Note: This is the third and final installment of a sermon series on “Faithful Citizenship”. Please see the previous two posts for the whole series.
A couple of weeks ago I read the story of a town in Germany called Bamberg. In the 1400’s the people really wanted to build a town hall. The king of the region, fearing what it might mean if the citizens started talking to one another about town issues, refused to allow it. But finally, he relented. He told them, “you can build a town hall on any land that I do not own.”
But here’s the catch: under the law, the king owned all the land. The town hall idea was essentially shot down.
I’ll come back to that story, but I share it because it reminded me a little of the Biblical passage we are looking at today. Today is the third and last sermon in our “Faithful Citizenship” series. And today we are looking at story where Jesus says something that is often quoted, and often misunderstood: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”.
I’ve heard that used to try to explain our duties to God and country. Some say that to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” means to just pay your taxes. Others say it means that there should be a complete separation between the institutions of church and state, an idea I support. But others say it also means that our values don’t matter when we are thinking about who we are as a country. That means we can act in our lives as citizens in ways that are contrary to what our faith asks from us. That idea I don’t support.
Overall, like so many other Bible passages, this one phrase can be debated and twisted to justify or condemn so much. Which is why I think it’s so important that we look at the context.
Jesus was teaching and some people came to him to ask a question about the religious person’s duty to Caesar. Caesar was the Roman Emperor who was oppressing the region, and ruling over the people, and there was an uneasy truce between the religious authorities and the Romans. And taxes were a huge part of this. The people were being taxes to support the empire. Tax collectors are talked about in the Bible as outcasts because they were Jewish people who were working for the Romans, the oppressors.
But the religious authorities who were starting to fear Jesus saw an opening here. They knew that if there was one thing the Romans didn’t tolerate, it was people not paying taxes. And so, they decided to set Jesus up. They sent people to ask him about taxes, hoping that Jesus would say “don’t pay them”. If he said that, they could then go tell the Romans who would do what the religious leaders were too scared to do: they’d arrest him and maybe even crucify him.
But Jesus knows what’s up pretty quickly. And so he uses the moment to teach an even deeper lesson. He asks for a coin, and he asks whose head is on it. The people say “Caesar’s”. And so Jesus tells them, “give to Caesar what is Caesars, but give to God what is God’s.”
It was a brilliant answer. They couldn’t turn Jesus in because he hadn’t said anything against the emperor. On the face of it, he said “pay your taxes”. But, on the other hand, he hadn’t left God out of the equation either. He said “give to God what is God’s”. And if you were just listening to Jesus as someone who was trying to trick him, that was all there was to it.
But Jesus is saying something far more subversive here, something that his disciples could hear and take to heart. Something that, if the religious leaders and Romans understood it, would have scared them far more.
You see, Jesus didn’t think much of the money. He picked it up and sort of looked at it and saw the face of a mortal man on it. Money was, and is, fleeting. And the empire it belonged to, strong as it was, would not last. You can almost hear him saying, “eh, let Caesar have it”.
The truly subversive part of it is this: give to God what is God’s.
What Jesus was really saying was this: there are things that Caesar can’t have. For all of the Roman power, for all of the money, for all the fear that they instill in our people, at the end of the day, the better things will never belong to them. Because those things, because you yourself, belong not to Rome, but to God.
That was a revelation to me when I first started to understand it. I’ve told you about growing up in a family where everyone served in the government or military, or was married to someone who did. I saw that service as honorable, and I still do.
But in my mind, at a young age, I conflated faith and country. I thought that God loved this country more than any others, that God loved Americans the most, and that because of that we could never do anything wrong. We were always the good guys, and we were always right, because we had God on our side.
That’s dangerous thinking, and not only is it un-Christian. It’s also un-American. It’s un-American to believe that we are so perfect that we will ever do the wrong thing. We have always been a country that works towards a “more perfect union”, and not one that believes we are already perfect.
But beyond that, for the Christian, we have to keep our loyalties in perspective. We can love our country deeply. We can serve it. We can work for its betterment. We can vote for the person we believe will do the best job leading it. But at the end of the day, we have to remember this: we can give to Caesar what is Caesars, but there are some things that Caesar can never have.
That begins with our very souls, and the values that guide us. Last week we talked about some of those values: justice, kindness, and humility. There are so many others too. We each have to examine our consciences, pray for wisdom, and then ask God for the strength to not compromise those values, even in times when it feels like we are compelled to do otherwise.
And I was reminded of that this week when reading the story of a World War II solider named Private Desmond Doss. Private Doss was raised in a branch of the Christian faith that prohibits its members from taking up arms. Doss agreed with that, but the same time, Doss felt a strong call to serve his country. And so he enlisted in the Army.
When he got to basic training, he refused to pick up a weapon. He was berated by his instructors, called a coward and beaten by his colleagues, and threatened with prison. But he was finally allowed to become a medic, a non-combatant, and he deployed to the war with no sidearm, and no way to defend himself.
In the Pacific in 1945 he was caught in a fierce battle. That day, choosing time and again to but himself at risk, he personally saved the lives of over 75 men. And at the end of the day, he became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, this country’s highest military decoration. All without firing a shot. All without compromising his understanding of the Christian faith. All without giving to Caesar what he believed to be God’s.
Whether you agree with Private Doss’ understanding of the faith or not, you have to admire his integrity. It’s a reminder that we are called by God to work for the good of our communities and country, because God has given us gifts that can be used there. But we can never forget that our true citizenship is in a higher place.
Balancing the two can be tricky. But it’s not impossible.
I began by telling you the story of the Bamberg, Germany town hall, and the king who believed he had outsmarted the people, and forever stopped their building project. But the thing about Caesars is that eventually someone figures out that they don’t really own everything.
One night the villagers in Bamberg went down to the river, and in the darkness they pushed 90 wooden pilings into the middle. They built their own island, one on which they could build their town hall. It wasn’t the king’s land, after all, and at the end of the day he found no way to stop them. That’s how the people of Bamberg let Caesar have what was Caesar’s.
In our earthly lives we have to deal with a lot of Caesars. We may well feel like the king holds all the cards, and we have no power to make the choices we know we should make. But that’s not true. There is always another way with God. It may require us to build something completely new, it may require us to take great risks, but it is always possible.
We are citizens. And that is a holy calling, one that we must embrace and use for good. But before anything else, we are beloved children of God. And so is every other person on this earth, not matter what borders surround them.
As we live our lives, as we work for good, and even as we cast our votes, we can never give to Caesar what should be God’s. Instead, we can only use all that God has given us to ensure that slowly but surely we are making life on this earth a little closer to as it is in heaven. Not just for us, but for all who belong to God. Amen?