, a sort of first century Tim Eyeman.  The American Republic was born in a protest of taxes imposed from abroad.  In the news this week was a new tax referendum to abolish a recently imposed gas tax.  How little has the world changed! Though Judas’ revolt was crushed, his ideology – that it was treason to pay tribute to some other king that Israel’s true king – was still widely embraced among the Jews of that day – even if they could not act on it – and was officially supported by the party known as the Zealots, a party led in Jesus’ day by members of Judas’ family.  Remember there was a member of that group among the Lord’s 12 disciples, Simon the Zealot.

v.19     The money for the tax was the Roman denarius which Jews found objectionable because it bore a portrait of the emperor and they reasoned that the second commandment forbade the making of images and because the coin bore an inscription describing the emperor as the “son of God” which, to the Jews, was blasphemy.  For normal commerce copper coins were minted that did not have these objectionable features.  This was done out of deference for Jewish susceptibilities. Loyal Jews did not have to handle the objectionable coin except for the payment of this tax for which it was obligatory.

v.21     The word the NIV translates “give” means to “render,” to “pay what is owing.”  The word acknowledges that there are some things that are due to Caesar.  [Morris, 557]

v.22     They were amazed because they had thought that they had a question that must certainly trap Jesus, that whatever answer he gave he would have to offend someone.  But he answered – and it is no evasion, it is a real answer – in such a way that neither the Roman government nor the Jewish temple could say that he hadn’t supported their rights.

It is always a pleasure for a preacher to know that he is preaching on a text and a topic of universal interest.  Everyone is interested in taxes!  Everyone has strong opinions about taxes and has, more than once, warmed to a conversation about taxes.  It is a matter of well-nigh universal interest – whatever the culture, whatever the country, whatever the government.  Everyone pays taxes and everyone has opinions, usually strong opinions, usually complaints about taxes.

Here in the United States we have a citizens’ organization that announces each year the day that will be celebrated as “Tax Freedom Day.”  That is the day when the average wage earner has earned enough to pay all of the federal, state, and local taxes that he owes and can begin to work for himself and his family.  As we are all no doubt aware, “Tax Freedom Day” has been generally moving steadily later in the year, but not always.  In 2000 Tax Freedom Day was May 3.  This year it is April 17th.  But the fact that we track such a thing shows the level of interest in the subject.

All of us laugh with sympathetic amusement at jokes told by or about harried tax-payers.  We laugh to hear someone say that if Patrick Henry thought taxation without representation was bad, he should see what it is like with representation. We chuckle over the American tourist who is supposed to have returned from Paris unimpressed by the Eiffel Tower, saying that, to him it appeared to be nothing more than the Empire State Building after taxes. Taxes and our dislike of them are a way of life.

Well things are no different today than they were 2000 years ago.  The Roman empire supported itself on the tax revenue it received from its subjects.  There were tariffs on trade, property taxes, inheritance taxes, taxes like our modern sales tax.  There were, then too, as it were, federal, state, and local taxes.  There were tax officers, like our modern IRS agents.  People resented the taxes they had to pay, went to great lengths to avoid or evade paying taxes, and, then as now, taxes were an unending topic of conversation.  Some emperors, seeking the approval and support of their subjects sometimes made promises about taxation, saying such things as “Read my lips; No new taxes!”  Well so it was in Judea in Jesus’ day.  There too taxes were a frequent subject of conversation and the source of much complaint. Earlier in this same gospel is a record of a conversation Jesus had with others about paying the temple tax the Jews themselves imposed for the support of the temple leadership in Jerusalem.

The Roman taxes were all the more galling to the Jew because they were a constant and painful reminder of their subjugation.  There was more to it for them than the natural unwillingness of men to part with their hard-earned money.  Some of the taxes they paid did not go to support the legitimate interests of their own country:  road-building, police protection, the court system, and so on, but were paid directly to Rome, whose empire they now belonged to against their will.

This situation furnished the enemies of Jesus a perfect situation in which to trap him, or so they thought.  The Pharisees took care to send not only some of their own but some Herodians to question Jesus about paying the Roman tribute or census tax.  The Pharisees resented the tax, loyal Jews that they were, but argued that it ought to be paid in order not to bring down Rome’s wrath upon the nation.  The Herodians, on the other hand, supporters of the Roman client king Herod Antipas, favored the tax.

Their question – “Should we, or should we not pay this tax? – was meant to place Jesus on the horns of a dilemma.  If he said “Yes, you should pay the tax,” it would discredit him with the people for they bitterly resented the tax as a token of their subjection to Rome.  On the other hand, if he said “No, you should not pay the tax,” the Herodians would be expected to rat on him to the Roman authorities as a provocateur, an inciter of rebellion.  Either way Jesus would be in trouble: either with the people or the Romans.  It didn’t matter to the Pharisees either way.  They simply wanted to be rid of Jesus of Nazareth.

With their hypocritical compliments about his integrity and the courage of his convictions they hoped to cut off any possible evasion of their question on his part.  They had tried to trap Jesus before and had been made to look ridiculous.  They didn’t want that to happen again.  But the Lord not only saw through their trap and evaded it; he caught them in the trap they had meant for him.

“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]

You see, with his single sentence answer to their question, the Lord summarized the whole of the Bible’s doctrine, not only about the relationship between a believer and his government, but, in a way, about the relationship between a believer and all the various obligations that form the environment of his life.  Let me show you what I mean.

  • In the first place the Lord’s remark represents, in a way we often do not appreciate, a sweeping vindication of human government and its authority over our lives.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus said.  We are all inclined to make less of that remark than in fact it means.  We must see, if we would be faithful to the Lord’s teaching, how sweeping and how comprehensive is the obedience to the State that the Lord here requires of us.

Consider the coin with which the imperial tax had to be paid, the coin the Lord demanded from his interrogators.  It was the Roman denarius, equal in value to the ordinary day’s wage of the laborer.  What would it be worth today?  Something perhaps between $80 and $120.  On one face of this small silver coin was the image of Tiberius Caesar, on the reverse an image of his mother, Livia.  Around the image of Tiberius, in an abbreviated form, ran the inscription:  “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus” and on the other side were found the words “High Priest.”  Both of those inscriptions amounted to divine honors and were reminders that the Roman emperor was the leader of the official pagan worship of the empire.  In other words, the coin itself was virtually a graven image and many Jews of the time thought the use of such a coin idolatry.

Yet Jesus told them to use the coin and pay the tax.  But there is more.  The taxes that Rome collected, not only in Judea but throughout the empire, were sent to the imperial treasury and used for every manner of thing.  Some of this tax money was being used to build the gigantic temple to Diana in Ephesus and many other temples both to emperors deified after their death and to other Roman gods and goddesses.  Some of the money was used to underwrite the expenses of Roman military conquest and some to quarter armies in occupied territories such as Judea.  For the Jews, this tax was payment to a nation that not only trampled on every sacred principle of the Jewish faith but had placed its boot on the Jewish neck and was grinding it down.

Yet the Lord Jesus says in no uncertain terms that they ought to pay the tax.  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!

And with that viewpoint the rest of the Bible expresses its agreement, as for example Paul in Romans 13:1-7, where Paul 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 Roman Catholic archbishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, refused to pay some of his taxes because he did not want to support America’s rule 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 his approach was unbiblical.  The taxes that the Jews paid to Rome and that Jesus commanded them to pay supported the first century version of the arms race.

You may or may not be aware that ministers have a right, under U.S. tax law, to opt out of paying Social Security.  But, in order to do so, they must sign a statement saying that paying the tax is a violation of their religious principles.  Many ministers have done so.  But I don’t see how any Christian minister can possibly sign that document given what our Savior taught here.  He didn’t say “Give to Caesar the taxes that you approve of;” he didn’t even say, “Give to Caesar the taxes that don’t support things you know as a Christian are wrong.”  He said that we are to pay our taxes even to a government that is going to use that tax revenue for all manner of sinful and destructive purposes.  Remember, given the fact that we know that Jesus paid other taxes, we have no reason to think that he did not himself do what the told these men to do, viz. pay this Roman tax.  If Jesus himself paid taxes that built temples to pagan gods; if he paid taxes that paid for the quartering of a Roman army in Judea; if his taxes supported the state that was spreading its paganism throughout the world, then, believe me, Christian ministers should pay the social security tax.  It matters not if the thing the tax is buying is a foolish or even a wicked thing.  Jesus said that we are to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” and, in context, that remark means that the morality of the use of the tax does not matter.  Indeed, given the Lord’s practice and teaching in those circumstances, the circumstances of Judea in the first century, it is hard to imagine any circumstance in which a Christian would not be obliged to pay his taxes.

The Lord has laid upon us, his followers this searching demand.  We are to be obedient to the government, even a government with which we are in the deepest disagreement about the morality of its actions.

But, of course, the Lord does not stop there.  He says something more.

  • The Lord also says that God must receive his due from us and that our lives must be lived in loyalty to him.

Now, some have taken the second phrase, “Give to God what is God’s” as virtually canceling out the first.  But clearly that is not the Lord’s intention. He is telling them to pay their taxes.  But he is placing that obligation, that obedience alongside one still more supreme.  The Lord does not say that we are either to give our taxes to Caesar or our loyalty to God.  He says we are to do both.

But that second statement 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 was here simply sweeping away the vaunted claims of the Roman emperors.  There is a God, a living and true God, and he is not the silly men who occupied Caesar’s throne in Rome. And this God must be served by his subjects.

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.

Peter and the other apostles were merely echoing the Savior’s own teaching here when, a few months later, they told the Jewish Sanhedrin, when that council had ordered them to stop preaching about Christ and his resurrection, “we must obey God rather than men.”

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, when it demanded that he disobey the will of his Father in heaven.   He went to the cross, in part, because of that refusal.

Whether we are talking of the apostles themselves, or the early Christian martyrs, or the Scottish covenanters, or the French Huguenots, or the noble sufferers of the Chinese church, or the Ugandan church of the 20th century, time and time again it is Matthew 22:21 all over again.  These men and women were perfectly willing to give Caesar his due, including a lot of taxes that he should not have collected, at least not for the purposes for which they were used.  But, at the same time, they insisted that God would get his due from them, come wind, come weather.

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.  They didn’t honor the emperor as god; they didn’t practice the civil religious rites.  For these reasons they were thought to be unpatriotic and subversive.  “No,” wrote Justin.  He said that the truth was the very opposite of what was being alleged.  There were 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 was 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 single 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.

This short statement of the Lord conveys 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, not grumbling all the while, not complaining, but doing so faithfully, honestly as an act of loyalty to our Lord and master who taught us to do so?  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 stand fast.  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 in our own time 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.  It may not always be obvious that paying taxes and refusing to sacrifice to false gods are both acts of Christian faith and obedience, but they are.  It is not obvious that the subjects of the King of Kings should pay taxes to minor functionaries of human governments, including governments that act in rebellion against God’s law, but it is so. There are ways in which we honor the Lord that are very ordinary, worldly, and common.  We pay taxes, we obey the laws, all the laws, 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.  He doesn’t whine, she doesn’t quibble about paying the tax that is due the government, however unhappy he or she may be with the government.  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.  Good citizens, faithful workers, cheerful participants in the ordinary activities of everyday life – sharing those activities with many unbelievers.  But, at the same time, living a life high above the ground, communing with the Living God, and serving him.  And it all reduces to this one thing:  every day and in every way we are to be loyal to Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  Absolutely loyal.  Loyal without hesitation or qualification.