Reflection: When the things of God and the Emperor conflict

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
18th of October 2020

Matthew 22:15-22

After Jesus has told three parables aimed at the leaders of the Jewish people, it is unsurprising that some of those leaders now set a trap for him. What is surprising is the two groups that Matthew tells us are working together: the Pharisees and the Herodians. We know all about the Pharisees, those teachers of the Law who wanted to impose the purity demanded of those involved with the Temple on every member of the Jewish nation. They were among the people most opposed to collaboration with the Roman Empire. On the other hand, the Herodians were those who supported Rome’s puppet king, Herod Antipas. They owed their position to Rome and were collaborators themselves. Yet these two groups are united in their opposition to Jesus, because he challenges both.

Members of these two groups ask Jesus a question with no right answer: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ If Jesus says ‘yes,’ the Pharisees will accuse him of collaborating with Rome and the people will be disgusted in him. If he says ‘no,’ the Herodians will accuse him of being a rebel and a threat against peace and public order. Jesus apparently cannot win.

The groups approach Jesus with unctuous words: ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality’. We know that every word they say here is accurate; Jesus does speak and teach with integrity and in accordance with God’s truth; he does treat all people, whether rich or poor, woman or man, child or adult, insider or outsider, alike. That is one of the problems that the Pharisees have with him, that he welcomes those who break the Jewish Law as though they were the most fervent followers of the Torah. If those who addressed Jesus in this way were sincere rather than being, as Jesus calls them, ‘you hypocrites,’ they might have expected what Jesus does next. Because Jesus completely turns the tables on them.

Jesus asks his questioners to produce the coin in which the tax to Rome needs to be paid, and they do. They produce a Roman coin, stamped with the image of the emperor and the words ‘Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest’. They produce a coin that breaks both the first and second commandments inside the very Temple itself. Whatever else happens, they have now shown themselves to be the hypocrites that Jesus names them. Jesus himself does not carry this blasphemous money, but his opponents do. At this point, they have lost.

Jesus then ends the discussion with an aphorism that possibly causes more problems than it solves. After his interlocutors reveal that the coin they have is a Roman coin with the emperor’s image on it, Jesus tells them: ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,’ and they leave him and go away. Whether or not they are satisfied with Jesus’ answer, they know that this is a contest they cannot win. Which leaves us, the Christian community, pondering whether we are satisfied. What does ‘giving to the emperor the things of the emperor’ mean for us?

When I studied law, many years ago now, a surprising amount of class time was spent discussing what made something a valid law and whether all laws should be obeyed.  That might seem a strange thing for law students to debate, but we were asked in our philosophy of law and legal ethics classes what we would have done if we had been living in Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. Lawyers must swear to uphold the law of the jurisdiction in which they practice. What if we had sworn to uphold the German or South African legal system, and saw that system being used to trample on the human rights of others? What would legal ethics then have demanded of us?  I never became a lawyer and so these questions have remained hypothetical for me, but similar questions confront all of us as Christians. What does it mean to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s? What should we do when the things of Caesar and the things of God come into conflict?

Protestant Christians have a long history of obeying the laws of the lands in which we live, even when breaking the law would seem to be a Christian necessity. Protestantism started, after all, by taking religious power away from the Pope and giving it to civil rulers. The very name ‘Protestant’ comes not from Martin Luther protesting the Church’s sale of indulgences in 1517 but from five German princes making a ‘Protestation’ in 1529. In that year the Diet (Parliament) of Speyer was trying to rescind the ruling of an earlier Diet of Speyer in 1526, that each prince could make religious decisions for himself and his people according to the prince’s conscience. The theological rationale for this was that each prince was a baptised Christian, and any baptised Christian was the equal of the Pope. When we refer to ourselves and our churches as ‘Protestant’ we are using a term first used by secular rulers.

One of the divisions between Protestants is a disagreement about the attitude Christians should have towards secular rulers. Martin Luther believed that there were two entirely separate kingdoms, an earthly kingdom and the kingdom of heaven, and that while Christians may all be equal in the kingdom of heaven they must obey the rulers of the earthly kingdom, who have been given their authority by God. Commenting on today’s Bible passage, Martin Luther wrote:

one must also bear the authority of the ruler. If he abuses it, I am not therefore to bear him a grudge, nor take revenge of and punish him with my hands. One must obey him solely for God’s sake, for he stands in God’s stead. Let them impose taxes as intolerable as they may: one must obey them and, suffer everything patiently, for God’s sake. Whether they do right or not, that will be taken care of in due time.

Throughout history Lutherans have, in general, stayed out of politics.

Calvin and his followers, people like John Knox, believed instead that secular rulers should be under the authority of the church and the discipline of the elders, and that when secular rulers behaved in an ungodly way Christians had the right and responsibility to resist. Calvin wrote of this story: ‘Christians must obey their magistrates, even though they are wicked and extortioners, but only in as much as is in agreement with the commandments of God, and only in as much as his honour is not diminished’. This is the Protestant tradition, the Reformed tradition of Calvin and Knox, from which the churches that made up the Uniting Church descended. We come from churches that believe that there are times when giving to God the things that are God’s means resisting the emperor, because ultimately everything belongs to God.

That is a position that even good Lutherans, raised in the tradition of the separation between the earthly kingdom and the kingdom of heaven, can reach. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was later executed by the Nazis, gave a radio broadcast on ‘The Leader and the Individual’. The word for ‘Leader’ in German is, of course, Fuhrer. The authorities recognised how subversive Bonhoeffer was being and cut him off before he could finish, but a couple of months later Bonhoeffer was able to return to the subject in a lecture. 

In this lecture Bonhoeffer argued that no mere human could have ultimate authority over other humans. Ultimate authority lies with God. Bonhoeffer said:

The individual is responsible before God. And the solitude of man’s position before God, this subjection to an ultimate authority, is destroyed when the authority of the Leader or of the office is seen as ultimate authority … Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.[1]

‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ has a sting in its tail. Those trying to trap Jesus might have gone away thinking that he had simply endorsed the paying of the Roman poll tax. But that would be to ignore the question that Jesus did not ask aloud, and yet the one that they should have heard. Jesus asked of the coin, ‘Whose head is this?’ literally, whose ‘image’ – icon in the Greek – is this? He did not ask, and did not need to ask, ‘Where do we see the image of God?’ His Jewish opponents would have known as well as Jesus did that it is human beings that are made in the image of God. The ‘things that are God’s’ thus include every single human being. When ‘the emperor’ does not treat human beings with the dignity that those made in the image of God deserve, then that emperor must be resisted.

‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s’ usually means for Christians obeying the laws of the land in which we live. But there are times and places when ‘giving to God the things that are God’s’ means breaking those laws and practicing civil disobedience. In legal ethics classes law students are encouraged to imagine themselves breaking the promises they have made to uphold the law, if the law itself is wrong. As Christians, we too need to refuse to give our obedience and loyalty to ‘the emperor’ if the emperor is defacing the image of God by mistreating human beings. In such cases it is only by resisting the emperor that we can give to God the things that are God’s. As the Pharisees and Herodians said of Jesus, we too must show deference to no one and not regard our rulers with partiality, if we want to act with integrity and follow the ways of God. Amen.

[1] ‘The Leader and the Individual in the Younger Generation,’ in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (London: Collins, 1965), pp. 203-4.

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