Bible Reading Our Gospel reading today comes from Matthew Chapter 22, verses 15 to 22.
15 Then the Pharisees met together to plot how to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested.
16 They sent some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to meet with him.
“Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favourites.
17 Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why are you trying to trap me? 19 Here, show me the coin used for the tax.”
When they handed him a Roman coin,[a] 20 he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
22 His reply amazed them, and they went away.
At first glance, the New Testament seems to have some contradictions as to how Christians should view the state and its authority.
The supreme power at that time was Rome and in the Book of Acts Roman officials are viewed very favourably. The Epistles also talk about Christians honouring the government.
However, by the time we get to the Book of Revelation we see the state - in this case Rome - portrayed as the great enemy of God and the tool of Satan.
The difference isn’t a contradiction but has to do with changing circumstances. In the early years of the first century Roman authority actually benefited the early Christians.
But in the second half of that century great persecutions broke out, fuelled by the cult of emperor worship which was seen by Rome as the basic test of loyalty.
But to many Christians, publicly declaring that Caesar was LORD – in the sense of being a God – was idolatry, and they could not do it in clear conscience.
So, it’s no wonder that Christians sometimes become confused about how they should respond to the state’s demand for loyalty and obedience.
The answer, however, is found in Jesus’ own words: ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.’
In each of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke we read about two diametrically opposed political parties joining together to trap Jesus on this question of loyalty to the state.
The first group were the Herodians. They were very pro-Roman and believed that Israel’s economic wellbeing depended on being dutiful subjects of the Roman Empire.
The other group were the Pharisees who were vehemently anti-Roman, believing that loyalty to Rome was a disgrace, an insult to the God of Israel.
However, they had one thing in common, they hated Jesus more than they hated each other and saw his teaching as a threat. So, they got together to try to trap him.
The point at issue was the requirement for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman authority, something the Herodians thought right and proper, but the Pharisees thought an abomination.
They asked Jesus what he thought was the right thing to do, knowing that whatever side he came down on he would be in trouble.
If he agreed with the Herodians that paying tax to Caesar was right, he would lose the support of the common people. But if said it was wrong, he could be charged with sedition.
However, Jesus’ answer was both clever and spiritually profound. He asked them to show him one of the coins used to pay this tax. On one side of it was Caesar’s inscription.
Jesus asked them whose image it was, and they said: ‘It’s Caesar’s’. To which he replied: ‘Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ But then he said, ‘And give to God what is God’s.’
Here, Jesus lays down a great principle. He taught us that we are the citizens of two states, an earthly one - the political state - and a heavenly one – the Kingdom of God.
And when the Bible says we should respect the state because its authority comes from God, the implication is that the highest authority is God, and our supreme loyalty is to Him.
The problem with rendering to ‘Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and rendering to God the things that are God’s’ is what happens when the two come into conflict.
What should Christians do when their conscience forbids them to obey the demands of the state? The Apostles were faced with this during the early days of the Jerusalem church.
Only a few days after that first Pentecost the Apostles were daily preaching the good news of Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem and many were becoming believers as a result.
The Jewish authorities – the Sanhedrin – ordered them to stop and when they refused to stop preaching, they had the Apostles arrested and gave them a brutal flogging.
But this did not stop them. Their response to the Sanhedrin set the precedent for all succeeding generations of Christians. They said: “We must obey God rather than men.”
In other words, when the state goes beyond its God appointed authority and demands things that our consciences tell us are contrary to God’s will, then there is no question as to where our loyalty lies.
I love the story of Pastor Martin Niemoller. Niemoller was a German Lutheran pastor and true patriot, who had served as a U Boat commander in World War 1 and had been decorated for gallantry.
He was appalled by the way the churches quietly submitted to Hitler. But when Hitler ordered that extracts from Mein Kampf should be read out in churches, Niemoller could stand no more.
He preached a powerful sermon which asserted the great truth that the church is not only called to be obedient to the state but it is also called to be prophetic, and to stand against evil and injustice.
At the end of the sermon he led most of the congregation out of the church into the town square singing Martin Luther’s great hymn, a mighty fortress is our God.
Niemoller paid for it. He spent years in concentration camps and was only released when the allies overran Germany in April 1945.
But he, and others like him – known as the Confessing Church - to some extent restored faith in the church in Germany by following the example of the Apostles, “We must obey God, rather than men.”
Obedience is a good thing. But unquestioning obedience and thoughtless acceptance has been the cause of many of history’s greatest tragedies.
For decades, churches here accepted funds from government to look after part-aboriginal children taken from their families, not because they were neglected, but because of a misguided and racist policy.
They thought that in doing what the government said they were doing the will of God. But today we all stand condemned as we’ve learned the true story about what happened because of those missions.
As churches, we need always to keep uppermost in our minds those words of the Apostles: ‘We must obey God rather than men,’ especially when the lure of government funding is dangled before us.
The great principal that Jesus laid down and the New Testament constantly emphasised is that we are citizens of two kingdoms and owe allegiance to both – our nation and the Kingdom of God.
But the earthly state to which we belong also owes allegiance to God and when it forgets that and makes demands contrary to the revealed will of God, it creates an enormous dilemma for God’s people.
It is then that, like the Apostles, our duty is to say: ‘We must obey God rather than men;’ even though that may cost us dear.
At the start of the 20th Century, patriotism for most Christians was inextricably linked with obedience to whatever the established authorities decreed.
But by the end of the First World War that sense of unquestioning acceptance had been replaced with an overwhelming sense of disillusionment with human governments.
18 years earlier people had greeted the 20th century with unbounded optimism. This was to be the golden age. Science, education and enlightened thinking would end forever brutality of the past.
Then, after little more than a decade, the world descended into an orgy of savagery such as had never been imagined; until finally it ended and people tried to make sense of how it could have happened.
But for believers, beyond the broken dreams of this world there stood that great hope that the ultimate destiny of humankind rests not in the hands of a flawed humanity but in God and His coming Kingdom.
It was this that in 1921 compelled the writing of that much-loved hymn I Vow to Thee my Country:
It was based on a poem written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice just before the start of World War 1, describing how we owe allegiance to two kingdoms – our nation and the Kingdom of Heaven.
However, at the end of the war, shocked by what he had seen the world descend to, he re-wrote it, and added another verse pointing to the only hope we have – the coming of the Kingdom of God.
But there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
As followers of Christ we are called to be good citizens. We are also called to be responsible citizens, not opting out of its life and leaving it to the influence of the selfish, the self-centred and self-seeking.
But we are also citizens of heaven, and our highest loyalty is to God and our consciences. We hope that those two citizenships will never clash; but history shows that they sometimes do.
Jesus doesn’t specify where the boundaries between these lie; and we have to search our own consciences to discover this. Furthermore, Christians sometimes disagree in their interpreting of God’s will.
But, like the apostles of old, we have to listen to whatever it is that our consciences tell us and say: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ For His Kingdom supersedes all others and is forever.
Blessing And now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.