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When Politics and Faith are Confused (Luke 20:19-26)

May 1, 2022 Speaker: Bryce Morgan Series: Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)

Topic: Contemporary Issues, One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Luke 20:19–26

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Children's Lesson [click here]

I. “Every Wickedness and Disgrace”

Consider the following description of a well-known leader: “Again, while his mother lived, he was a compound of good and evil; he was infamous for his cruelty, though he veiled his debaucheries... Finally, he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when, fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations.” Those are the words of the Roman historian Tacitus, words describing Tiberius, the man who ruled Rome as Caesar from 14-37 AD.

 

II. The Passage: “Render to Caesar” (20:19-26)

Keep him in mind as you turn to Luke 20. This morning I'd like to look together at verses 19-26 of this chapter. Let me break this passage into a few sections and then take them one at a time.

 

1. Setting the Stage (vs. 19-20)

So I want you to notice how Luke sets the stage for the rest of our passage by describing what was happening behind this scenes in verses 19 and 20. Let me read those verses...

The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them [i.e., the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in verses 9-18], but they feared the people. [20] So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.

Remember where we are in the Gospel of Luke: after a long journey during which he made it clear he was going the city to suffer, be killed, and rise from the dead, Jesus finally arrived in Jerusalem in chapter 19. But since Jerusalem was the seat of religious power in Israel, his presence there was further galvanizing his opponents. Look at what Luke tells us at the end of the previous chapter. Take a look back to Luke 19:47–48...

And [Jesus] was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, [48] but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.

In light of that, chapter 20 describes how they proceeded. First, they challenged his authority in the opening verses of this chapter (20:1-8). But here, they have sent 'secret agents' who will (v. 20) “[pretend] to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said...”. But what does that mean? Catch him how? Well, the remainder of the verse partially answers that question: they wanted to “catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor (i.e., the Roman governor).”

 

2. Damned If You Do or Don't? (vs. 21-22)

So let's continue by looking at the trap they've devised to “catch” Jesus. We see them laying out this trap in verses 21 and 22...

So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. [22] Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”

Okay, hold on. How is this question a trap? In principle, it's a trap for the same reason it would be a trap today: depending on how a Christian leader answers a politically charged question, he or she would invariably be demonized by any number of factions inside and outside the Church, factions who didn't like the answer that was given. And without a doubt, the question we read in verse 22 was a politically charged question in first-century, Roman occupied Israel.

Think about the ways the religious leaders hoped Jesus would respond here:

First, in light of verse 20, they were hoping Jesus would answer, “No. It is not lawful to give tribute to Caesar”. The word “lawful” here has reference to the law of God (v. 21-they ask about “the way of God”). So if Jesus answered this way, he would be saying, “No, you should not give money to an evil, idolatrous, cruel and corrupt, Gentile entity like the Roman government and self-deifying leaders like Caesar. We are God's people! Any support you give simply enables these anti-God forces and betrays your lack of faith.” Now, if Jesus had answered that way, the religious leaders could build a case before their Roman overlords that Jesus was a political threat; an anti-Roman, messianic pretender who told people not to pay their taxes.

Second, Jesus might also answer the question in verse 22 in this way: “Yes. It is lawful for you to give tribute to Caesar.” Would that response frustrate the plans of the religious leaders. Well, it might not help them in terms of collusion with the Roman authorities, but it would help them with the crowds. Remember what we heard in Luke 19, verse 48? “...but [the Jewish leaders] did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.” If Jesus were to declare simply and publicly that it was right to pay taxes to these Gentile occupiers, then he would surely lose a lot of popular support from the Jewish people. A lot of people hoped he, as the son of David, would oust the Roman occupiers, not support their oppressive taxation policies and corrupt taxation practices.

And so, regardless of whether Jesus answered “yes” or “no”, the Jewish religious leaders believed this trap would, in one way or another, help them weaken his influence, and ultimately, to destroy him. But if we continue, look at what Luke goes on to tell us about this trap...

 

3. A Qualified “Yes” (vs. 23-26)

But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, [24] “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” [25] He said to them, “Then render [or pay] to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [26] And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.

So... did Jesus actually give them a 'yes or no' answer? He did. His answer was “yes”. But he qualified his response in a way that made it very hard to argue against his logic, especially when they carried that currency in their own moneybags. Yes, he was saying, “If it's Caesar's coin, give it back to Caesar.” But there's more to Christ's response here. We learn from His answer that there are two spheres of authority in which we move as both political and spiritual beings; that is, we need to recognize both civil authority and spiritual authority. As Jesus explains here, some things belong to the sphere of Caesar, and some things belong to the sphere of God.

But, wait a minute. If that's true, does it undermine the idea that God is the King of all creation? The One who is sovereign over all the nations of the earth? As the Psalmist declares in Psalm 47:7–8, “For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.” Is Jesus contradicting this? Not at all. It would not have been difficult for his Jewish audience to grasp the idea that God himself has established these spheres of authority, for they knew from passages like Daniel 4:32 that “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”

His listeners (especially the Jewish leaders) would have known and should have remembered that human rulers had a legitimate function in God's economy, and that Rome wasn't the first Gentile, idol-worshiping, corrupt government to have power over them as God's people. And like the Babylonians or Persians earlier in their history, they would have known and should have remembered how God was using those political entities to accomplish his sovereign purposes, specifically to discipline, to shelter, and to eventually bless his people.

Therefore, according to Jesus, whatever is owed to human rulers as those operating in their unique sphere of authority, give it; pay it; render it. And whatever is owed to God as the One operating in his unique sphere of authority, give it; pay it; render it. Paul would later affirm this teaching in several passages, including Romans 13:1–7. After confirming that “whoever resists the [governing] authorities resists what God has appointed” (v. 2), he concludes with the same application as Jesus. Romans 13:7, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” The Apostle Peter also affirms this perspective and posture in I Peter 2:13-17.

 

III. Two Spheres Today

Now, think about it: the response of Jesus here was meant to correct a kind of confusion, right? What exactly was being confused? These spheres of authority. That was the very thing Christ was clarifying for his listeners. Confusing these spheres of authority was the like the spring in the mousetrap. It was the mechanism that powered the trap laid by the religious leaders. But notice how Jesus handled this trap. He simply dismantled it.

While it certainly isn't something new, today, the Church is being tested in new ways by this very same confusion. In light of the two spheres Jesus mentions here, let's talk about two ways that we can avoid this confusion and walk in the truth of God's word.

First, Christians are still called to honor governing authorities, even when those governing are not honorable. Tiberius was, in large part, not an honorable man... especially by God's standards. So many other Roman leaders and Roman policies were equally dishonorable. But their positions and their policies in a generic sense were honorable in that they fulfilled God's own purpose for human governments. And yet how many Christians today are fixated on who and what is dishonorable in Caesar's realm, rather than on the importance of and wise ways to honor governing authorities?

I think many of these individuals imagine that Jesus was regularly decrying Roman moral and sexual compromise, along with systemic Roman injustices, in addition to Imperial economic oppression and class inequities, unjust military campaigns, and the consistent coarsening of Roman culture. I think they almost expect to read about such things, not because the NT gives us any indication that Jesus ever focused on such issues, but because that's how they themselves judge the value and virtue of genuine faith in today's world.

But even here in Luke 20, Jesus didn't get on a soap box or take pot shots at the Roman government or it's leaders. He simply said this concerning Roman rule: 'pay your taxes'. Do we live in a different time and place? Yes. Do we live under a different political system? Yes. But as followers of Jesus, we need to be extremely careful that our conversations, that our criticisms, that our activism, that our rants and tirades do not serve to undermine the government offices and institutions that serve God's purposes, no matter which party is in power. It doesn't honor God to burn the whole house down just because there are roaches in the kitchen and termites in the walls. We honor God when we honor Caesar as Caesar; when we honor him in his sphere.

Second, regardless of the political climate, Christians are called to pledge their ultimate allegiance to God alone. Though some would be eager to talk more about Caesar (or this president or that president), the emphasis in this passage has to be on the second half of Jesus' answer. Verse 25: “He said to them, 'Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.'” Think again about the scene here in Luke 20:19-26. These religious leaders are hoping to trap Jesus in order to do what? Verse 20: “so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.” Ah. They want Jesus to implicate himself politically so they can use political means to accomplish what they believe to be godly ends.

Remember, these men are leaders among God's people. But instead of looking to God these men are looking to human leaders for a human solution to what they seem to believe is the most pressing threat. Think about this: how many professing believers today are looking to human leaders for a human solution to what they seem to believe is the most pressing threat. How many are driven by today's political priorities to adopt today's political antagonism? How many are discipled far more regularly by CNN or Fox News than they are the word of God?

Again, Jesus doesn't stop after describing a right response to the Roman ruler. No. He points us to the Ruler over all things. And what do we owe Him? Our ultimate allegiance. Our deepest trust. Our highest praise. Our greatest efforts. Our purest passions. It should trouble us that many Christians today seem to be far more passionate... far more defensive, far more willing to engage about political issues than gospel issues. And for some, what spiritual interests they have seem to be informed mainly by their political interests, instead of the other way around.

Brothers and sisters, friends, let's not confuse these spheres. Let's trust that God is sovereign over both of them. Yes, it can be hard to know how to navigate today's political and cultural waters as followers of Jesus. But when we keep the gospel front and center, it reminds us daily about what is in fact the most pressing threat to our nation, to our state, to our community, to our schools and our military and our economy, to our climate and our borders and our families and our future. The most pressing threat to all of these things... and to you personally... is something no policy or politician could ever reform. This threat requires, not regulations, but a Redeemer. “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners...” (I Tim. 1:15) Our most pressing threat is that from which only Jesus can save us; that through which only Jesus can lead us. One day, we will no longer render to any Caesar, because no Caesar will remain; only the good government of God's kingdom. Let us, through the gospel, live daily in that hope, so that in both spheres we glorify the King of kings.

 

More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)

August 14, 2022

It Really is Finished (John 19:28-30)

August 7, 2022

Your Survival Kit for a 'Jesus-less' World (John 14:25-27)

July 31, 2022

Hearing the Voice of Jesus (John 10:22-27)