Prelude, Purpose & Plan
Ought Christians be good citizens? What’s the difference between love of country and idolatry of country? Is paying taxes participation in evil acts by governments?
Let’s understand that Christians are to be good citizens and paying taxes ought not be a moral conflict.
Let’s look at paying tribute to Caesar in Matthew 22:15-22 and its moral dilemmas.
Matthew 22:15-17 A False Dichotomy
In Matthew 22:15-17 Jesus was asked, “Is it right to pay taxes”? The real question was, is it obedience to the law of the Bible to pay taxes? It was a trap. What would you have said? A false dilemma or false dichotomy suggests that we may only choose one of two sides. This kind of argument is often used in national politics where it is claimed that one side is totally right and the other totally wrong. Both may be right and wrong. In a false dichotomy truth is always a different option: In a world of moral ambiguity we pay tribute to a corrupt Caesar and to God.
Matthew 22:18 Flattery is a Trap
In Matthew 22:18 Jesus answered insincere flattery rather bluntly. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why are you trying to trap me?” Obsequious smoke is a trap. Pastor beware! When your new church flatters you, while vilifying the previous pastor, they will soon betray you. If they speak kindly of the previous pastor, they will also treat you with kindness. Schmoozing may seem encouraging, but beware of the ambush. A trap was set for Jesus, “we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favorites.” (verse 16) Jesus was not fooled by blarney. When we are flattered, look out for the trap.
Matthew 22:19-20 Paying Unjust Taxes
Roman taxation was unjust and excessive. Was paying it right? Jesus answered this difficult question brilliantly. “Whose image and inscription is this?” The poor often lost their lands paying Roman taxes. People did not want to serve another god, Caesar. Would Jesus be branded a traitor to God? Would he be in trouble with the Roman authorities? The tribute coin was probably one labeled “Tiberius Caesar, Divine Augustus Son of Augustus” or “Caesar Augustus son of divinity, Father of his Country,” blasphemous claims which had caused tax revolts. Jesus subverted all human governments by submission to the point of death. That revolution continues today in the hearts of all who believe.
Reference: Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire. Augsburg Fortress 2003
Matthew 22:21 Duties of Citizenship
What is our duty to country? Love of country is part of our duty to love our neighbor. What we must not forget is that, Jesus includes our foreign neighbors in that command. Read the book of Romans. What ought to be a Christian’s duty to country? “Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus was not asked whether it was okay to worship Caesar, but whether it was right to pay taxes. Whether the government is right or wrong, we still owe to the government what belongs to the government and unto God the things that are God's.
Matthew 22:22 They Were Amazed
In Matthew 22:22 we read, “His reply amazed them, and they went away.” Jesus sidestepped the moral dilemma presented to him with a practical and brilliant answer. From can we find such wisdom for today? On the one hand, wisdom is found everywhere in life. “Wisdom shouts in the streets. She cries out in the public square.” (Proverbs 1:20) On the other hand, it is a gift of God. “For the Lord grants wisdom! From his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6) “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.” (James 1:5)
It is impossible to live and work in this world without being tainted. Jesus’ answer about taxation addressed the practical reality of life in an evil world. We cannot change the whole world. We begin with ourselves, love our neighbors domestic and foreign, and prepare for our part in the day of the Lord’s return.
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.