The Head on the Coin
Are Christians required to be patriotic? Simply obey the laws? Pay our taxes?
The story of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and the Herodians (supporters of Herod and hated by the Pharisees) about paying taxes is one of the most often quoted. Indeed, it is in all three “synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) so was apparently considered both important and informative by the Gospel writers. But what are we to make of it?
The Pharisees and Herodians thought they had found an unanswerable quandary for Jesus. He was asked simply if the Jews should pay taxes to Herod or not. But if Jesus said yes, the Pharisees would see him as a traitor to the Jewish people since he would be supporting the accursed Roman invaders, and if he said no, the Herodians could have him arrested for sedition. Traitor or jail?
Jesus surprised them both by asking for a coin in which the tax was paid, noting the head of Caesar on it and, quite famously, saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Or in the older translations, “Render to Caesar…”
This one sentence answers all the questions we might have about how Christians operate within secular society and government. But a couple of things seem clear. First, while we plainly have an overarching and controlling obligation to God, we also have a proper obligation to our civil structure. This seems good because these structures have great influence on people’s lives. Bad governance isn’t just inconvenient, it can destroy lives and livelihoods.
So our “rendering to Caesar” clearly means that we are obligated to pay our taxes due. I have said before that even though I grumble when I calculate my taxes, I’ve also traveled enough to be very thankful that I live here. Even with the government waste, incompetence in Washington and outright corruption, it’s a small price to pay to get to live here.
It also means that we are to obey the laws. Yes, I sometimes creep over the speed limit as I ride my motorcycle around town. And I grumble about some of the rules and regulations to be followed both as an individual and as the manager of a non-profit corporation (the church). But I do believe that I am obligated both as a citizen and a Christian to do my best to follow the rules.
Even when I can’t find a candidate I want to support, I believe that I need to cast my vote. I should read enough to make responsibly informed decisions.
We have no active draft at this time, and I did not volunteer, but had my country called on me, I would have served. Even if I don’t agree with all the politics that led to whatever conflict we may be embroiled in, I am obligated to “render to Caesar” even the ultimate sacrifice.
But “rendering to Caesar” does not mean that I must agree with what my government does, or what our elected leaders say. And I can freely say so. Which brings me to the final point I would make today. As a Christian first, I must work to ensure that my participation in our civil society is for the good, that Jesus in my life is commended by my words and deeds. I can’t say things that simply serve to divide and not to heal and minister. Will my words feed division, anger, frustration and despair? Then I should keep them to myself. Our words must be words of truth, but truth in love, truth to heal, unite and make whole.
Does your participation meet these obligations?
This column first appeared in the October 22, 2017 issue of St. John’s weekly eNews. Click here to read the complete issue.
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