A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on July 1, 2012.
O God, before you we know that the nations tremble, and by your might, all nations rise and fall. We offer to you today our nation in prayer. We thank you for the best qualities and the best principles that have been ours to enjoy. We thank you today for freedoms which we often take for granted. We thank you for the wealth of this continent, for the protection of oceans, both east and west. We thank you for the wisdom we have seen in past leaders and in our founders—for Jefferson, for Washington, for Madison, for Lincoln, and for others whose vision, courage, and unselfishness have guided us. We pray today for the things we need to continue in our heritage, for the things that are necessary to pass it along to future generations. We pray that you would help us see a common sense of purpose. Deliver us from selfishness and single-issue politics where our only concern is ourselves. Place a public spirit within us so that our greatest concerns are for our neighbors as well as ourselves. Make us a moral people. Make us virtuous. Make us a people who need fewer laws simply because our hearts already guide us through your spirit. Place within us a desire for righteousness, for honesty, and for integrity. May justice not simply be a word in our pledge but something we work for every day. We ask that you would raise up good and wise leaders. At all levels of government and service, may we see those whom we find worthy of following. Raise up men and women of vision. Raise up men and women of integrity, men and women worthy of support and of vote. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
—Thomas Jefferson in The Statute of Virginia For Religious Freedom
It is a famous quotation, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” If you were not here today, I hope you could have identified it as a quotation from scripture. A lot of people recognize it but don’t know from where it comes. You can now remember Matthew 22 and amaze your friends with that knowledge.
Many of us know that it comes from the scriptures but we are not exactly sure what the context is. Even if we knew before today that it came from Matthew 22, we may have known what happened when Jesus said it but we are not exactly sure how to apply it.
If you are not 100% sure, the background is that Jesus has come from Galilee. Galilee was a more rural and remote region and he has taught there for a couple of years and has upset a number of people. As he comes to Jerusalem, the capital, once again all of a sudden, he finds himself in opposition to a lot of different people. There are groups that gather together in order to oppose and trick Jesus. In the 22nd chapter of Matthew, there are a number of people who try to trip him up and make him say something that will offend one group or alienate another.
Here, Matthew tells us that the Pharisees and the Herodians came together. This would be like a group of Fox news watchers and a group of MSNBC news watchers getting together and saying, “We have a common enemy in Jesus. Let’s see if we can’t get together, come up with a question that he can’t answer, and see if we can trip him up.” The idea was that if he said, “Yes, pay taxes,” that the more zealous of the Jewish people in First Century Jerusalem would be offended and would no longer want to follow Jesus. If he said, “No, don’t pay taxes” they could turn him over to the Roman officials and he would be accused of inciting rebellion. It seems like a “no-win” answer and they are very pleased with themselves that they have come up with such a great trick question.
Jesus who is always wise says, “Show me a coin.” Of course, a little fact that you may not know is to have a Roman coin would have been considered unclean. Whoever was asking Jesus about this just happened to have one of those unclean coins on him. He pulls it out and Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that coin?”
“Then render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.”
These words tell us a couple of things. One, is that there are obligations in this world to the nations and governments where Christians live. For us, we are very fortunate in that it is the United States. We are very fortunate that we live in a country that we believe is founded on the principles that are aligned with what it means to be a Christian. So we do have obligations. But Jesus is also telling us that there are some obligations and allegiances in life that are reserved for God alone. Since the time that Jesus uttered these words, Christians have believed that there is a dividing line somewhere between what we give to Caesar and what we reserve for God. The problem is we never are quite sure where the dividing line is. We have been debating this for 2,000 years. It is amazing what people come up with.
Because Jesus never actually came out and said, “Pay taxes,” there was a church in the Midwest a few years ago that believed they did not have to pay taxes. So they refused to withhold Social Security from any employee’s pay check. The government did not agree with them on that, by the way, but they felt it was their religious right not to pay taxes and they got into a lot of trouble.
Tony Compolo, a Christian writer and speaker, in my experience is a mutually offensive speaker. He manages to offend people on both sides of the issue. He came and spoke at a college a few years ago and I had people tell me, “I wish you could have been there. He was wonderful.” I also had people tell me, “I went and it was the most offensive thing I have ever heard.”
I heard him tell a story years ago in another setting. He was drafted during the Korean conflict and when he went to the draft board and was filling out his papers he wanted to sign the portion that would have made him a conscientious objector. Of course, the draft board tried to put him off on this. Eventually, he was sitting in front of an Army colonel and the colonel asked him, “Why do you want to sign that?”
Tony Compolo said, “Well, I prayed about it, and I prayed about whether or not Jesus would drop the bomb.”
The colonel said, “Everybody knows Jesus would not drop the bomb, but sign the paper anyway.”
Where is the line? Where is it that there is something we owe the government and the nation and where is it that is something that is reserved for God alone?
Having been a student of this passage all of my adult life, I have become convinced of two things. One, is that every conceivable interpretation you can find is there, and two, when people study this passage of scripture they never change their mind. Whatever it is we believe when we come to it, we believe it when we are done. We can read the passage of scripture to back up either side of what we want to say. Does that mean there is nothing here and Jesus just spoke a nice word and we can all do as we please? I think not.
Let me mention a few things that are important for us. One, it is important for Christians to be involved in the world and in the nation. It is important for Christians to be involved in politics. It is important for Christians to be involved in public discourse.
Several years ago, Stephen Carter wrote a great book entitled, The Culture of Disbelief, in which he pointed out that a Christian voice is many times excluded from public discourse today. As soon as someone identifies their voice as the Christian voice, it is discounted. That is a shame. There is a place for a Christian word.
I have told this story before, but it still stands out in my mind. Years ago when we lived in Nashville, our younger daughter was playing in the community softball association. I was an assistant coach for her team. It was opening day and they needed someone to pray the invocation so they asked me, the preacher, to do it. I prayed the prayer, and as I was walking from home plate back to where our team was waiting for its introductions, I heard a woman on the other side of the fence say, “I didn’t think you could pray in public any more.” I thought, “Wow! How did we go from we don’t want a prescribed political prayer in a place where people have no control to you can’t ever pray in public any more.” I think that was a big mistake and Stephen Carter points that out so capably in his book. There is a place for a Christian voice. Christians should be involved in the public debate. Christians should vote their conscience. I don’t we should tell someone that they are not a Christian if they do not vote the way we do but we should work through government. We just need to understand that there is a difference in all of these things and the cause of Christ. The cause of Christ may support them, but it is not the same thing.
If I go to a sporting event and they have a fly over, it breaks me up. I cannot sing the National Anthem at a sporting event without it breaking me up. Quite honestly, thinking about my daughter in the military causes me to tear up. I love the flag. I love our country, but the flag that stirs me so is different from the cross that stirs me so. Christians should be involved but we need to understand that somewhere the flag and the cross are two different things.
The way the flag does its business is one way and the way the cross does its work is quite another. Even though we should be involved in public discourse, and while we should be involved in politics, we cannot ask the nation to do the work of our faith for us. We influence laws to make sure they represent the kinds of morality and righteousness we think exalts a nation, but we don’t try to force our faith through government on other people.
We hear a lot about all the dastardly things Christianity has done across the ages. People will quote about the Inquisition and things like that, but 99% of the times when people talk about the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion and the Christian faith, it has come at those times when nation and church have worked together, where the crown and the cross got confused, where all the abilities of government to force upon somebody else are brought to bear by a state church is when Christianity has been at its worse. We need to be involved, but we need to understand that there is a distinction and we cannot ask government or governmental policy to force our faith on other people. The word of Christ comes through evangelism, not through legislation.
Then, also, I think there is a silent message in this that is very clear but not spoken. When Jesus asked for the coin he said, “Show it to me. Whose image is on there?”
The reply was, “Caesar’s.”
I can almost imagine him holding it up next to the person’s head because the implied question that never gets asked is, “And whose image is on you?”
The whole thrust of what Jesus says makes no sense if we do not understand that the image of God is stamped upon us. We are created in God’s image. “Therefore, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” and that is my whole self. If there are ever places where nation and cross conflict, because I reserve myself, my highest allegiance is always for Christ.
Most of us wish Jesus had spelled out just a little bit more what he meant here, just a little bit more about where the dividing line is. Where do we cross over from being engaged in politics to using politics to try to further the kingdom? Where is it that we move a little too much? I wish I knew the answer, but I think, in his wisdom, Jesus has left us in this tension because I think of two different historical circumstances that would not bring about the same answer if this were the question asked.
In the 1940’s, where would we have been if all Christians said, “I reserve my conscience,” as Tony Compolo would have counseled people, “to be a conscientious objector.” Where would we have been at the end of World War II if all Christians had said that? I don’t think the world would be the same place that it is today. People gave themselves, their loyalty, and their lives to the nation in order to serve the country to fight for freedom. They gave all of themselves.
Now fast-forward to the 1960’s. When the African-American Christians in this country were told, “You must obey the law of the land and to obey the law of the land is your duty as a Christian,” and if they had said “OK,” instead of saying, “There is a higher calling on my life, an unjust law is no law, and I will disobey the law of the land in order to follow Jesus Christ as the spirit of Christ leads me to do so.” What if they had not done that? What if they had not reserved themselves for something more than, something beyond, something higher than, the country? We would not have the same country today if they had.
I think what Jesus does is Jesus gives us this holy tension that, instead of following a formula, requires us to pray. It is this holy tension that requires us to actually know Christ personally, to be led by the spirit every day, and to see where the spirit of Christ will lead us in knowing what it means for me and my generation, and for younger people and their generation, on a given subject or on a given day, to render some for Caesar and to reserve other for God?
When we think about religious freedom, we think about the freedom that is provided by the Constitution so we can choose whether or not we will worship. There is really a step before that. There is a step before that in which the spirit of Jesus Christ sets us free so that no matter whether we live in a free country or not, the heritage of religious freedom begins in our own hearts, following the Holy Spirit to follow Christ according to the dictates of our own conscience. For freedom, Christ has set us free. That comes before what any other government or any other organization would do. When we pray, we can decide in our hearts what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.
The quote has been used so many times, in so many different places, and in so many different ways that we have our minds made up about it before we really even study it. What does it mean? It is our heritage of religious freedom to follow the spirit so that each of us would discover and understand.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.