“Why Can’t Things Be Simple?”

Matthew 22:15-20-22

Dr. Robert J. Anderson

October 19, 2014


There are quite a bit of similarities between the Israel of Jesus’ day and the birth of our nation.  Occupation and taxation unite our country with the time of Jesus.  Both countries were occupied or ruled by another.  The colonies were under England.  Israel was ruled by Rome. 

Then there were the taxes.  The 13 colonies were pushed toward revolution by taxes.  There was the Boston Tea Party of 1773.  Another pushed was the Stamp Act of 1775.  “Taxation without representation!” was heard from Boston to Baltimore to Charleston!  It was similar in 1st Century Israel.  The Jews paid taxes to support the Roman government and the Roman troops.  The taxes were exorbitant!  Rome set the rate and the tax collectors collected what they wanted above it for themselves!


In both situations, there were people on both sides of the issue.  There were the loyalists that supported the crown and the patriots that opposed it.  The Herodians supported the Roman government and the Pharisees opposed it.  The Herodians supported paying taxes to Rome because Herod was installed by Rome as king of the Jews.  The Pharisees were committed to every Jewish law and opposed paying taxes to Rome for religious reasons.  Their main objection was to the image of Caesar on the coin used to pay the taxes which they said violated the first and second commandments.  There was such a divide between the Herodians and the Pharisees that one would be hard pressed to find anything they could agree on, except wanting Jesus out of the picture!  Together, they came up with the perfect solution to their desire to get rid of Jesus.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”


Those who follow Christ and are called Christians face a constant challenge.  There are duties and obligations in each realm: cross and flag.  What do they owe to whom?


Paul in his letter to the church at Rome says we have a responsibility toward civil authority which itself is under the authority of God.  A close alliance between civil and religious obedience is problematic as Moltmann points out in his Theology of Hope.  Critically Moltmann identifies three roles for the church to play in society.


The first role is personal, communal, and institutional.  Faith is the religion of the personal where its task is providing for personal, individual, and private humanity.  Religion and faith are considered private matters involving inwardness and feelings.  In the face of an inhumane and objective society, faith is the guardian of the uniquely human and subjective.  Faith is confined to the personal and free decisions, rather than the area of social behavior, political responsibility, and economic action.  From this perspective, the theological cannot be asked about social reality.


The second role of faith is that of mediator of fellowship.  In society we find artificial and arbitrary organization.  Faith provides community as co-humanity as personal.  People find a way to be human and the congregation finds ways to create the community that is lacking in society.  This community is warm and authentic.

The third role of faith is that of an institution.  Institution gives stability and order in the midst of change.  What is the meaning of life? and other such troubling questions are robbed of their terror when people have confidence in the institutional church.  When one turns over their responsibility to the church, we become unaccountable for our decisions.  When we yield to the instructional church, we don’t have to understand only accept.


Moltmann argues that through these three roles, the church has accommodated itself to the social reality.  Christianity simply meets the needs society leaves unmet and, in doing so, has little to say to society other than what society wants to hear.


Moltmann then suggests that the church should live out the idea of coming kingdom of God.  We live in the time of expecting Christ’s return.  We live in the time of the resurrected Lord that is coming again.  You and I are called, not to flee the world in a kind of spiritual resignation, but to engage the world by challenging it to become the world that is coming.


From this vantage point, the Christian and the church exist as a revolutionary force in the world.  The result is that the Christian and the church don’t sanction society and identify it with the kingdom of God and they become the voice of God in calling for the transformation of society in light of the coming of Christ and kingdom of God.  In practical terms, the church challenges the systems that kill and dehumanize.  It is not enough to simply care for people, the root causes must be addressed in light of the coming Christ.


Christ entering the world in Bethlehem and Christ returning underscore the rule of God in every area of life; there are no exceptions.  We want simple answers.  Pay taxes; go to church or whatever.  Instead we get a radical antithesis.  Caesar’s image may appear on the coin, but there is another image that Caesar’s doesn’t come close to.  The coin of the realm of our flesh and blood is the image of God.  So, what is rendered to God is whatever bears God’s image.  Jesus didn’t answer simply, but answered in a way that forces us to into the positions of balancing our responsibilities of both an earthly realm and a heavenly one.


We grumble about paying taxes, but this is pretty much a non-issue for us.  We do get exercised when it comes to other areas in which our conscience is pinched.  Should Christians remain silent in the face of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria?  Should Christian support the use of torture by the government even if that means getting information that helps the war on terror?  What should Christians do when governments take action either to support or oppose same-sex marriages?  Should taxes support family planning?  Should pot be legalized?


These are tough questions that challenge us daily.  How should we live out our faith in the arena of these questions?  What does our conscience demand of us when we find ourselves in a conflict between our faith and our government?  How are we to respond to rendering to God the things that are God’s?


There is a wonderful sequence in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, when the great sprinter, Scotsman Eric Liddell, refuses to compete in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games in one of his premier events, the 100 meters, because the heats are being held on a Sunday.  The Prince of Wales says the infamous line, "I always thought it was 'King first, religion second.'"  Not even the Prince can convince Eric to compromise his principles, and as a result, someone else ultimately wins the race, also a member of the British team, Harold Abrahams, the great English Jewish runner, running to fight prejudice.  A compromise is worked out with a team-mate allowing Liddell to switch to the 400 meters, but his point has been made, and his faith and conscience are intact.  Eric Liddell defeated the crack American team, after having received a note of support from one of the American runners, impressed by his commitment to God and principle.  Liddell gave his life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China, after having returned to the China mission following his Olympic victory, and all England mourned him in 1945.


Christian faith is personal but not private.  Jesus said we are in the world but not of the world.  Each one of us, you, me, must wrestle with the challenges of living as God’s representatives in the world when the world’s agenda is different from God’s.  It would be nice if it was as simple as Jesus giving a list of do this and don’t do that.  But, he didn’t.  Instead he challenges each of us to render unto God the things that are God’s.


You and I are not to react to the hard questions of life with a gut reaction but a thoughtful, prayer saturated one that expresses our loyalty to the one that created us in his image.  (And, when, after sincere prayer, study, and meditation, we disagree on matters, we mustremember that each of us bears the image of God.  The thing that unites us is our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. 


We are boldly to face the apparent conflicts between the things of Caesar and the things of God, because God sees another image.  The image that God sees is the one engraved on the hands of God.  The image is the nail holes in the hands of Jesus! Those hands are the claim of God on your life and mine!