Vol. XI — No. 34 August 23, 1970
Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left him, and went their way.
Dear Christian Friends:
I ran across a statement the other day, and I wonder if it makes any sense to you. It goes like this: “THE LAW IS TO BE OBEYED, BUT NOT ALWAYS FOLLOWED.” It seems to me, that if I were to apply that principle to my own life, it would go something like this: The law is to be obeyed, so long as it does not interfere with what I would happen to like to do! The law is to be obeyed, especially by the other guy; I, on the other hand, should be allowed to do as I please. It’s nice to have a constitution, judges, laws, and all that—just as long as they don’t obstruct what I consider to be justice for myself! But you can bet money on it and win! This sentence does make a lot of sense to a lot of people: the law is to be obeyed, but not always followed. We find that it even appeals to us, doesn’t it? Whether this law is laid down by teacher, parent, church, government…we just love to be able to say to ourselves: well, sure, the law is to be obeyed, but goodness gracious, not always followed.
I know we like to follow the law, when it grants us a legal holiday and pay without work. But when the law conflicts with my desires, goes against my grain, spoils my day, interferes with my night-life—then shall I still be expected to follow it? Which, of course, brings us then to a principle of life, the principle of the relationship between the citizen and his government.
Well, Jesus Christ was once a citizen. It’s not said that he ever voted. In those days ordinary people just did not have the right to vote. But they did have to pay taxes. So it was taxation without representation. Our nation once fought a revolutionary war on that subject. What does Jesus say? How does He direct our thinking as regards the attitude of loyal Christians over against the State, the Government, the Law? This is a practical matter, something that is almost daily in the news. It’s one of the great issues of our times. Let us examine it under the theme:
As you see, the discussion presented in our text centers around one question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Is it lawful? Does God permit us to pay these poll taxes, these body taxes? Or shall we properly refuse to allow mighty Caesar in far off Rome to tax our bodies and so to live in grandiose style off our sweat? You can see the implications. These taxes are awful lawful! It seems to us that these taxes give us a right to rebel! They feed Caesar’s war machine. They pay soldiers who kill. More peoples are conquered. More slaves are created. It’s terrible what Caesar is doing with out money, Shouldn’t we refuse to pay? So awful lawful are Caesar and his taxes! Jesus, you’re a smart man. You tell us whether it can be right for us to pay our taxes to Caesar.
But let’s first appreciate what these people see. They live in a land which had always seen war, it seemed. Four hundred years before the Greeks had conquered their homeland. Freed by the Maccabees for some seventy years, they had been reconquered by the Romans. Now the Caesars were their emperors, with the Herods as puppet kings. The Caesars ruled by force of arms. They put down revolts. They collected taxes. They kept the peace. Of Caligula Caesar, who came to power shortly after Jesus’ ascension, we are told that he was a cruel tyrant. Later Nero came to power, and he was an unparalleled tyrant. Nero persecuted the Christians too gruesome to talk about. Peter and Paul were killed by Nero. So we should understand that when men said, “HAIL, MIGHTY CAESAR,” they were addressing rulers who would stop at nothing to get what they wanted. Bloodshed was sweet. Wars were necessary. And any revolt had to be crushed. Now the question: Shall the followers of Christ pay taxes to such a government?
Well, we would think we would like to say NO! And that is what the Pharisees, wanted Jesus to say too. But whatever Jesus said was meant to put him in a dilemma. If he did say NO, the Pharisees could call in the soldiers to put him in prison. If he said YES, He would have the Jewish people on His neck, because they hated the harsh and slave rule of the Romans. But notice how the Pharisees would appeal to Jesus’ pride in order to get him to say NO. They call Him a true and impartial man. Ah, how clever, don’t we say! Jesus, you’re an honest man. You teach God’s way the way it should be taught. You’re afraid of nobody. You tell it like it is. You aren’t swayed by any man’s fear or favor. You don’t care whether others approve of what you say or not. You just go ahead and say what you know to be right. Now you tell us! Do you think, in your opinion, that it is right for us to pay our hard-earned taxes to that terrible Caesar-fellow, who is so awful lawful over against us? But you can see what kind of an answer they wanted.
They thought Jesus had pride. And it is sinful pride that goes before the fall. For it is in us all—to think very highly of ourselves. We are so important. Our personal opinions are so right! Our private desires are so essential. We are —I am—so superior to other people. We see such pride expressed, for example, among people who want to rule by riot. They not only want to be heard. They want their way to be followed. It’s not that they want to have some of the say. They want to have all of the say. It’s not important to them what other people think. They alone are right. And if they don’t get their way, they plunder, destroy, rob, and burn, And so it was to just such sinful pride that the Pharisees appeal when they thought to maneuver Jesus into saying that it is NOT LAWFUL, under these circumstances, to pay taxes to Caesar.
And it is this sinful pride in us all which would move us to walk over to the Emperor and say: “HAIL, MIGHTY CAESAR! NOW, ABOUT US AND YOUR TAXES!” We have decided. We simply are NOT going to pay them. The law is to be obeyed, but not always followed. If I don’t feel like paying taxes, I won’t. And that applies to any law I don’t happen to like. If on a certain day I don’t feel like obeying it, well, then I just won’t!
Friends, don’t we all have that same attitude lurking somewhere within us? We will decide when to obey and when to disobey. We will decide, if today I listen to the teacher; if today I listen to the foreman; if today I will hear the preacher out; if today I will let the President of the United States talk to an assembly of people. And if I decide that the President shall not speak, then I and my friends will holler, and shout, and use filthy language, and call him names until he leaves. Why, this is my right! Our government is awful lawful. They don’t deserve my respect, my obedience, or my taxes. Mighty Caesar, I and my personal greatness have decided about me and your taxes: I won’t pay! I rebel!
Is that what Jesus said? His times were more turbulent than ours. He lived under a dictatorship. Tyrants ruled the Jewish people. Is that what Jesus said? Don’t pay your taxes. But this is what He said: “Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” How simple this answer! But how profound in application. His enemies walked away, amazed and staggered. The penny mentioned was a coin which was worth a day’s pay. Today, let’s say a $20 bill. Whose picture on it? In Jesus’ day Caesar’s picture and Caesar’s name. How did it happen that these Pharisees had this coin? Why, Caesar had given it to them. It belonged to Caesar, but he had given it to the Pharisees to use. So, Jesus says, when Caesar asks for that penny back, you give it back to him. It’s actually his anyway, isn’t it? It has his name and his face on it, doesn’t it?
What is Jesus saying? He is reminding His enemies that having that money in their pockets means that they are even now, already and for sure, under the government of Caesar. They enjoy his protection. They have even accepted his money. They use it. They live on it. They get rich by it. They travel on Caesar’s roads. They send mail by his carriers. They eat food delivered by his ships. Even peace they had. Rome was so mighty no other nation would think of attacking it. What does one owe mighty Caesar for the privileges that a stable government can give? Why, to pay one’s taxes, of course! If in our pockets we have the government’s money with faces and names on it other than our own, then remember that this is money we owe to repay to the giver, Let’s realize that in a very telling way, Jesus is telling us: You owe obedience to your government, as though it were the voice of God Himself! Which, of course, it is! As St. Paul also tells us. As Jesus’ own example and words also tell us.
Government is of God! Government represents God! Government is the voice of God to earthly men. The law is the law of God. Holy Scripture no more allows men to revolt against their government than God allows us to revolt against Heaven. It is as simple as that. It is as sublime as that. It is as difficult as that. We know how we feel about such restrictions. You see, sinful man is already in living rebellion against God. And so it is natural for him also to be in rebellion against God’s servant— in this case the State, the Government! But when I understand, believe, and accept that the Government is the voice of God, then my attitude is different, and my actions are different too! If Governments are to be disposed, overthrown, gotten rid of, I let God do the job. He is stronger than I, and His wisdom is wiser than mine. He knows when a particular nation needs a Hitler, a Nero, and also when their time is over. We let God handle His servants as He pleases. Let Him overthrow governments.
We are here to give only loyalty! Sorry if this offends some in our day! But loyalty is the basic word. Patriotism, defined as loving one’s own country, zealously supporting and defending it and its interests. Devotion to authority. Respect for law officers. Giving honor to leaders. Faithful to one’s duties and obligations, as imposed by the Government—whether taxes, the draft into the army, jury duty, obeying speed limits, hunting law, or whatever. Loyalty, patriotism, devotion, faithfulness, respect, and honor. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And the Fourth Commandment demands obedience to Government! For I hear in the voice of the President, the voice of the governor, the voice of the police officer…I hear in their tones the voice of God Himself If I would obey God, I shall obey these! It is as simple, yet as profound, as that!
We must conclude our discussion with Caesar on one further point. He must know and understand when loyalty ceases. It does not cease because my ruler is cruel, or he is a tyrant, or he is a “Hitler,” or a “Stalin,” or a “Nero,” or a “Caligula.” Persecution is never a reason to rebel! Taxes are never a reason to rebel. Seeming unfairness is never a reason to rebel. The Christian is humble and patient and obedient, even under persecution. Just thank God that we have the freedoms we have in our nation. It may not always be so. But that’s not the point when loyalty ceases. Jesus makes the principle clear when He says, “…and unto God the things that are God’s.” So there are things we also owe God. And one of them is absolute obedience. With God there is no exception. And when my government demands of me to disobey my God, then I must disobey my government. We must obey God rather than men.”
God comes first! If my parents teach me to shoplift, I must disobey. If my parents take me to a church that teaches false doctrine, I must refuse to go along. If my government commands me to commit obvious murder, then I must disobey. If, like the Roman Caesars, my government demands that I worship it as a god, then I must disobey. No matter what the consequence! This the Christian takes as a matter of course. He does not revolt against the Government because it demands a sin. He simply refuses to obey, and then is willing to take the consequences. Not that this comes easy to our pride! Hardly! We want to fight for what we think are our “rights,” so called. We would kill, rather than let anyone harm us—as by persecution, being thrown to the lions. But if injustice were a rightful excuse to revolt, then Jesus had every right to fight against His crucifixion. And Paul to tell the Roman Christians to revolt against Caesar. But we are hard-put to find a word of God that permits us to disobey Government, except when it demands of us an action contrary to God’s Law. Then God comes first, no matter our personal consequences.
What Scripture says about Government is not popular today. It is popular with none of us by nature. We would rather be our own boss, not knowing that Satan is the real boss of ungodly men. But to say HAIL, MIGHTY CAESAR is to admit that he is mighty. God has set him on his throne, and we owe him our allegiance, even our taxes. Also our lives. His is the voice of God. And he only ceases to speak for God when his words are contrary to God’s words. Then for us God comes first! But till such time we are not ashamed at all to salute the flag, nor sing in prayer:
O Lord, stretch forth Thy mighty hand,
And guard and bless our Fatherland.
The powers ordained by Thee
With heavenly wisdom bless;
May they Thy servants be
And rule in righteousness.
O Lord, stretch forth Thy mighty hand,
And guard and bless our Fatherland. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.