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Matthew

Caesar's Silver

Matthew 22:16-22

Lesson audio

The increasing polarization of the American body politic has obliged Christians to look more carefully at their responsibilities and rights as citizens. In this lesson we shall see that the problem is by no means new – nor is the solution.

Mat 22:15-22 NASB Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. (16) And they *sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. (17) "Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?" (18) But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, "Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? (19) "Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax." And they brought Him a denarius. (20) And He *said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" (21) They *said to Him, "Caesar's." Then He *said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's." (22) And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.

Background

May we begin with a personal touch? The teacher would point out to you that the Pharisees, in their slyness, have actually (in verse 16) produced a good list of the characteristics of a good teacher:

  • He must be personally truthful – what he says, he means.
  • He must teach the way of God, not his own way.
  • He must show no partiality.

It is pretentious flattery in their mouths; it shows us that the lie will wrap itself in truth to gain acceptance.

The problem behind the problem

The Pharisees of this time had a theory. It held that if you made all the ritual sacrifices, followed the law of God (and their traditions, of course) closely, you were exempt from the law of man. It is an old argument. Diogenes remarked that he was not a citizen of Athens, but a citizen of the world. The remark is usually made just before some act of disobedience. The concept is a recurrent one. A citizen of the world usually considers himself saintly – a saintly rebel.[1]

Under the Roman system such things were nicely tolerated – by Rome. The Roman system used local royalty (in this case, Herod) to rule the landscape – but doing so at the pleasure of Rome and full payment of taxes. It was not Rome’s problems to deal with such a rebel; it was the local king. The dealings were usually harsh.

So you can see the threat that is made to Jesus. Either give in to Caesar, and pay the poll tax (and endangering His credibility with the people) or defy Caesar – in which case the Herodian soldiers would take appropriate action. On the one hand disobedience; on the other, treason.

Tempters

Jesus calls them “tempters[2]”. So indeed they are. More than that they are very odd bedfellows. The Herodians are the left wing party of the day, the liberals who believe that the king should be out there watching out for those who did not appreciate his program. The Pharisees are WERFs – Wild Eyed Right wing Fundamentalists – of their day. If you can imagine the National Organization for Women and Focus on the Family marching together[3], you have an idea what this little band looked like to the people of the time. You could tell at sight these two were up to no good.

Christ’s Answer

We must see the obvious: Christ’s answer is a harsh one. Sometimes tough love is appropriate:

  • He shows them that He understands their motives; He is not fooled. (A point which is important to keep in mind when in prayer).
  • He does so in the hope of their salvation. It is His purpose to seek and save the lost. Even when there is so little hope of it, there is not “no hope.” So He must try.
  • His answer is a challenge to them. He uses their coin to make His point, and makes them look foolish in change.
Render unto Caesar

One might ask the Pharisees’ question: why should we “render unto Caesar?”

  • God has ordained such governments – even those governments which were to exile the Israelites to a foreign land were ordained by God to do so.
  • It is a noticeable fact that the Gospel spreads best not when men’s hearts are hardened in war, but in time of peace. The greatest expansion of missionary efforts yet made came during the Pax Britannica, the peace on earth of the later 19th century.[4]
  • We are specifically commanded to pray for those in authority over us.[5]

Finally, there is this: you may say you are a citizen of the world, but you ride American roads, use American currency to buy your meals and pay your rent, and are protected from gang rule by American policemen. If you lean on Caesar’s arm for such support, you should expect to support Caesar as well.

Render unto God

And what is due God? That you love Him with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. The coin was the symbol of Caesar’s rule over his kingdom; the greenback is the symbol of rule over our own country. So you might ask, what’s the equivalent in the kingdom of God? Caesar’s coinage had his picture stamped on it. So does God’s coinage. His image is stamped on each of us. like it or not. And like any other coinage, it is frequently the subject of counterfeiting.

What to do?

Dichotomy

It is a fact: in first reading the New Testament seems contradictory on the subject of government. Is it the kingdom of Satan, or is it the legitimate authority, sanctioned by God?

  • In Romans Paul argues[6] that the government is indeed a legitimate authority in this world.
  • But in Ephesians he argues[7] that our struggle is against the powers of this world – a spiritual struggle.
  • Peter then mandates a submission to all authority.[8]

So, then, the question is: is it right that a Christian submits to authority?

The nature of submission and authority

The first fact: submission, in and of itself, means nothing. It needs a formula to be defined. One may submit to a teacher’s instruction, a policeman’s command to pull over, or a court’s order, Whether or not this is in accord with God’s will depends entirely upon the nature of the authority. You cannot buy a pound of submission. You cannot be in submission, you can only be in submission to.

Authority, on the other hand, is by its nature very specific. Please distinguish this from power; power says what you can do, authority says what you have the right to do. How did you acquire this right? If your authority descends from God[9], it is righteous authority – because He never gives authority without responsibility. By your responsibilities you will know your true authority, for in the kingdom of God authority is given so that the responsibilities of power might be carried out. The tyrant has no true place in the church; only the servant leader.

Tyranny comes when authority taken does not match responsibility given. When King John[10] exalts himself his barons force upon him the Magna Charta – and the king is not above the law. The character of the ruler is supremely important, even in our republican form of government. In these days when the rule of law is fading into history while the power of the government grows ever stronger, it is well to remember King John.

A Christian’s duty in democracy

There are certain Christian duties which have arisen with the concept of parliamentary democracy. We may take it as an obligation of good citizenship that we will vote, and that intelligently. This may cause eyestrain while reading the propositions on a California election ballot, but it must be done. It is a way we support the government, whether Republican or Democrat.

But I submit there are two things that a Christian in particular must do in these dark days. Both are commanded, and I fear neglected.

  • We are to pray for them, indeed so much so that their tasks become a joy to them.[11]
  • We are to overcome evil with good[12]. The early church sent many martyrs to the grave without a hint of rebellion. The same weapons are ours.

The birth of America was accompanied by predictions of doom. It would not be long, some said, that the colonists would come back to the king begging to be taken home. Their system would soon turn into tyranny, they thought.

But our founding fathers knew one thing: they led a land of Christians. They knew that, as De Tocqueville once said, America is great because she is good. When she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great. Democracy depends utterly upon the character of the men and women who lead, and the citizenry which supports them. When authority oversteps its responsibilities, tyranny results. Citizens beware, the times, they are a’changin’. The church has many martyrs; I fear their numbers will soon increase.


[1] An example would be Gandhi.

[2] The same word is translated “test” in modern translations

[3] They do, on the issue of pornography. But not for the same reasons.

[4] Which may have something to do with the terrorist tactics of Islam.

[5] 1 Timothy 2:1-3

[6] Romans 13:1-8

[7] Ephesians 6:12

[8] 1 Peter 2:13-17

[9] Matthew 28:18

[10] This is the Prince John of the Robin Hood stories

[11] Hebrews 13:17

[12] Romans 12:21

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