Then He said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (
Happy 222nd birthday to the United States of America!
The country seems to be doing reasonably well economically. We are not at war. We have our problems, but they are not as apparent as they are in times of recession, depression, cold war, or hot war.
This week we have had our parades. We have seen our share of fireworks. The celebration has had its fill of memories.
This Fourth of July is well summarized not in great issues but in the spirit of this cartoon which appeared in The New York Times. (Gary Brookins, Richmond Times-Dispatch, North America Syndicate. Used by permission.)
Today, as I talk about God and country, I could go to one extreme or the other. Times of greater crisis tend to trigger more severe attitudes toward our nation.
Nonetheless, there will be those pastors who will attack our nation. They will do what they can to spoil our celebration. There are those who take pride in debunking the memories of our forefathers. Those same voices emit harsh tones when speaking about our current leadership. They deplore the commercialization which so easily marks this holiday. If there were not elements of truth to what they say we would not be so threatened by them. God forbid that we take this choice occasion to point out all America’s wrongs.
At the other extreme, there are those who would drape their sanctuaries with red, white, and blue bunting. Pulpits become political platforms as the greatness of America is exalted. Some will eulogize these same forefathers, attributing to some who were actually deists and secular humanists an aura of godliness. I always get a little amused when I run into the super patriot who quickly says, “My country, right or wrong!” I wonder if that person would have actually joined the revolution in 1776. With that mentality, he would probably have been a Tory, defending the Crown, no matter how many were its abuses.
When I pastored in Pittsburgh, Pa., on several occasions I was invited to give the invocation or benediction at the public ceremonies of the “Daughters of the American Revolution.” They do some wonderful projects, preserving historic landmarks. However, I sometimes wonder whether any of them would have even allowed their names to be remotely associated with the revolution, so conservative are they in their political viewpoints. We forget that our forefathers were “revolutionaries.” They picked up arms to fight the British. The battle of Lexington was anything but a pleasant affair. Our forefathers were rebels who used unorthodox methods to throw off what they considered to be foreign tyranny. Their regiments did not march in lock-step precision as did the British. They functioned as snipers from hidden positions behind trees, ambushing the foreign occupiers, using violence to accomplish what the Chinese in Hong Kong have just accomplished by more peaceful means.
Let us lay aside our negative criticism and our tendency toward nation worship to hear God’s Word. Let us come as the people of God, prepared to give thanks for His goodness. Let us enthusiastically celebrate this important day, realizing that our nation has both its weaknesses and its strengths, but reaffirming our understanding of what it is to be both Christians and Americans.
It’s like being part of a family. Have you ever heard anyone blowing trumpets, beating drums and saying, “My family is the greatest. There’s no other family on earth?” Not for a moment. We’d say that that person is not too sure about his family if he or she has to shout how great it is that loudly. The pride we take in our families, the love we have for our relatives is tempered by life’s realities. We know that there are other families. We appreciate them for the joys and sorrows through which they go. Some have greater health, greater finances, greater opportunities and desires. And there are those less fortunate. Intuitively we know that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
So, as we think about picnics and fireworks, let’s thank God for this amazing mix called America. Let us take a good look at what God has to say about our relationship with Him and with our country.
One of history’s classic problems is the relationship between God and country. We find various views on this matter.
Some say that country is supreme, the good of the nation is above all else, and our ultimate commitment as individuals is to patriotism.
Others say that God is supreme, and to have any allegiance at all to a power besides God is to weaken one’s commitment to Jesus Christ. There are those who say that the two are the same, that God and country go hand-in-hand. What is good for God is good for the country. What is good for the country is good for God.
One day some religious leaders confronted Jesus. These were men who had wrestled philosophically with this problem. They had tried to solve the relationship between God and country. At this time, Palestine was an occupied country. The Jews were subject to the Roman Empire. The Romans ruled Palestine with a firm hand.
If you think your taxes are bad, it’s good you didn’t live then. The Romans exacted from the Jews three different taxes. One was a ground tax in which each person was forced to pay the government one-tenth of all the grain and one-fifth of all the oil and wine which he produced. It was partly in kind and partly in money equivalent. Another tax was the income tax. Each person was to pay one percent of his total income to the Romans. Another tax was the poll tax. This was paid by every man, age 14 to age 65, and by every woman, age 12 to age 65. This tax was one denarius, the tribute coin, the equivalent of slightly more than one day’s wages.
You say, well, that’s not too bad. That’s about what I pay. There’s only one hitch. Over and above that there was a list of religious taxes. There were tithes. There were the offerings. In addition, those worshiping in Jerusalem had the ceremonial responsibilities which cost them money. When you add to this the fact that they were a captive people who combined modest circumstances with the lack of political representation, you can see their circumstances were difficult.
It was in this context, during Holy Week, that some of these men put Jesus on the spot. Jealous of His following among the people, they thrust at Him a statement followed by this question: “‘Teacher,'” they said, ‘”we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”‘ (
Jesus was aware that there was trickery behind this question. He knew it simply by taking a look at these men. Some were Pharisees. They were devout, loyal Jews who took the position that Jews should not pay tribute to any foreign power. To do so would be an insult to God. For Jesus to say, “Yes, it is lawful to give tribute to the Romans,” He would discredit himself before these loyal Jews. He also knew that among this group there were some called Herodians. These were Jews who felt it was wise to go along with the Roman government. Jesus knew that if He said, “No, you should not pay taxes to the Romans,” these Herodians would report Him to the authorities as one who was seditious in His spirit against the Roman government.
How would you handle a trick question like that? My tendency would be to preach a little sermon, alerting both the Pharisees and the Herodians to their errors. Jesus, in His penetrating way, did something much more creatively communicative. He met this age-old question, involving the relationship between God and country, head-on. He asked for a coin. They handed Him a denarius. He held it up before the men asking, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” They responded, “Caesar’s”. He said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (
When these men heard His answer they were amazed. They were so amazed that they left Him. They went their separate ways.
What may on the surface look like an expedient answer, a clever compromise between two politically and religious partisan groups, was much more than that. It reflects a divine truth which speaks to you and me today, modern men and women who are analyzing our responsibilities to God and our country.
Jesus was saying that each of us has a dual citizenship. On the one hand, you live in a country with political leaders. You owe an allegiance to a government into which you pool your resources in a way which will provide safety, education, transportation, public utilities, a degree of social security, and the many, other things that we provide for each other through government much more cheaply than we could provide for ourselves.
Just imagine what would happen if each of us had to have his own police force, his own sewage system, his own network of roads. This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. The less we are willing to commit ourselves to each other within the context of government, the more we will have to provide these services.
Human nations have geographic boundaries. They have distinguishing characteristics which make one nation different from another. On the one hand, every one of us should belong to another nation. This nation is the nation of God—in which we are in personal relationship with the One who created us.
Jesus is saying that every one of us here has a responsibility to serve our country, the United States of America, and to serve our God. Are you rendering unto your country that which belongs to it? Are you giving to your God that which belongs only to Him?
Just what are we to render unto our country? What are our responsibilities?
When the state, like Rome in the days of Christ, offers little political freedom, our basic responsibility is that of civil obedience. We are to obey the laws as long as those laws do not conflict with biblical revelation. The apostle Paul urges us to be subject to the governing authorities. He states clearly that there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. If a person resists the authorities, he or she is responsible before God. Paul instructs us to, “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (
Remember, Paul was addressing Christians who lived under the totalitarian Roman rule. The Christian who lives in a totalitarian state, as much as he may differ with the political and religious ideology of that leadership, is still one who has a responsibility to be subservient to that authority.
These were the circumstances in which the early Church found itself. It did not resort to a violent overthrow of the Empire. Instead, by applying the love of Jesus Christ in action, a gradual revolution took place in which the Roman Empire so shifted that it gradually recognized the Christian faith. Finally, Christianity became the predominant religion. That’s the kind of influence vital Christianity can have even on a totalitarian society.
I’ve observed the lives of brothers and sisters in Christ in many difficult situations under dictatorial regimes. I visited them in Russia as early as 1960. I have ministered in Cuba, Viet Nam and China. There are some believers who register with the state, abiding by the laws of the land. There are others who have gone underground, feeling it is a compromise to, in any way, acknowledge the authority of their country—their commitment to God being so much higher than that to country.
Our circumstances are quite different. We live in a comparatively free country which has the due process of law and order. We have our weaknesses. We are not perfect. I’ll grant that. But we are blessed of God to live with a high degree of human freedom. When we confront this opportunity, you and I as Christians are called to responsible patriotism in which we render unto Caesar those things that belong to the country.
What does this specifically mean? I believe that you and I are called to intelligent and conscientious participation in the political process. You say, “But politics is a dirty business. What place is there in politics for the Christian?” Yes, politics can be a dirty business for one simple reason. It is dirty because not enough honorable Christian men and women have taken seriously their God-given responsibility to involve themselves in the business called government.
We’ve gotten the idea that we are too good to get mixed up in the complicated and vulnerable business of providing leadership. And then when we do get involved, some us of tend to have a “winner-take-all” mentality, which nonbelievers find very offensive. We tend to try to legislate our biblical morals and ethics to be the norm. Obviously, a society would function better if it held to biblical standards. But you cannot ask, in a society where there is separation of church and state, for all the nonbelievers to accept the high standards of biblical revelation. Many simply won’t.
We have to understand that fact and realize that we march to a different drumbeat than does a nonbeliever. We can argue for the validity of our Christian values. At the same time, we must be aware that in a democracy or a republic, the majority rules. What the majority says is right is not necessarily right. A minority of one can be right, standing alone against the 99 percent who take the opposite position that in God’s eyes is wrong. At the same time, we need to honor those who may disagree radically with us.
Let me say it bluntly. Our society needs you! There is untold trouble when Christians fail to assume their political responsibilities. This leaves leadership to selfish, partisan, non-spiritual men and women. A failure in citizenship is a failure in Christian duty. Every one of us, our children, and our children’s children will ultimately be hurt by our “hands-off attitude” when it comes to politics.
What is a true Christian patriot?
A Christian patriot is one who has an “open-eyed allegiance” to his country. She can acknowledge her nation’s wrongs. He will prize and protect what is good. He knows the difference between singing jingoistic words about military conquests and those prayerful thoughts:
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
A Christian patriot has a healing love, acknowledging both his nation’s strengths and weaknesses. He feels emotion for his nation. He is loyal.
A Christian patriot dedicates himself to second-mile service. Jesus drove that point home in a pretty painful manner. A Roman soldier could make an on-the-spot conscription. It’s as if, during the Cold War, the Russians occupied the greater Newport Harbor area. Any Russian soldier would have the right to tell you what to do. Jesus said, “Don’t just offer to do one job for him. Offer to do another. Walk the second mile.” It is this radical service which transforms relationships and transforms societies.
This second-mile service involves prayer. Your job as a Christian is to pray for your country. Pray that the right persons will get into leadership. Pray that the spirit of God will touch the lives of men and women, bringing about the moral and spiritual reform that is necessary if our nation is to remain even nominally Christian. When was last time you prayed for the President? It makes no difference what you think of him personally, Bill Clinton is the President of the United States. You are instructed to uphold leaders in prayer.
When was the last time you prayed for your senators, your congresspersons, and the members of the Supreme Court? The Christian is to do more than wave a flag and watch fireworks. He is to be a person of prayer who holds his nation before the Lord.
Your job as a Christian is to work. Get involved in politics. This doesn’t mean you have to run for political office. You say you’re not political in your orientation. Yes, you are. Your failure to express your convictions simply opens the door for those whose convictions run counter to yours. Read up on the issues of our day. Be alert to new legislation. Look into the records of men and women running for office in the various parties. Check up on the incumbents. Get to work at the local precinct level.
To do this, you’ll have to join a political party. You may pride yourself in being an “independent voter.” You are not nearly as independent as you think. You say, “I’ll just vote for the man.” You’re just kidding yourself. There is no way you can just vote for the man. You are voting for the person the party chooses. So get to work in one of the political parties, realizing that there is no perfect party even as there is no perfect candidate.
The Christian’s job is to vote. Franchise is the privilege which men and women have paid for with their blood. In spite of the supreme price paid for the right to vote, since 1920 most of our presidential elections were won by default. This means that the winning candidate was the choice of the second largest group of eligible voters. The largest group did not vote. More than half of the eligible voters didn’t even bother to go to the polls. They simply stayed home. They refused to become involved.
It may very well be that there’s some Christian in this sanctuary today who should himself or herself run for public office.
I’ll never forget a visit made by Congressman Walter Judd to my high school in the late 1950s. This missionary doctor turned United States congressman from Minnesota lamented what he considered to be one of the saddest developments in American life. It was the emergence of the “professional politician.” He told us to take a look at the founding fathers.
Most of them were men who had accomplished something positive in private life. Then they offered their services as representatives in the political arena.
Too many of our so-called leaders can’t express their convictions without being threatened by unemployment. Professional politicians have to adapt themselves to the prevailing attitudes. The true representative serves his country both by being elected and by being voted out of office. That’s the only way we’ll have honest government. Persons of integrity must be willing both to serve and to give up power before compromising.
Even as there are certain things which we are responsible to do for our country, there are certain services which we are to render unto God.
We are to be all that God created us to be. Our lives must be His. Our creative abilities must be His. Our possessions must be His. God has created us in His image to live creatively. Isn’t it sad how we’ve defaced His image?
Sometime ago, archaeologists were digging in Babylon. They found a coin. It was an old Babylonian coin which had a royal stamp upon it similar to that of the coin given to Jesus Christ. The interesting thing about this Babylonian coin was that the image of the Babylonian king had been defaced by the footprint of a dog. How similar we are to that coin, minted in God’s image but marred by our rebellion against Him. As we commit ourselves in faith to Jesus Christ, He refashions us. He restores us into His image. This is the very process of sanctification. The highest calling we have is to be used in God’s service. This is both a duty and a privilege.
Rendering, or giving unto God, means that you and I are to acknowledge His absolute sovereignty. Rendering, or giving unto God, means that you and I are to acknowledge His absolute love. Rendering, or giving unto God, means that you and I are to enlist ourselves in His absolute service. Jesus tells us that there need be no conflict between God and country. We have this dual citizenship. Where there is a conflict, our responsibility to God is our top priority. Otherwise there will be a tragic outcome.
There may be moments in history in which our ultimate allegiance to God will call us to disobey the state, although, these times are seldom. If we are called on to disobey Jesus Christ, we must then disobey the state. This means practicing civil disobedience. This is not easy and there are consequences to it. This is not just action taken in a rebellious attitude against authority. This is the sorrowful acknowledgment that Caesar is demanding the place of God. In history those who have defied Caesar in their primary allegiance to Jesus Christ have paid for it in great persecution and, in some cases, by martyrdom.
Nazi Germany provides a perfect illustration to what happens when God’s people allow the state to become supreme. Many members of the Christian church sat on their hands as a totalitarian regime came into power. Germany was a so-called Christian nation. What happened? The majority of Christians did not take seriously the ultimate priority of Jesus Christ. They winked at the diabolical forces which were taking over their nation.
When God and country come into conflict, our responsibility is to join the few, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others, who were willing to sacrifice lives for obedience to Jesus Christ. As Christians, we live in that delicate place of dual citizenship, with our commitment to Jesus Christ having top priority.
Join me, will you, in a prayer of dedication to our Lord Jesus Christ on this 222nd birthday of our country. Dedicate and rededicate yourself to the God who commands us to give unto the country that which is our country’s and to God that which is God’s. Join me in a prayer which one church I served sang every Sunday at the end of the service:
Our father’s God, to Thee,
Author of liberty, to Thee we sing:
Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King!