Religion, sex, and politics can be divisive issues. Jesus was asked questions about all of these topics. The key political question is found in three of the four gospels: “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Like headline hungry reporters at a press conference, those who posed the question were looking for a “sound bite” that would be like raw meat thrown to the lions. They wanted something that would rile either the Roman rulers or the faithful of Israel. Whatever Jesus said, they would attempt to “spin it” in such as a way that Jesus would find himself in trouble.
With some impatience, Jesus asked for a coin and replied:
[A]nd he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:20-21, NIV)
There is much that could be said about this response but one implication is the status of the believer as a citizen of two kingdoms. First, there is the temporal government that makes demands and (hopefully) provides benefits for its citizens. We are too prone to impose a 21st century American mindset on this situation. The people of Palestine did not vote for their leaders. They were not part of a democracy. They paid taxes and, in return, found some stability and order under Roman rule. They were a conquered people who were making the best of a bad situation.
Those of us who live in the United States of America have a very different situation. We not only expect something from our taxes, we demand it! When we don’t get what we want, we protest, organize, and vote. This is does not mean that we will get what we desire, but we jealousy guard the right of dissent even when we might find it abused on some fronts. This is a citizenship that we cannot take lightly. There are many who would take advantage of the openness and tolerance of our nation. There are also many who take its benefits for granted.
On the other hand, Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God which began to be manifested in this world with the coming of the Messiah. Exactly what this means has led to conflict and bloodshed through the centuries. Some have interpreted this to mean that the government should be subservient to the church, but too often political leaders have found ways to manipulate religious power for their own ends. Many bloody wars have been fought by temporal leaders in the name of religion but for their own benefit.
Many of those who came to the North America in the 1600s were trying to escape some of that conflict but too often they sought to unite the temporal and the spiritual for their own ends. In the 1700s and 1800s, some religious groups including Baptists took a stand for a new approach—a free church in a free state. This was not an easy concept for many to accept then and many still bridle at the idea, attempting to rewrite history for their own personal and political ends.
Believers today are left with the tension of having dual citizenship. Sometimes this may create a crisis of conscience for an individual. It may even bring a person of strong conviction in conflict with the law of the land. In such situations, we turn back to the words of Jesus. What belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar? The answer is not always as clear as some would like for it to be.