In our culture, politics and religion divide people. Everybody has their opinion and most should keep their opinion to themselves. The idea of ‘separation of church and state’ has become a cardinal doctrine within America that many will not cross. But often, these two powerful principles knock heads.
Are you squirming yet? Everyone knows that one never discusses politics or religion in polite company. However, whatever your political persuasion, Jesus lays down a very basic principle that remains applicable in every culture and in every time and in every place. Here’s the story…
And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)
The topic of this Bible passage focuses on an issue that has pertinence in every era and every culture… the Christian’s relationship to government.
“The Pharisees & Herodians”
These two groups were not friends. The Pharisees held to all the religious traditions. The Herodians were the extremely liberal political party. The Pharisees desired complete independence for the Jews and were against taxation. The Herodians were a minor nonreligious party made up of supporters of Herod and Rome and were all in favor of taxation. Two opposite powers bound together by hate. The Pharisees and Herodians were cemented together by their mutual hatred of Jesus. The Pharisees did not like Jesus because He exposed their hypocrisy. The Herodians did not like Jesus because He was a threat to their political control. They both wanted Him dead
“Should we pay taxes?”
Taxes was a hot topic in Palestine. The Jews hated paying taxes to Rome because the money supported their oppressors, symbolized their subjection, and supported the pagan religions.
The question was brilliant. If Jesus said ‘yes’ He was in trouble with the people because it could be interpreted He was against God. If Jesus said ‘no’ He was in trouble with Rome. Even silence would have been disastrous.
“Bring me a coin.”
A denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer. It was a silver coin with Caesar’s portrait on side with the words ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus’ and on the other side a portrait of a Caesar on a throne wearing a crown and clothed as a high priest with the words ‘Chief Priest.’ It was the amount paid to the Roman treasury by all adult men and women just for the privilege of existing. It could only be paid with this coin.
“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
This statement by our Lord was not only astounding the instant it was uttered, but is even today universally acclaimed to be the single most influential political statement ever made in the history of the world! It was decisive in shaping Western civilization.
Using a Roman coin revealed an obligation to Rome. Jesus and the New Testament teach an obligation to government. Paul’s exposition of this in Romans 13 expands that government is ordained by God. Paul emphasizes that no one can accept all the benefits the state gives him (like peace and safety) and then opt out of all the responsibilities. If Jesus commands us to render to a king who thinks he is God and Paul commands us to obey all authority, like the persecutor Nero, surely we cannot justify our neglect of our civic duty.
Yet, we are reminded that there is a limit to the state. Caesar was not God. Jesus recognized only one God. In the event of a conflict, God rules over Caesar (government). There are at least three areas in which a Christian must resist authority: 1) When he or she is asked to violate a command of God. 2) When asked to do an immoral act. 3) When asked to go against their Christian conscience to obey government.
Just as a Roman coin has the image of Caesar on it, you and I were created in the image of God. We belong to Him and must obey Him first. In order to live as citizens of heaven on this earth, we must give back to the government the things that belong to it (i.e., taxes), and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord, knowing Him and loving Him with the totality of our being.