What He Said Week 3

Study Three:  GOD’S TWO KINGDOMS

TAKING IT IN

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.  17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  And they were amazed at him.   Mark 12:13-17

GETTING AT IT

 The constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of religion with what has been described as the separation of church and state.  What that means has created controversy.  Should crosses and plaques bearing the Ten Commandments be banished from all public spaces?  Can states fund education in parochial schools?  Is it unlawful discrimination when a business refuses its services to people who argue for a lifestyle the owner considers immoral on religious grounds?  The issues in controversy keep increasing.

Politics is a realm in which the separation of church and state can become murky.  Religious conservatives as well as liberals find it difficult to draw a line between what is religious principle and political cause.  The gap between right and the left, red and blue, grows wider, with moral stances like the right to life linked to political positions like taxation.

None of this is new.  The Roman Empire had a surprisingly tolerant “freedom of religion” policy in the nations it conquered.  This furthered their interest in blunting insurrections.  That Caesar was considered divine, however, presented a problem for Jews and Christians because church and state weren’t so clearly separated in Rome.  In Judea and Galilee also any separation of church and state was murky. God’s institution of Israel as a theocracy meant that “church” was to rule “state.”  Under Roman rule “state” often dictated to “church.”  Freedom fighters in Israel used religious fervor in their attempt to overthrow Roman rule.  Religious leaders, fearful of losing everything, sometimes found common ground with the Roman government.  At the center of dissent were the taxes that Rome imposed on conquered people.

Martin Luther spoke of church and state as God’s two kingdoms.  He established the church to address spiritual life with his Word and bring peace with God through the Gospel.  He established the state to address physical life with law and bringing peace between people and nations with the threat of force.  That, of course, leaves questions wherever the two mandates find overlap.  When Jesus was confronted with a church/state dilemma, he essentially affirmed the “two kingdom” solution of God’s rule.  Mark 12:13-17 describes the confrontation.

DIGGING INTO IT

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

Politics make strange bedfellows, the saying goes.  The Pharisees were a religious sect, aligned more closely with Jewish resistance to Roman rule.  The Herodians were a political entity whose power depended on their alliance with Rome.  Herod the Great, an Idumean not a Jew, had curried favor with Rome and received most of what was once David’s kingdom as a vassal state.  Among his many construction projects, Caesarea (you recognized the name Caesar) on Israel’s coast testified to his loyalty to Rome.  The decades-long reconstruction of the temple was an effort to placate his Jewish subjects.  Political intrigue and continual unrest among the Jewish people resulted in Herod’s territory carved into pieces, parts of which were governed by Herod’s descendants, who kept the “Herodian” name.  What the Pharisees and Herodians had in common was that Jesus was a perceived threat to their power.  If the crowds followed Jesus, the Pharisees lost religious control.  If crowds followed Jesus, Rome would see a building threat and curtail the power of the Herodians.  “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” says another maxim.

That Jesus was above all such party politics is apparent in the disciples he chose.  Matthew had been a tax-collector, a Jew who sold out to the Romans.  Simon the Zealot’s name suggests that he was part of the Jewish resistance and likely a “terrorist.”

It didn’t take much thought to see through the hypocritical flattery which attempted to disarm Jesus.  Their description of “integrity” and “truth” for Jesus likely reflected how the people viewed Jesus, one reason he seemed a threat to the Pharisees.  How ironic that their flattery so perfectly described Jesus!  How ironic that their approach to Jesus entirely lacked integrity and truth! 

Proverbs 29:5 says: “Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet.”  Just such a trap was the dilemma posed by the Pharisees and Herodians.  Rome exacted several taxes from its conquered countries.  The tax most galling to the Jews was a poll tax or head tax applied to every person counted in a census.  Paying the tax was viewed as legitimizing Roman rule.  If Jesus said yes, it is right to pay the tax to Caesar, his words would be used to turn patriotic Jews against Jesus.  If he said no, his words would condemn him as an insurrectionist before the Roman governor.  In the polarized world of contemporary politics, “gotcha” sound bites baited by reporters or antagonists have the same effect.

 

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.  17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  And they were amazed at him.

The denarius’ value was a day’s wages.  It was a coin stamped with the image of Tiberius Caesar, with an inscription calling him the son of the divine Augustus.  That was an affront to the faith of Jews and an ironic contrast to Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.  Pharisees interpreted the law of Moses forbidding graven images to include just such a coin.  While money-changers compelled visitors to the temple to exchange such coins for “temple money” because of the image stamped on them, these Pharisees didn’t have the same scruples in everyday commerce.  Possession of the coin implied acceptance of Roman rule, a premise these Pharisees seem to have missed.

While the Pharisees and Herodians used a Greek word that means simply “give,” Jesus used a different word – a word that means “pay” or “fulfill.”  The word implies meeting an obligation.  Paying taxes and committing ourselves and our possessions to God are fulfilling an obligation.  This is what is owed as citizens of our nation and as citizens of the Kingdom of God, our Creator.

 

Jesus’ response cut through the dilemma posed by the Pharisees and Herodians – a “both. . .and” solution rather than an “either. . .or.”  The response amazed his antagonists, who were trapped in their own limited perspective.  That God governs his world through two distinct human agencies, church and state, is the truth behind Jesus’ response.  There are several lessons to draw from his well-known words: 1) Unlike Islam, Christianity is not political.  The mission and message of the church is compromised when the church aligns itself with political parties or movements.  2) The state has a legitimate claim on a Christian’s loyalty, including obedience to laws and taxes.  So-called “militia” groups that claim a religious exemption from taxes have no biblical basis for the claim.  3) When the state’s claim on us does not infringe on God’s claim, Christians are to be good citizens.  As Peter and the apostles put it, however, “we ought to obey God rather than men” when the state requires disobedience to God.  (Acts 5:29)   4) God has a claim on our money and, much more, our life.  St. Paul wrote: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price (the blood of Jesus).  Therefor honor God with your body.”  (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT

In a polarized culture there are false dichotomies, attempts to force us to choose one viewpoint when an opposing view may also be legitimate, labeling that smears us with an extreme position we do not claim.  Certainly, Christians can disagree on issues such as universal healthcare or climate change.  Can’t Christians disagree whether prayer in public schools is a good idea, or must one viewpoint be morally wrong?   Are we misogynists if we believe that abortion is killing?  Isn’t emotional and financial support for women who keep their baby a pro-woman position?  Are we homophobic to acknowledge Scripture’s insistence that homosexual behavior is morally wrong?  Can we not also affirm Christian love for gay people and that they have civil rights?  

When people want to make issues either/or, be sure that there isn’t a both/and alternative.  To be sure, there are many issues where one must choose truth over error.  Where God’s Word is decisive, to compromise is the devil’s option.  Christians won’t let politically correct public opinion stand alongside God’s revealed truth.  There are also personal values that lead a person to choose one viewpoint over another.  How one manages a budget and a household is an example.  Where such values are personal rather than biblical, we won’t condemn those who disagree with us.  Think through your strongly held opinions and ask yourself whether these are truly right and wrong, either/or, issues, or whether God’s people can come to a different conclusion from ours.  Doing so not only brings greater harmony to relationships, it may open doors for our Christian witness to the Savior and his gospel.

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT

How does our faith impact our vote?  Those who think that they can make their country more godly by voting church-going politicians into office may confuse changing laws with changing hearts.  At the same time, compartmentalizing life into separate religious and civil categories denies God’s claim on the totality of our lives.  Our faith should impact our vote; and godly citizens vote.  Some Christians take a “single issue” approach to voting.  They feel conscience bound to vote only for a pro-life candidate.  Other Christians take a broader view of their voting, willing to tolerate candidates’ pro-choice position if the rest of their policies have a greater impact for the good of their constituency.  Can one Christian’s conscience be different from another’s in such matters?

It’s easy to become cynical when one sees the moral and spiritual nature of the country’s culture in decline.  First century Christians preferred to view the moral and spiritual decay of the Roman Empire as an opportunity to live and speak the Christian alternative.  What can churches do to turn cynicism into mission perspective?

SOMETHING TO PRAY ABOUT

Rather than complain about government, ask God to over-rule evil and encourage what is good and godly in legislatures and courtrooms and executive offices.  Pick specific officials or representatives to pray for and specific issues to pray about.

SOMETHING TO DO ABOUT IT

Examine your charitable giving, with 2 Corinthians 9:1-15 as a guide.  Is your giving willing, grateful and cheerful?  Do you trust that God will bless your giving, both in the people and projects who benefit from your gifts and in his promise to provide you the resources to give more?  Are there mission projects and human needs that particularly tug at your heart, suggesting where you want to direct special gifts?

SOMETHING FOR FURTHER STUDY

The New Testament has a consistent message about a Christian’s obligation to his government.  What principles do you see in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-6 and 1 Peter 2:13-14?


Leave a Reply

Loading...
^