Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. Mark 12:17
The role of government is a touchy subject these days. There’s good reason for that. Disagreements abound on every role of the government—from taxes to foreign policy to healthcare. It seems like the norm today is not to have constructive dialog about what may benefit our nation the most, but what plays most to any given “political base.” Friends of mine who are much older and wise have shared that this is the most polarized they have ever seen our nation. These are difficult times indeed.
Ironically, this is nothing new. During Jesus’ day, there were political and religious special interest groups that were opposed to one another. The Herodians supported Herod, Rome’s puppet king over Israel. They would be considered the “liberals” of the day. They were pro-Rome and advocates of big government. The Pharisees were waiting for the Davidic Messiah to come and overthrow Rome. They would be considered the “conservatives” of the day. They were anti-Rome and advocated of limited government. Politically speaking, these two groups had nothing in common. They never agreed on anything. And yet, we find them doing the unthinkable. They team up together with a common goal—get rid of Jesus (Mark 12:13).
They try to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes. Their goal is for Jesus to either lose his popularity or lose his life. And yet, Jesus is too courageous and too wise to fall for their scheme. He gives the most brilliant political statement ever made—Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s.
Jesus affirms that the government is an institution that is worthy of our respect and taxes. This would have deeply offended the Pharisees! And yet Jesus declares the limited role of the government in our lives. This would have deeply offended the Herodians! Jesus is an equal opportunity offender.
What is Jesus teaching us here? First, he is reminding us that the government does not gain its legitimacy from its military power or political influence. Human government is legitimate because it is instituted by God. Paul makes this explicit: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).
And if an abusive and oppressive government like the Roman Empire was considered legitimate by Jesus (he told them to pay their taxes to the government that will kill him), then I would argue most governments today would fall under the same rubric of legitimacy. The alternative is anarchy. The fact is, God has always used flawed human beings in flawed governments to accomplish his perfect will. And the Bible is full of promises that a day is coming when justice will be served to those who use their powers for evil.
So, let’s give thanks that God has instituted the government for our good. And let’s pray for our leaders on all levels (1 Timothy 2:1-2). But, let’s also remember that the government is not divine. It is deeply flawed. And that means there are times when we can critique, reform, and even disobey the government. More on this tomorrow…