Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, August 20, 2018
Search this site.View the site map.

Living in Two Kingdoms

Matthew 22:15-22

 We are still in the part of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is clashing with the religious and political elites in Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly life.  This time, it’s the Pharisees and the Herodians who are confronting Jesus.  If there are two groups of folks who fit the definition of “strange bedfellows,” it’s these guys.  Normally, they did not get along.  

 The Pharisees were the ultra-orthodox religious group.  They believed in total loyalty to God and his Law, at least as they understood it through the lens of their traditions.  They were not especially interested in politics.  They were unlike the Zealots in that regard.  The Zealots were also religiously orthodox, but they were more politically motivated.  Their rallying cry was “No king but God,” and they were willing to kill for that belief.  The Pharisees avoided politics, but they were no friends to Rome.  They viewed the presence of pagan overlords as troublesome for the nation’s obedience to God.  

 The Herodians were the supporters of the family of Herod.  Now remember, Herod the Great was the King of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria at the time of Jesus’ birth.  He was a vassal king, meaning he ruled under the authority of Rome.  After he died, his kingdom was split into three parts.  His son Archelaus became ruler of Judea, but things didn’t go well.  Among other things, there was a revolt against Roman taxes in 6 AD.  So Rome stepped in, removed him from power, and turned Judea into a Roman province called Palestine.  

 The Herodians saw the benefits of Roman rule.  There was peace, security, and the Romans improved the infrastructure, like roads, sanitation, and aqueducts.  The Herodians just wanted a return to local rule by the family of Herod.  They knew that would only happen if everyone played nice and obeyed the rules.  Compromises on religious matters had to be made to accomplish that goal, and they were willing to make them.  The Pharisees were not.

 These groups didn’t see eye to eye, but they both disliked Jesus.  The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus because he was a Law-breaker. He challenged their authority.  He dismissed the importance of their traditions.  The Herodians didn’t like Jesus because he was another of those Messiah figures.  Messiahs were always bad news.  They got people riled up and caused problems, and Rome just kept tightening the noose. 

 Together they set a trap for Jesus.  They start off with a little flattery, and then they ask the real question:  “Is it right to pay taxes to Rome or not?”  

 Rome collected three taxes from people.  First was a ground tax, 10-20% of all agriculture, depending on the crop.  Second was an income tax, 1% of all other income.  One-percent sounds nice compared to what we have.  But since almost everyone was involved in agriculture, it was actually higher.  And the third was a poll tax, a per capita tax on every man age 14-65 and every woman age 12-65. There were other duties and fees, but those were the main taxes.  All of them were unpopular, since they went to support a foreign, pagan Empire, but here they are especially talking about the poll tax, which was one silver denarius from every adult.  

 It was that silver denarius that made it especially hated.  Judea was allowed to mint its own copper coins.  But they were not allowed to mint gold or silver coins, and the tax had to be paid with the silver denarius.  That coin bore the image of the Emperor; that would be a graven image, an idol.  And it bore the Emperor’s title which called him a god; that is a blasphemy.  

 Jesus responds to their trap question by asking to see the silver denarius. “Whose picture and title are on it?”  Caesar, of course.  Each Roman Emperor minted their own coins when they came into power, and technically, every coin with the Emperor’s image on it belonged to the Emperor.

 “Well, then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”  The principle that Jesus is laying down here is that his followers have dual citizenship.  

We are citizens of an earthly kingdom, or in our case a nation state.  And we do owe a debt to that kingdom.  The state provides us with national security and public safety.  They provide for education, roads and transportation, and they help to provide things like utilities.  And the state provides for some measure of public welfare:  Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment, Social Security, and so on.  And we benefit from those things, so we should pay our taxes, that is, our public debts, as Paul calls them in Romans chapter 13.  

We should also respect civil authorities.  In 1 Peter, he writes, “Accept all authority – the king as the head of state, and the officials that he has appointed.”  

But we are also citizens of heaven.  That is where our true citizenship lies, as Paul reminded the Philippians, who were so proud of their Roman citizenship (Phil. 4:1).  In 1 Peter 1, he tells his readers, “Respect everyone.  Love your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Fear God.  Respect the king.”  There are things that belong to the earthly kingdom and there are things that belong to the heavenly Kingdom.  Everyone should be respected, but love is especially for the people of the heavenly Kingdom.  The king deserves respect, but only God should be given reverent, holy fear.  

The tension of this dual citizenship has always been how we live with competing loyalties.  Where does our loyalty to the earthly kingdom end?  What do we do if they are in conflict with each other?  In Acts chapter 4, Peter and John are dragged before the Sanhedrin, a civil authority.  They are ordered to stop talking about Jesus.  And they answer, “We can’t.  We must obey God rather than human beings.”  When the kingdoms are in conflict, the Kingdom of God is given our loyalty.  The hard part has always been figuring out when they are in conflict.  

Recently we had this big flap about some football players not standing for the National Anthem.  The Steelers got a lot of negative press because they tried to stay out of the whole thing, and instead it was reported that they wouldn’t even be on the field for the anthem, as if that were a protest.  I just so happened to overhear a conversation about that incident.  I won’t say where it was, but suffice to say, I didn’t know these people, so I’m not giving anything away.  A woman said, “I can’t believe there wasn’t one Christian on that team who would stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.  We’re going to stand for the National Anthem.’”  That really bothered me.  Is that what it means to be a Christian?  To stand for the National Anthem?  The older I get, the less I know for sure, but I know for sure that’s not what it means to follow Jesus.  Yes a Christian should respect the state, but I will not identify being a follower of Jesus with being a patriotic person.  They’re not the same thing.  Sometimes, it’s the job of a Christ-follower to say, “No, I won’t stand with my nation because my nation is wrong.”  Would any of us counsel a Christian living in Nazi Germany “You’d better stand up and salute that flag.  It’s your duty as a patriotic person?”  

What about today?  Would Jesus be more political today than he was in first century Judea and Galilee?  

 It’s hard to say.  We live in a democratic republic.  We have freedom of speech.  Our votes help to determine the course of the nation.  That’s different than Jesus’ situation; he was living in a subjugated state with no vote and no freedom of speech.

 But perhaps it’s instructive to us that when Jesus was given the opportunity to make a political statement about taxes here, either pay them or don’t pay them, he basically side-stepped the question.  I don’t think Jesus would invest the energy into accomplishing religious goals through political means that some Christians do today in our society.  

 I think we should beware of the tendency of Christians on both the political left and right to “squeeze” Jesus into their politics.  When I was in seminary, I knew a fellow who was a die-hard Democrat.  He suggested I read a book entitled, “God is not a Republican.”  I declined the offer.  For one thing, I was in seminary; I already had enough to read!  For another thing, I’m pretty sure, based on what I knew of this guy, that the conclusion of the book would be that “God is a Democrat.”  

 I think the best thing to say about Jesus and our current political parties is that he would be disappointed with both of them for their greed, their pettiness, and their lack of consistency.  Both parties seem most interested in one thing:  Staying in power.  And they will both say one thing at one point and then say the exact opposite, just depending on who is in control.  

 Let’s close with something more uplifting.  Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”  Usually, we focus on the question, “What is Caesar’s?”  I think the better question is “What is God’s?”  

 Psalm 24:1 says:  “The earth belongs to God and so does everything in it.”  Everything belongs to God:  Our lives, our possessions, our gifts and talents.  In the end, even the things that “belong to Caesar” really belong to God.  

 Including our politics.  Our politics belong to God.  I know Christians on both the left and the right who have a tendency to go along with their party almost no matter what.  I think the better thing to do is to examine everything in the light of what God has revealed in his word and then go along with God.  If you do that, you will sometimes find yourself opposing the politics of your party.  And if you ask me, that’s a good thing.  

Verse of the Day...