The scriptures referred to are Matthew 22:15-22.
The first rule of Fight Club is you may not talk about Fight Club. The first rule of Calvinball, the favorite game of the titular characters in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, is there are no rules. Other than wearing a black mask. At least as far as I can see. Not that some people haven't tried to codify the chaos observed whenever the boy and his tiger play it. According to Kim's Calvin and Hobbes page (here) the unofficially official rules include: “any player may declare a new rule at any point in the game. The player may do this audibly or silently.” “The Calvinball field should consist of areas, or zones, which are governed by a set of rules declared spontaneously and inconsistently by players.” “Score may be kept or disregarded. In the event that score is kept, it shall have no bearing on the game nor shall it have any logical consistency to it.” Equipment may include croquets, tennis rackets, hobby horses, flags, buckets of water and balls from any other sport. According to Calvin, the only permanent rule in Calvinball is that you can't play it the same way twice.
It's a hilarious conceit in a fictional universe. In real life, not so much. Consistency is important if you want to do, well, anything. Imagine a world where things like gravity or the solidity of substances like rock or metal or wood or the speed at which light reached your eyes varied from time to time or place to place. Imagine not being able to trust your past experience with things or places because they are subject to sudden and unexpected change. It would be a nightmare. If there were no consistency, no predictable natural laws governing the universe, science would not be possible. That's why as fun as it is to read and watch the Harry Potter tales, a universe in which some individuals could alter time or create, destroy or manipulate matter with words and a wand would be a hellish place.
Because it's people that are not all that consistent or completely predictable. That's why we have laws. That's why we have governments. To try to impose some kind of order on human behavior. And only a fool believes government is, in principle, a bad thing. As with everything, there are things that governments do well and things they don't do well. As someone on the internet observed, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians when it comes to disaster relief. Properly managed, the organizational skills and resources that governments command can do wonders. Government is not the answer to everything but neither is it the root of all evil. In fact, it is only evil when evil people are in control and when they are as capricious in governing as the players of Calvinball. Such as when they exempt themselves from the rules that govern everyone else.
There are some groups that sees government as a problem, period. They are reluctant to say anything good about it. Some of those people call themselves Christian. And I would love to see what such people make of Jesus' statement in today's gospel.
We've read this passage hundreds of times and so I don't need to recap it. I will merely repeat what Jesus says: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.” Jesus is saying there are spheres of life that are legitimately under the authority of human government. And the most startling implication of what he says is that the government he was living under was that of the Roman Empire. Again there were things the Empire did well: building roads and making travel safe and organizing things. It did provide a large of amount of consistency to those who lived under it. The Pax Romana is probably part of the reason Christianity spread and grew as it did. What the Empire didn't do well was observe what we would call civil rights, especially for those who weren't Roman citizens. But the idea of universal human rights wasn't really a thing yet. It's still not a reality for a lot of people. The difference is that, at least in democratic countries, individuals can petition their government and stand a chance of making changes in laws and policies. In Jesus' day, not so much. And it was that government, that dictatorship backed by a formidable military which was occupying Jesus' native county, that Christ said nevertheless had a legitimate authority over some aspects of our lives, including that of taxes.
The devil is in the details, of course. And countless books and speeches and position papers have been written about what government should and should not do. I can't possibly cover those details. I just want to point out a few relevant and important principles.
First, those who follow Jesus cannot dismiss the very idea of human government. To do so goes against not only what Jesus taught but also the general thrust of the rest of the New Testament and mind you, much of it was written during times of persecution of the church. We usually focus on what Paul writes in Romans 13, about the governing authorities being God's agent for keeping law and order. But we find a very similar argument laid down in 1 Peter: “For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13-14) He writes this despite the fact that the recipients of that letter were actively suffering. Later in chapter 4, it says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's suffering, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker.” (1 Peter 4:12-15) 1 Peter doesn't go as far as Paul in calling the emperor God's servant but does say that Christians should “honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17) Note the distinction. We are not to fear or love the head of human authority but we are to honor him. By the way the emperor at the time was Nero!
But what if human authorities are going against the explicit will of God (as opposed to what we personally feel should be God's will)? When the high priest ordered Peter and the apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus, their response was, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29) Note that the prohibition was against one of the things Jesus explicitly told us to do: making disciples and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. (Matthew 28:19-20) This was not about Christmas greetings or wedding cakes or putting the Ten Commandments on government property. This was at the heart of Jesus' teachings. In fact it was trying to suppress his teachings. And there was no first amendment then guaranteeing anyone freedom of speech. The apostles only disobeyed the authorities because they forbade them to teach about Jesus.
And the apostles took whatever punishment the authorities meted out to them. It says in Acts that when the authorities “called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home, they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” (Acts 5:40-42) In the same way the civil rights marchers in the 1960s willingly took the punishment authorities doled out to them for their civil disobedience but did not stop working for the cause, the apostles took the penalties for their disobedience to human law but continued to spread the gospel.
Even under the persecution that prompted the writing of the Book of Revelation, the response of Christians was to stand firm even if it meant martyrdom. Unlike the protagonists of the Left Behind novels, followers of Jesus are not to resort to violence but to be witnesses to the truth (which is the actual definition of the Greek word martus.) The only army on God's side are the heavenly host, the angels. And, despite what you've heard, there is no battle of Armageddon. Yes, the kings of the earth gather there against God but they are swallowed up by a great earthquake. That's hardly a battle. Plus the earthquake takes out Babylon. Neither the actual Babylon nor Rome, the city we suppose the writer of Revelation is calling Babylon, are located anywhere near Mount Megiddo, which is what Armageddon means. So it is as much a symbol as the idea that the world will be ruled by a beast with seven heads and ten horns.
So generally Christians should obey and get along with the government. As Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18) But what if that is not possible? What if the government you are living under is that of Nazi Germany or Pol Pot's Cambodia or Stalin's Soviet Union? What if the government is actively hostile to the church and its work?
When the the emperor Nero began to persecute the church, sometimes using Christians as torches for his garden, many accepted martyrdom for the faith. Persecution was sporadic and regional for the most part, having to do with Christians not making sacrifices to the divine emperor. The emperor Decius actually sent roving commissions to the cities to make sure people made public sacrifices to him. If they didn't they were imprisoned, tortured and even executed. Some Christians fled to the countryside. Some bought certificates that said they had made the sacrifices. After that persecution, councils debated whether or not to accept these lapsed Christians back into the church.
Some Christians went underground—literally. Since most were lower class or slaves and couldn't buy land for burial, they dug tunnels in the soft volcanic rock around Rome and not only buried the martyrs there but set up chapels and altars where they could worship. A lot of early Christian art exists in the catacombs including the earliest depictions of Christ. The Jesus fish symbol or ICTHUS was used as a secret sign to identify Christian meeting places and tombs. The word served as an acrostic in Greek. It stands for Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter or in English, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
In Nazi Germany, Christians both confronted the government and worked underground. The Confessing Church emerged as a movement opposing the Nazi attempt to unify all Protestant churches into a single Protestant Reich Church. A small number of Christians, such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoffer, resisted this policy and declared that Nazi ideology could not be reconciled to Christian theology and ethics. One of the inciting incidents was the adoption of the Aryan Paragraph, which defrocked clergy with any Jewish blood as well as clergy married to non-Aryans. Essentially it nullified the baptism of people of Jewish descent. Some of those who supported the new pro-Nazi German Evangelical Church argued for the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. The Confessing Church declared that the church was not an “organ of the State.” Many of its leaders, like Bonhoffer, were sent to concentration camps.
A few in the Confessing Church also hid Jews, often passing a hat after services for people to donate identity cards that would be altered to let Jews pass as citizens. And in fact many Christians throughout Nazi-occupied Europe hid Jews and forged ration cards in order to feed them. The clergy of St. Francis' hometown of Assisi hid Jews in the cloistered nunneries and monasteries to keep them safe from the Nazis. Their justification was the implied answer to Cain's question of “Am I my brother's keeper?”
Another justification can be found in the actions of the midwives in Exodus who were ordered by Pharaoh to kill newborn Hebrew males. They lied and said the Hebrew women delivered too quickly for the midwives to get there in time. And God approved of this deception, we are told. (Exodus 1:15-22) Lying is generally condemned in the Bible (Leviticus 19:11) but there is a hierarchy of values and in an extraordinary situation such as having to save innocent lives from an immoral government, deception may at times be morally necessary. (Notice the heavy qualification in that sentence.)
There is one other possible relationship of the church to government and that is the alliance of the two. And as we have seen throughout history, that can lead to precisely the problem that the Confessing Church faced: making the church an arm of the secular government. In the early church they had to wrestle with whether a Christian could work for or in the government. Hopefully, Christians in government could influence it to act in a more Christian and moral way. But too often the influence works the other way. Christians in government find themselves justifying unChristian behavior by their employer. And indeed in Europe, where there are formal ties between church and state, the influence of the church has diminished. I think that the decline in the church in America is at least in part because very vocal, very visible Christians and their followers allied themselves with a political party and thereby brought disgrace to the church and corruption of the message it proclaims. Human leaders come and go, parties dissolve, nations can fall. Jesus is Lord, regardless of who the secular rulers are. God is not a Republican, a Democrat, a Socialist, a Fascist or a Communist. There has never been a human government totally in line with the kingdom of God. We must never forget that.
There are, as Luther observed, two kingdoms in which we live: whatever nation we are physically born into or where we live, and the kingdom of God. The relationship of the two is paradoxical. Insofar as we can, we should obey and honor our government. But we must stand up to it when it is corrupt or actively opposing the essential principles of following Jesus. When it tells us to hate anyone, we must not, because all are created in the image of God and Christ died for all. Jesus told us to love our neighbors and even our enemies. We are therefore forbidden to hate or harm or allow harm to come to anyone. Whenever government actively goes after or passively lets suffer those who are Jesus' siblings (the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the immigrant, to name a few Jesus explicitly cites) we must oppose it.
Life is not a game. It cannot be put in a box, with a sheet of a few simple rules. We cannot live without rules, either, like Calvinball. Nor can we tolerate rules that give some a big head start in life while hobbling others or not letting them compete fairly. We must use the hearts God gave us, filled with his Spirit, to determine how to love all the inconsistent, unpredictable people we encounter and we must use the brains he gave us, enlightened by his Word, to figure out how to do so wisely in all the different and often fluid situations we encounter. We won't do it perfectly but we can learn and talk with each other and improve.
And let us never forget to give God what is God's, that is, ourselves. His image is stamped on us, as Caesar's was on a coin, and it is God's decision how best to use us.