(Matthew 22.15-22; Mark 12.13-17)
20Jesus' enemies kept watching him closely, because they wanted to hand him over to the Roman governor. So they sent some men who pretended to be good. But they were really spies trying to catch Jesus saying something wrong. 21The spies said to him, “Teacher, we know you teach the truth about what God wants people to do. And you treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are. 22Tell us, should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”
23Jesus knew they were trying to trick him. So he told them, 24“Show me a coin.” Then he asked, “Whose picture and name are on it?”
“The Emperor's,” they answered.
25Then he told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” 26Jesus' enemies could not catch him saying anything wrong there in front of the people. They were amazed at his answer and kept quiet.
Is there ever a time to disobey government? It was Rev. Martin Luther King who said that the one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty. He knew the only way Afro-Americans could change unjust laws on segregation in the 1960s was to lay down their safety and bodies and sometimes even their lives.
On the other hand, Paul exhorted early Christians under the thumb of an emperor as corrupt as Nero to, ‘Obey the rulers who have authority over you. Only God can give authority to anyone, and he puts these rulers in these places of power.’ (Romans 13:1)
In their ongoing efforts to trap Jesus, the Jewish religious leaders cornered him on this question of taxes. They knew many Jews struggled under the heavy tax burden that Rome used to bankroll its various exploits and comforts.
So if Jesus endorsed the unpopular and unjust tax, the religious leaders would gain a small victory. If he didn’t endorse it, he could land in trouble with Israel’s political masters. Jesus did neither and both at once. By saying to give God what is God’s and Caesar what is Caesar’s, he left a masterstroke, an impregnated line that we can still learn from 2,000 years later.
Jesus is saying that we aren’t obedient because every government is perfectly just and performing a flawless job that is always above reproach. We’re obedient because our hearts are motivated by an inner conviction to give honour, firstly, to God.
This is maintained, as Dr. King showed, even in rare times of disobedience. And even when our enemies try to lay this or that trap for us, God is honoured when we counter such attacks with simple truth and dignity.
Loving heavenly Father, Thank you for the leaders that you provide and help me, even when it seems impossible, to give honour to both the leaders of the land and to you, the God of the universe; to be a good citizen of earth and a good citizen of heaven also.