In the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-22 we see a group of religious and civic leaders plotting to entrap Jesus, saying,
“Teac-her, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Certainly Jesus is moving people in the proper direction. He knows that God is higher than the state, but that there are important functions that are proper for the state to carry out. The State is charged with promoting the welfare of all of its citizens, and maintaining law and order and protecting its citizens from dangers, both internal and external. But, when a nation oversteps the mark and puts itself in the place of God, Christians are, in the last resort, absolved from obedience. We must obey God rather than other human beings.
But, when we as God’s people do disobey human laws, we also must be prepared to face the consequences: the law is the law, until it is changed, even if it is unjust. The consequences can include jail, job loss, ridicule, loss of friends and even death. Remember Daniel in the Lions’ Den? People whose allegiance to God and principle has exceeded their allegiance to state and have paid the price include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and many others who have worked for justice and peace in our world. Oh, and did I mention Jesus.
In light of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22, what is the proper relationship between God and the emperor, what is the proper Biblical attitude toward the State today?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-36)
And to this I might add, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”(Matthew 7:12) God Calls us to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Based on this foundation, what is the Christian attitude toward war, the death penalty, elections, health insurance, welfare, feeding the hungry and peaceful protests? For Christians, the answer includes both “good news and bad news.” The bad news is that we don’t all agree on these and many other issues, nor do we even agree on what the Bible, and even Jesus, has to say. The good news is that we are committed to Christ and to each other and are willing to live into the tension and ambiguity, with the hope that as we journey together, the Holy Spirit will lead us and guide us into all truth. Having said this let’s look at just a few of the Biblical reasons for our confusion and disagreement:
“My peace I give to you. I came not to bring peace but a sword, I came to divide families. If you don’t work you don’t eat. Anyone who gives a cup of water or food in my name shall reap their reward. And when did I do this to you? Whenever you did it to one of the least of these my brothers or sisters.”
As the Church, the Body of Christ, we must listen to scripture, we must listen to one another, we must find ways to serve together, “doing unto others as we would want others to do unto us.” We must speak out against the evil we see in the world, even if the evil we see is the good our neighbor sees, and the neighbor must have the right to do the same, even if our neighbors’ good is our evil. And then, we must be able to talk about our differences with respect and open ears, open hearts and open souls. God calls me to respect you even if I do not respect the laws you embrace or the people for whom you voted, and God calls you to do the same.
This is not easy. It is always dangerous when we choose God over the Nation, especially when we disagree on what we are seeing. This is why we need each other; this is why God sends us the Holy Spirit daily.
Last week my wife and I were in Charleston, South Carolina, a city of beauty and history. On a boat trip in the harbor we noticed many interesting and beautiful sites, but one particular facet caught my attention. Charleston is a very “short” city: the tallest building is 11 stories and most buildings are three stories or less. There are, however, many tall Church Steeples, which can be seen from all over the city as well as from the water. As it turns out, no building can be taller than the tallest church steeple.
What a perfect metaphor for Jesus’ message in this story: “sure, give the emperor what belongs to him, and give to God what belongs to God … but, did I mention? It all belongs to God.
Ben Alford is pastor at Christ Episcopal Church.