LUKE 20:20-26 (NIV) | Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
This passage is horrible when I want to prove Jesus is on my side politically. He won’t do it. He won’t affirm my platform, he doesn’t register to vote for my party. He never “likes” my Facebook rants.
It’s tempting to think that he must not understand how bad things have gotten.
Jesus understands. He lived under a much more oppressive regime than most on the planet today, certainly more brutal than any that I have lived under. The Roman Empire enslaved many in his ethnic group, and taxed him and his neighbors to the edges of survival. Both the government and the religious leaders routinely held humiliating public executions. The caesars created deity cults around themselves and demanded to be acknowledged as gods. The government stole from the poor and gave to the rich as a matter of policy.
Jesus’s response when asked if they should pay taxes to that evil government was, essentially, a deep shrug. Whatever. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Honestly, sometimes I’ve wished he would have taken sides on that question. It would have made voting so much easier. I would have known which politics were God’s politics. I could have proved it. Everyone on the other side would have to admit they were wrong.
The disciples were probably pretty diverse politically: Matthew worked for Rome, there were a bunch of blue collar guys, and possibly one or two were Jewish patriots fermenting revolution against Rome. That didn’t seem to get in their way as a group. It took awhile, but somehow in the end, they understood that they were part of a bigger Kingdom, a Kingdom that transcended all of it. In terms of the Kingdom of God, both Jewish sovereignty and the Roman Empire were incidental.
I’ve lived in three post-colonial nations. In each of those nations, we celebrate the day we declared independence from our kings. July 4th, August 10th, and April 27th are fireworks days, picnic days, parade days. I’ve celebrated and cheered along with my countrymen, adopted and otherwise. Human kings are the pits, mostly.
There is one king I’m waiting to cheer, though, because I’m already part of his Kingdom. I pay taxes to the United States of America and to the Republic of South Africa. I know whose faces are on those currencies. I’ve driven the roads of those nations, taken advantage of the things that my taxes have paid for. My kids go to government funded schools.
I am made in the image of God, though. His face is on me. His word is on me. If I obey Jesus when he says to give to God what is God’s, it doesn’t matter where my tax money goes or which campaign sticker I put on my car. What matters is the one to whom I give myself.
QUESTIONS FOR APPLICATION
- Where is your true allegiance?
- Practically, how should we behave as subjects of a Kingdom who are simultaneously citizens of human nations?
- Have you ever put your human citizenship over your citizenship in God’s Kingdom? What did it look like, and how would you recognize if it happened again?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Erickson and his wife, Annie, live in Pretoria, South Africa with their three children. They are a part of CRM's Ethne collective and minister to churches and church leaders in the region.