Christ and Caesar

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“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJ V)

Brenda Colijn photo smallRich talked about citizenship in this week’s sermon. He explored our responsibility as American Christians and challenged us to think about whether we ever give more allegiance to the American part of our identity than to the Christian part of our identity. As American Christians, we sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between the two.

The quotation at the top is about citizenship and allegiance. I quoted it in the King James Version translation because the “Render…unto Caesar” version is the famous one. People ask Jesus a trick question to try to trap him in a no-win situation. They ask if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. If Jesus says yes, he looks like a traitor to Israel. If he says no, he’s a rebel against the Roman authorities.

Instead of answering yes or no, Jesus tells them to look at a coin and tell him whose picture is on it. When they answer “Caesar’s,” he tells them to give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God.

This passage has been understood differently by different Christian traditions. Martin Luther taught that this passage showed that Christians are citizens of two kingdoms: Christ’s kingdom and the earthly kingdom they live in. Luther interpreted Jesus’ statement as counsel to divide our allegiance between Caesar and God. We should obey both God and the state, even though some of our responsibilities to the state conflict with our commitments as Christians. We can’t escape this conflict as long as we live.

The Anabaptists (forebears of the Brethren) had a different perspective. They believed that we are citizens of only one kingdom—the kingdom of Christ. In this world we are “resident aliens.” Although we live here, we are members of a different kingdom and should act like it. As Paul says in Philippians 3:20, our citizenship is in heaven—that is, we’re subjects of a heavenly king, and we’re waiting for that king to return to complete God’s kingdom on earth. We express our hope for this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer (“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”).

Jesus wasn’t trying to split our allegiance. We have only one Lord—Jesus himself. In fact, we’re “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20), representatives of our Lord and king to the people in the countries where we live. Jesus’ question about the image on the coin reminds us that we belong to the one whose image we bear. Just as the coin bears the image of Caesar, we bear the image of God. So while we pay taxes to earthly kings, we give ourselves to our heavenly king. That allegiance trumps any other allegiance.

That doesn’t mean we can’t love the country in which we live. We certainly should. If we love something, we want it to be the best it can be. We do what we can to support it, and we hold it accountable. But our ultimate allegiance is always to our own Lord. If a conflict arises between the will of the state and the will of God, “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NRSV).

Keeping our priorities straight is actually the best thing we can do for our country. Only then can we be “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16) that can preserve our society and challenge it to live up to its ideals. Perhaps also we will hasten the day when “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, NRSV).

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