The following is an adaptation of a chapel address I delivered on July 2, 2014 at the headquarters of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
Luke 20:20-26: Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. 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 portrait and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give 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. (NIV84)
Jesus is wrong – or that is the conclusion many people reach when it comes to our relationship with the government. Let me illustrate:
The temperance movement can be traced in U.S. history back to the revolutionary war. Often incited by the robust words of enthusiastic preachers, the result was that on December 18, 1917 a bipartisan House of Representatives and Senate handed to the states the 18th Amendment for ratification, which occurred 1 year and 29 days later. It made the production, transportation and sale of alcohol illegal in the United States.
The State of Minnesota was on the cutting edge. Following passage of the 18th Amendment Andrew Volstead, a former mayor of Granite Falls, MN and then a Republican member of the House of Representatives introduced what is called the Volstead Act which outlined how states were to enforce the intent of the 18th Amendment.
Today, the state of Minnesota is one of 12 remaining states that restricts liquor sales on Sundays. It is a matter of on-going debate in Minnesota.
In the latter 1970s, when I was a student at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, MN a town hall meeting was held to discuss the merits of overturning the “blue law” which outlawed Sunday liquor sales in Minnesota.
One panelist was a retired police officer who worked for a Christian agency engaged in rehabilitating substance abusers. To the surprise of some, he argued for lifting the ban of alcohol sales on Sunday. His reasoning was that problem drinkers can be controlled better through liquor stores and bars which were prohibited from serving intoxicated customers. The blue law spiked alcohol sales on Saturdays and these problem drinkers were often intoxicated on Sundays, driving automobiles and abusing spouses and children.
It is not important whether you agree with him or not. What is important is when a lady in the studio audience got up to be heard. With microphone in hand she chastised this man for his position. She expressed particular outrage that a servant of God would argue to legalize the sale of alcohol on the Lord’s Day.
The panelist did not fluster at the challenge. He often a rephrasing of his reasoning and then pointed out, “Well ma’am, even Jesus changed water into wine.” She tersely replied, “That’s the one thing I don’t like about him!”
To us the error is obvious. But I do wonder how many Christians today would believe that Jesus had it wrong when he endorsed paying taxes to Caesar.
On Monday (June 30, 2014) the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right for closely held corporations to opt out of funding some forms of birth control. The Court steered clear of making this an issue about birth control or abortion. Their focus was on the question of religious liberty and how far that trickles down the corporate ladder.
Advocates of abortion framed their outrage by calling this an attack on women. Advocates of religious liberty invoked this decision as reflecting the spirit of our founding fathers and the religious liberty invoked 238 years ago in the Declaration of Independent. In reality, women were not attacked and religious liberty was merely acknowledged. Birth control that terminates human life was not banned nor were women forbidden from getting it for free. The 5-judge majority in the ruling outlined how the insurance company should offer birth control coverage for free, regardless of the method, because it is cheaper than paying for child birth. Or, if the insurance companies were reluctant, the government can pay. So women lost nothing and religious liberty got polite lip service.
Outside the scope of the Court’s ruling are some harsh spiritual realities. When you have sinful people binding together with other sinful people to govern a nation of sinful people cohabitating in a world full of sinful people you will not get perfect coexistence.
At the time of Christ, the Roman government was considered one of the earliest manifestations of a Republic form of governing. In that society, however, the Jews and Christians were a prejudiced group. To my knowledge they had no representative in the Roman Senate speaking up for their religious liberty. They had no process of referendum to right any wrongs committed by their governing leaders. Tax money was certainly not the tool for changing hearts.
In the oppressive Roman regime Jesus and His disciples, as well as the Apostle Paul, could still testify to their faith. At different times in Roman history that could be a very dangerous thing. In the end, however, squabbling over taxes, assassination plots of Roman leaders, fighting armies and voting senates changed nobody’s heart. Finally, we give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and what we give to God is our lives of love, commitment and testimony.
The disciples themselves later could not keep silent about what they had seen and heard. Even in oppression they found opportunities to speak. And if we are to change hearts on abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and every other social ill we have come up with, it will not happen by any other means than with us being God’s instruments in proclaiming truth, life and salvation.
If all we have done is gotten off the hook of paying for abortifacient birth control we will have failed. It is our testimony of truth, proclaimed in a society of liberty, which changes hearts.
Jesus was not wrong! We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s not because Caesar (the governing authorities) is so good at using it but because he is an instrument of God placed over us for our protection. And we give to God our lives, our service and our testimony, not because we are so good at it but because He takes these mortal vessels of clay and fashions them to proclaim a message that saves lives and changes eternities. May all of us cherish our religious liberty as a more comfortable setting to make our witness, and may God’s message of our salvation prompt us to be a witness to life eternal through Christ. Amen.