29th Sunday: Caesar and God
Well, they really thought they had him this time. The intelligentsia of First Century Judaism really had Jesus in a no win situation. They were so proud of themselves. They were so smart. He was dead in the water no matter what he said. They started by laying it on thick, “We know you are an honest man, and that you teach according to the truth without regard to anyone’s opinion or status,” now here comes the zinger, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not.”
You know they smirked, just like the wise brat in eighth grade who figures he finally can demonstrate to the class how he is so much smarter than the teacher. The question itself demonstrated their intelligence. What could Jesus say? If he said that it is not lawful to pay the tax, then he would instantly be arrested as a rebel and zealot, an enemy of Rome, part of the Jewish resistance movement. If he said that it was lawful to pay the tax, he would be exposed as a supporter of pagans, not a true Jew but a collaborator with Rome. They really had him this time.
Or so they thought. In one succinct phrase, Jesus demonstrated how a person should choose in matters of religion and state: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” And they went away marveling, knowing that they had been outwitted, no, more than that, knowing that they had underestimated Jesus’ wisdom.
“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Patriotism is a virtue. A good Christian should be a good citizen. A good Christian should be willing to stand up for and even fight for the values that make a country great: freedom, liberty, the rights of people, particularly the rights of the most needy of our society.
There is a story about a minister who in the early part of the last century was asked to give the Memorial Day address at the national cemetery in Gettysburg, PA. Like most of the speakers in previous years, he felt a need to conclude his talk by reciting Lincoln’s famous address. The minister thought that the speech had gone well, but afterwards an old man came forward and said to him, “Son, you’ve made an awful mess of Lincoln’s speech.” Taken aback the minister said, “How so, I didn’t miss a word. Look, here are my notes.” “Oh, I don’t need your notes,” said the man, “I know it by heart. You see I heard it the first time around.’ The minister then realized that this man had been present when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. So the minister asked, “How did my recitation differ from that of the great president?” The old man said, “Abe put his hands out over the people like a benediction and said, ‘That the government of the people, by the people and for the people, should not perish from the earth.’ You got the words right,” the old man said, “but you got the emphasis wrong and you missed the message. You emphasized government. Lincoln talked about people.”
When government seeks to provide for the just welfare of its citizens, it is doing the work of God. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Jesus’ response tells us that one’s citizenship does not have to be at odds with one’s faith. As patriotic Americans, we need to participate in the affairs of our government responsibly and intelligently so that our public policies may reflect the wisdom and justice of God.
Patriotism as a virtue means keeping the proper order of Christian priorities. The old expression “My country right or wrong but my country,” is not valid for the Christian when that means participating in immoral acts. For example, the Christian would be wrong to support and fight for abortion simply because abortion is a law of our country. The Christian would also be wrong if he or she does not fight for just and moral laws.
We have the right and the responsibility to apply a moral litmus test to the dictates of our nation. The people of Germany did not do this in their own country during the last century and closed an eye to Nazi anti-Semitism. They now suffer the guilt imposed by their lack of action. So also, Americans were either not knowledgeable or unwilling to learn what exactly the country was doing to Native Americans and Africans during the eighteenth and nineteenth century and now suffers the guilt imposed by lack of action.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees confronts them and us with the demand to act out of our deepest convictions and take responsibility for those actions whether we are leaders or followers, whether we identify ourselves at a particular moment as Christians or as citizens.
The Pharisees had it all wrong. There is no dilemma between the choice of Caesar or God. At least, there is no dilemma when we are determined to instill, foster and support morality in the actions of our government.