A TAXING QUESTION
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 10, 2019
19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar's.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
— Luke 20:19-26, ESV
The twentieth chapter of Luke’s Gospel ends with a three-round bout between the religious rulers of Israel and the Messiah. They hit Jesus with a political question that does not make a mark, then throw a biblical punch at Him that He easily ducks. Then, Jesus counter punches with a theological question that knocks them down and closes their mouths. Christ is the clear winner in a unanimous decision, but He lives to fight for only another day or two before they catch Him with a cross. The passover plot to take His life is underway.
Character assassination often precedes an actual murder. Trying a person in the court of public opinion is a good way to get them into a real courtroom where capital penalties can be pursued. Our low class of current politicians, on both sides of the isle, are masters of the game, as were “the scribes and chief priests” who accosted Jesus. For the unscrupulous, all is fair in love and war, and that goes as well for politics and religion.
The questions offered by the religious authorities were an attempt to embarrass and discredit Jesus in front of religious Jews. They were also calculated to entrap Him before the Roman government. This sordid combination of church and state would ultimately condemn Jesus to death, where He would take our punishment to a temporary grave.
Here in the last days of His earthly life, as always, Jesus gives smart answers to dumb questions. They provide practical advice on matters of church and state, eternal advice on the nature of the resurrection and Heaven, and theological insight into the mystery of the Trinity.
Let’s take the first question today and listen to Jesus answer a taxing question with a godly answer. It will teach us how to be good citizens of our country. More importantly, it will teach us how to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
A Taxing Question
“Is it lawful for us to give tribute [tax]to Caesar, or not?”
This is a dumb question that emerged from darkened hearts. It is stupid on the surface, for in effect they were asking if it is legal to obey the law. Taxes, whether decreed by an Emperor or voted in by a legislature, are law and citizens have a legal obligation to pay them.
We live in a world of dumb questions today, don’t we? Does abortion take a human life? Are you born a male or a female? Should illegal immigration be illegal? Obvious, knee-jerk answers exist, as did one for the taxing question Jesus was asked. His answer, however, was more complex and compassionate.
Israel was an occupied territory in Jesus’ day, ruled by Rome. Rome was a dictatorship, ruled by Tiberius Caesar, who like most American politicians never met a tax he didn’t like. “It is the duty of a good shepherd to shear his sheep,” is a quote attributed to him. The Romans taxed everything the Jews did, which is why there were tax collector booths at every turn. One tax was their version of the poll tax, which required every Israelite to pay a denarius each year for the privilege of living on Roman occupied soil.
Jews did not like living under Roman occupation and paying Roman taxes. Who could blame them? From time to time, a tax revolt would lead to a military style rebellion, and Rome would reach down with its iron fist and crush the leader. So, if the religious rulers could succeed in getting Jesus to go on the record against taxes, perhaps the Romans would kill Him for them. It is amazing how they failed and succeeded at the same time.
We will explore the fulness of Jesus’ answer in a minute, but for now let us understand that Jesus avoided their trap by giving the good and legal answer “yes.” Of course it is legal to pay legal taxes to the legal government. The law is the law, and you can’t beat the law.
Christians should always obey the law, unless the law orders you to disobey Christ. Paying temporal taxes to an earthly king did not and does not constitute persecution. Fortunately, such measures which make for tough choices are actually few and far between, especially for modern day American Christians.
So, pay your taxes people, and pay all of your bills while you’re at it. Stand up for the laws of the land, and while you’re at it stand up for the national anthem. Christians should be of all people patriotic, but patriotism must never trump Christianity. For Christ is far greater than any Roman Caesar or American President.
A Godly Answer
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This was far more than a simple tax question. It was a life question. What part of our life belongs to our government and what part of our life belongs to God? One is a matter of law, the other is a matter of love.
Christians should obey the laws of the land out of duty and fear. Soldiers, policemen, and other public servants need to be paid. Roads need to be paved. Schools need to be funded. All lives matter. And no one wants to pay a fine or go to prison. So, we pay our taxes and otherwise obey the law.
But how does this compare to our relationship and responsibility with God? Is God like government, does He have laws? Does He require taxes or other types of payments? Does He rule in the land we now live? Should we fear His punishment? Of course the answer is yes, and no.
What if God and government were the same? Should all American citizens obey all the laws of God? The last time I checked, “Thou shalt not murder” was on the books in all fifty states, except for the unborn and certain newborn babies in New York and Virginia. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” used to be, too, but somehow that got erased fifty years ago, even though stoning was never an American option. John Lennon imagined a world with no religion, but could you imagine what our country would be like if all of the people all of the time were governed by all of the word of God?
It would be a country much like Israel was in Jesus’ day. People would piously and superficially obey the law, with hearts so far from God that they would not recognize God if God showed up in person.
What does God really want us to do? What does God want us to give? How does God want us to live? Jesus has given us the answer. God’s wants what is God’s.
God does not want your taxes, but do give them to your local, state, and national government. God does not want your tithes and offerings, but do give them to your local church. God does not want your obedience, as if obedience alone could somehow earn favor and salvation from Him.
God wants you, and He wants most from you what He has mostly given to you, namely, love. Love is a response to grace. Love is channeled through faith, and faithfulness. Love is the fulfillment of all laws, to God and to one another. And love saves, the love that comes through the loving gospel of the lovely person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus did gospel work in this question and answer session. He knew where it would lead. He went because of love. He invites you to love Him back, but like His love, it must be total, without reservation, without limit.
Good government is limited government. Real Christianity is unlimited. It gives everything to God, not out of legalism but out of love. As Isaac Watts wrote, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
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Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org