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Dane Skelton is the Pastor of Faith Community Church and the author of Jungle Flight: Spiritual Adventures at the Ends of the Earth, a book of true stories from the ministry of JAARS (formerly Jungle Aviation and Radio Service). His second book, Papua Pilot: Flying the Bible to the Last Lost Peoples, co-authored with the late Paul Westlund, is now available on Amazon.com and Christianbook.com.
Virginians go to the polls next week to elect a governor, lieutenant governor, and commonwealth’s attorney and the contrasts between the candidates couldn’t be more distinct. How should we choose? Do the life and teaching of Jesus give us any guidelines?
Yes! One of the most well-known conflicts Jesus ever faced was over a hotly contested political issue. His famous reply is quoted to this day. The story is in Matthew 22:15-22. The epic reply was: “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The story behind the quote was rife with political tensions that make ours seem mild by contrast.
Judea became a Roman Province in 6 AD after the failed tetrarchy of Herod Archelaus. A census was taken and the Romans levied a head tax, a tax distinct from the tax on property and customs on articles. This provoked a revolt by Judas of Galilee. The issue was: God’s own land was subject to foreigners. What Jew could stand this state of things? That was the debate that raged beneath the surface in Jesus’ day.
The question asked of Jesus could be phrased this way. “Can we pay taxes to Caesar and still give allegiance to God? Are we traitors to God for supporting this pagan leader’s rule over His land?”
The question was a trap. If Jesus rejected the head tax he would be immediately liable to Caesar’s court. The Romans would crush him. If he supported the tax those who were zealous for Israel’s independence would turn on him.
Almost every resident of Palestine knew someone, a brother, a father, a cousin, a neighbor, whom the Romans had victimized. They were sold into slavery, forced off their land, or executed for speaking out against the oppression.
Moreover, the Messiah – like the judges of old – was expected to depose those who tyrannized God’s people and enforce justice. Would Jesus measure up?
Jesus turned the tables and set a trap of his own. “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” He said.
The head tax was paid by a silver denarius known as a Tiberian denarius. The coin was used for propaganda. One side had a profile of the emperor and a superscription that read: TI CAESAR DIVi AUGusti Filius AUGUSTUS (Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus). The other side had a picture of a woman seated on a throne holding an inverted spear in her right hand and a palm branch in the left. The superscription read “Pontifex Maximus” (HIGH PRIEST). The coin was a portable idol promoting a pagan ideology. Thus the Jews hated it. It was probably funny to watch the questioner dig around to find one, and then realize with embarrassment that all the Jews in the court yard were frowning at the fact that he would have one on his person.
When he handed it over, Jesus nailed them with three piercing facts. The meaning of his reply runs something like this.
“Hypocrites!” He said. “Since you don’t seem to have any problem doing business with Caesar’s coins you had better pay his taxes. Second, as much as you pretend to be offended by Caesar’s claims on deity you apparently have no qualms about bringing this pagan symbol into God’s holy temple. And third, by holding his coin you already pay tribute to him, let Caesar have his idols.”
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, namely the thing that bears his image and name – money. But give to God also what bears his image and name – yourself.” As creatures we are made in the image of God. As his children we bear his name. We owe him our entire being. Jesus is saying, “Caesar owns your money. God owns you. Don’t confuse the two.”
The principle is this: Get your allegiances right and your obligations will come clear. Render to government what you owe to government, and to God what you owe to God.
How does this story guide us as we approach the polls on Tuesday? To answer that question we have to recognize the differences between our government and theirs. Our political systems are completely different. Thus our obligations are different.
Jesus and his contemporaries lived in a conquered country occupied by hostile troops governed by foreigners. They had no vote or representation in government. They were subject to imprisonment, slavery or death for voicing opposition. Thus they had no power short of open rebellion and no influence other than that of a good example.
Thankfully, our system of government is different. We have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to vote and freedom to sue the government for justice. We also have the freedom to live and do business publicly as our religious conscious requires. We have not only the right but also the obligation to serve in government at every level. ‘We the people’ are Caesar. But just as it was in those days, so it is today, Caesar isn’t Lord. God is. ‘We the people’ – in the form of the legislature, the courts or the executive branch – might make a law or ruling that runs contrary to the will of God. Because Christians have the option we also have the obligation to promote government for the common good and oppose or change those laws and rulings that are opposed to the common good. That is our obligation to Caesar.
Applying the Principle
In order to apply the principle we need to look at the two sides of the political equation: Our Allegiances and our Obligations.
The Christian’s first allegiance is to the gospel. Not gun rights. Not the defense of marriage. Not even the defense of the unborn. Our first mission is the proclamation of the gospel which alone has the ability to change the values of a nation. Thus, we need to be careful about aligning ourselves with a particular individual or party.
Irreligious people assume that religious people want to rule the world according to their religion. Thus we must keep the distinctions clear. Of course our religious beliefs shape our political convictions. But our allegiance to a God who said ‘love your neighbor’ motivates us to work for the good of all our neighbors, not just the advancement of our religion. Therefore Christians, especially pastors, must be impartial advocates of truth, no matter what the political consequences.
If our allegiance is to God first and his values then what are his values in relation to the political issues of the day and what is our obligation – given our unique position as citizens with influence?
War on Terror – The government is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong doer. Christians should vote for the person they believe will do the best job of that.
Abortion – God is the creator of life. Children in the womb are the weakest of the weak. The most defenseless. Isaiah 1:17 reads: Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (NIV) Christians should vote for the people who will do the best job of defending the unborn.
Marriage – God has established the moral order for the world he created. If we observe it, abide by it, things go well. If we abandon it we can expect trouble. Christians should vote for the people who will honor the law of God by maintaining the traditional definition of marriage in this country.
Religious Freedom & Freedom of Speech – Jesus instructed us to ‘go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Religious freedom and freedom of speech are two of the founding principles of America. They are good and right things not only for the church but for everyone who will benefit from the message of Jesus. Those freedoms are being undermined in multiple ways. Christians should vote for officials who will protect religious freedom in public as well as private practice.
Economics - Jesus was very clear about our obligations to provide for the poor. But scripture also teaches, “He that will not work, should not eat,” and that all men should be responsible for providing for their families. No fair-minded person could look at the multitude of social services provided in this country and conclude that our government isn’t caring for the poor. Access to such programs is so open that welfare fraud is now a multi-billion dollar problem. Sensible people on both sides of the aisle are beginning to address it. Christians should vote for officials who will do a better job of managing that system and reigning in the abuses.
Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” As we go to the polls next week let’s get our allegiances right and our obligations will become clear.