by John M. Frame
A sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
What does Christianity say about politics? Well, lots of things. So many things that it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the most fundamental thing, however, is that Christianity puts politics into perspective. The Bible does that, of course, with every aspect of human life. In every area of life, we are tempted either to idolize creation or to dishonor it. Some people make money their god; others say “money isn’t important at all,” and so they ignore it, waste it and wind up poor. To some people, pleasure is God- they live and die for it; other people seem to resent it when they see someone else having fun, so they become grouchy and cheerless. Similarly with politics. As we all know, it’s easy to become fanatical about politics, to think that life or death depends on whether the Republicans or the Democrats or someone else wins in November. On the other hand, it’s also easy to become really frustrated with the political process. So many anti-Christian ideas, so much crooked behavior- it’s tempting to say that the Christian should stay away from politics altogether. Also, we know that politics doesn’t save anybody; so what do we care who gets elected? The world is going to be burned up, and no political program can save it.
Well, Christianity saves us from both extremes, as in so many other areas of life. Politics, like money, pleasure, music, education, science, sports, or whatever- is important, but not all-important. God gives to all these created things a real importance, a real dignity. But he also limits them: he will not let us worship them, put them in first place. Only he is worthy of our total devotion. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” All these other things- food, clothing, shelter, politics- are not unimportant. But they come second to the kingdom of God. And only by seeking the kingdom first can we gain the right perspective on the other things.
In our Scripture passage today, we see this balance in Jesus’ teaching. In a way it is quite amazing, because under pressure we tend to take extreme or unbalanced positions. And Jesus was certainly under terrible pressure here. If I were writing a novel based on this passage, I would have to come up with a novelistic title- let’s see, how about “Murder by Entrapment?” Because that is the setting of our passage. Remember, this takes place during Holy Week. The previous chapter tells us of Jesus entry into Jerusalem; later that week, we know that Jesus will go to the cross to die. So things are heating up. Jesus’ enemies are very serious now in seeking to kill him. They are too cowardly, however, to pick up a knife and stick it in Jesus’ back. They want to get someone else to do the evil deed. Hence, “Murder by Entrapment.”
We know what “entrapment” is from the John DeLorean case which was in the news recently. John DeLorean was an auto executive who got into financial difficulty and became involved in a drug deal. At the trial, the jury decided that he was innocent because he had been “entrapped.” That is, the government agents had lured him into doing something which he would never have done otherwise. Now the Pharisees and the Herodians in ourpassage are seeking to entrap Jesus- to make him do something which will get him in trouble with the law. Specifically, they are trying to make him say something which will get him arrested. Now in our country that usually doesn’t happen, because of our tradition of free speech. Thank God for that. James tells us how difficult it is to guard the tongue, and we know from experience how easy it is to make a slip and say something offensive. But in most of the world today there is no freedom of speech; and there was none in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. So it was very easy to entrap someone- just get him to criticize the government. Most anyone can be provoked to say something bad about government.
But Jesus doesn’t fall into their trap. His tongue does not slip; for his word is the powerful Word of God, which never fails. Evil men could bind up Jesus’ human body and nail him to the cross, but they could not bind his Word.
Watch what happens. First, they flatter Jesus: “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.” Well, that’s laying it on pretty thick! All true, but of course they didn’t really believe it; they were trying to catch Jesus off guard. Flattery does that, right? It gets us to thinking about how wonderful we are, always a terribly interesting subject to think about, so that we don’t pay very close attention to what else is happening. That’s a good lesson: if you want to get someone in trouble, it always helps to flatter him first- sort of fattening him up for the kill. Load him up with pride, because pride goes before a fall.
But Jesus didn’t fall into the trap. Jesus did not get distracted thinking about how wonderful he was- even though he was wonderful. (The flattery was all true!) But Jesus saw through it and called them what they were, hypocrites.
But now look at their question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” A very clever political question. For one thing, it was a very interesting question to people at the time. Everyone would have paid close attention to Jesus’ answer. The Jews had been conquered by the Romans, and many of them hated the Roman rule. In fact there were revolutionaries called zealots who were trying to overthrow the Roman administration. They did not believe that God’s chosen people should ever bow before a pagan, foreign king. On the other hand, there were others, like the Herodians, who supported the Romans, and still others, like the Pharisees, who didn’t like the Romans but did accept Roman taxation. So it was an interesting question. Jesus couldn’t answer “off the record.” People would hear and spread the word. Further, it seemed like a question that would certainly get Jesus in trouble. There are some questions where you incriminate yourself whether you say yes or no, like the famous one, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Same here. If Jesus had said, “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” many of the people would have been angry; indeed, some zealot might have assassinated Jesus. On the other hand, if he had said, “No, don’t pay taxes,” then he would have been in trouble with the Romans. And the Romans were the only people around who could legally kill. Hence, “murder by entrapment.”
How does Jesus get out of this trap? Maybe I should leave you in suspense and resume next week! But that won’t do. Let us look at Jesus’ reply. He asked, “`Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, `Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?’ `Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then he said unto them, `Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. ‘ When they heard this, theywere amazed. So they left him and went away.”
What is Jesus saying here? Well, he’s striking that biblical balance, that proper perspective, that I mentioned earlier. He’s saying that politics is important, but not all-important. He’s saying that Caesar, government, deserves our respect, but that only God deserves our absolute reverence. Let’s look at those two points one by one.
First, he says, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. That always used to bother me. How can Jesus sort of put God and Caesar side-by-side and say “These things belong to God” and “Those things belong to Caesar.” Doesn’t everything belong to God? The cattle on a thousand hills are his. But we have to remember what Scripture says about stewardship. Yes, God owns everything; but he delegates responsibility to human beings as his stewards. God is king over all the earth, but he has made us vassal kings, assistant kings, steward kings, to replenish and subdue the earth under his authority. So God appoints earthly rulers. Romans 13 calls them “ministers of God.” They don’t have absolute authority, as we shall see, but they do have some authority. So God calls us to honor our parents, to honor rulers, church elders, schoolteachers- all who have authority over us. And they have a right to be paid for the work they do. The very word “honor” sometimes has a financial connotation; so Paul writes to Timothy, “Let those elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor” evidently referring to payment, I Tim. 5:17. Aged parents deserve the financial support of their children, according to I Tim. 5:8. So here, in our passage, Jesus tells his people that they ought to pay taxes, they ought to support the government. Jesus here rebukes the tax rebels of our day who withhold income taxes.
God’s people, then, ought to be good citizens. They ought to pay taxes, they ought to vote, they ought to perform all civic duties. Politics is not all-important, as we’ll see, but it is important. We need government to restrain sin in this world and to defend the righteous. Government won’t save anyone, but that’s not government’s job. We support government, not because it is savior, but because our God, our savior, has ordained it for ourgood.
Does this include unbelieving governments? Certainly. The Roman government was unbelieving. Furthermore, it was involved in much evil, including emperor worship. This was the point that the Jews found so hard to accept. How, they thought, can we serve a government which opposes our God and all of our values? But God had answered this question even in the Old Testament. Back then, he told Israel that if they would not obey him he would place them under the rule of foreign kings- Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians- to drive them to repentance. God told them not to resist these governments, but to bow their necks (Jer. 27:12) and accept God’s discipline. So today, God calls us to be good citizens, even when the government opposes our values. We are not to withhold taxes or prayer or obedience in order to protest their policies.
But now the question comes up, isn’t this exactly what the Pharisees wanted? They wanted Jesus to take a position and get people angry with him. Hasn’t Jesus done just that by telling them to pay taxes to the Romans? Yes, but with a remarkable twist. Don’t forget the bit about the coin. Jesus asked them to give him a coin. And lo and behold, on that coin was a picture of the emperor. At first glance, that might not seem very important to you, but it really was. In that day, the people did not use just one system of coins, as we do; there were several systems of coinage available. You could choose whose coins you wanted to use. Now if you chose to use the Roman coins, in effect you were declaring yourself to be loyal to Rome. A Roman coin is a Roman service. If you use Roman services, you have accept Roman authority. And if you accept Roman services, you have to pay for them. Furthermore, the coins were thought in one sense to belong to the person who made them. The emperor’s coins belong to the emperor. So Jesus has done something very clever, or rather, very wise. He has turned the question back on his accusers. He says to them, “You, you Pharisees and Herodians, you respect the Romans. You use their coins to buy bread, to pay debts, to pay your workers. Of course you ought to give something back to the Romans for these privileges.” So if anyone gets killed for supporting Rome, it ought to be Jesus’ accusers.On the other hand, if the Pharisees and Herodians deserve to live, then Jesus does too.
But we’ve looked at only half of Jesus’ answer. He says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but also “Give to God what is God’s.” Here is the basic point: politics is important, but not all-important. Government has authority, but not absolute authority. Caesar has some rights, but he has no rights beyond what God allows. When government commands us to bow before idols, as the king of Babylon commanded Daniel, we may, we must disobey the government. When government tells us that we may not preach the gospel, we must say with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5:29. Government has no right to break God’s law, or to demand that of us. Let us be clear on this distinction: we should support the government even though it breaks God’s law; that was the first point. The second point, however, is that we must never break God’s law ourselves, on orders from the government.
Here, Jesus directly attacks totalitarianism, ancient and modern. Government has power only under God, and it has the right to do only those things God has set forth in his word. Government is not Lord, and contrary to socialism, government is not our savior, either. Government has no right to overrule God’s other institutions, the family or the church. It has no right to dominate the economic life of a nation. Only God has the wisdom and power to plan an economy, to bring about freedom and prosperity, to create a just society. Government may not presume to act beyond its God-given competence. We see here that Christianity provides a great impetus toward political liberty and personal freedom. We can see how freedom comes through service of God. The servant of God is free from the tyranny of men.
And so we see that our hope is in God alone, not in government or any political movement. Even in talking about politics, you see, Jesus is preaching the gospel. God placed Israel under slavery to Rome so that she would confess her sin, return to God. The Jewish leaders thought that they were being loyal to God, against the Romans. But instead of turning to God, the Jewish leaders were seeking to use politics, Roman politics, to kill Jesus, God’s king, God’s Messiah. Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord; but God will not honor a nation which turns its back on him. These people were sinners. They were in desperate need of new hearts. The question of taxes was of very little importance compared to the question of where they would spend eternity. So Jesus points the way: give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but to God the things that are God’s. What things are God’s? First of all, we are. Like that coin that bore the image of Caesar, you and I bear the image of God. We are his; we belong to him. And like the Jews, we have used politics to avoid God’s demands on our lives. We have sinned, as Scripture says. But Scripture offers hope. Give to God the things that are God’s: Salvation belongs to God. God has sent his son Jesus to save us from our sins. The Pharisees, Herodians and Romans finally did succeed in killing Jesus. We can tell from our passage that they could not have done it by themselves! They didn’t have the power or the wisdom to kill Jesus Christ! Jesus escaped from their trap in this passage, and clearly he could have escaped from any other trap. But it was his purpose to lay down his own life. And he laid it down as a sacrifice for all the sins of his people. If you trust him for salvation and honor him as Lord, you will experience that freedom from sin which goes beyond all political liberty. The Pharisees were amazed at Jesus’ words, but they were so full of hate they didn’t hear the wonderful promise of salvation in them: Give to God what is God’s. Give your heart to Jesus Christ, and find forgiveness and new life.
Thus it is that Christianity puts politics into perspective. Seek first the kingdom of God, and then political blessings, among all God’s other blessings, will be added to us. We dare not put our faith in politics or government. But once we put our faith in God, in Jesus Christ, then we can see that government has an important role. Christ gives us freedom from the tyranny of arrogant government, but also the freedom to get involved inpolitics, in order to seek a better society. And most of all, he gives us freedom from sin, so that God will hear our prayers for justice. Our faith in God helps us to see politics for what it really is- not idolizing it, not dismissing it as unimportant, but treasuring it as a gift from God. There is no place here for political fanaticism or political despair. God is on the throne.