Where Does Our True Loyalty Lie?
Some of you here are old enough to remember the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’, made back in the mid 1980s. The movie is based on the story of Eric Liddell, a runner who competed in the Paris Olympic Games in 1924. Eric was one of the fastest runners of his day and was scheduled to compete in the 100 metre sprint. However, he was also a devout Scottish Presbyterian who believed in strict observance of Sunday, and when he discovered that the heats for the race were going to be run on a Sunday, he pulled out and refused to compete. Eventually he ran in the 400 metre race – a distance he had never competed at before – and surprised everyone by winning the gold medal.
The movie dramatizes the story a little, as movies generally do. In actual fact Eric knew about the Sunday races months beforehand, but the movie has him only finding out on the boat on the way over to Parish. The movie also adds a dramatic scene where senior members of the British Olympic Committee, including the Prince of Wales, try to persuade Eric to compromise his principles and run in the race. The Prince of Wales explains to him that they share a common allegiance to king and country, and that they are all called to make sacrifices out of loyalty to that allegiance. One crusty old lord on the committee adds, “Yes, and in my day it was king first, God after!” But Eric Liddell refused, and spent that Sunday morning in church instead.
Whether or not we agree with Eric’s principles about the observance of Sunday, we can appreciate the difficult position he was in and we can admire his resolution to put nothing ahead of obedience to God’s commandments as he understood them. And this does raise the question of ultimate loyalty. If push comes to shove, what comes first: my loyalty to God, or my loyalty to my country?
Over in Iran right now a little drama is going on; a Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, has been in jail for months, accused of the crime of apostasy – that is, of converting from Islam to Christianity. Apostasy is a capital offence in Iran and so Pastor Youcef has been on trial for his life. If he will renounce his Christian faith and convert to Islam he can go free; if not, dire consequences may be ahead for him. I have been following the story; a couple of weeks ago it seemed that death was close for Pastor Youcef, but we just got word this week that the Iranian supreme court has ordered a new trial for him. And so his ordeal continues.
This sort of conflict between loyalty to Christ and loyalty to those in civil authority is of course just ‘business as usual’ for Christians in much of the Islamic world, but we’re not used to the idea that it may become an issue for us here in Canada. After all, we used to think that we lived in a so-called ‘Christian country’ – whatever that means – and that society around us would cheer for the same beliefs and values that we did. Nowadays that is blatantly not the case, and in fact it may give us cause to wonder whether it ever really was. So what is the relationship between our loyalty to Christ and our loyalty to Canada? Is it all peaceful and easy, or are there points of tension? And if there are points of tension, what ought we to be doing?
As we think about these questions, today’s gospel reading gives us food for thought. The scene is the Temple courts in Jerusalem, in the week before Jesus’ death and resurrection. Since he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey a couple of days ago, the tension has been mounting between Jesus and the Jerusalem leaders – the priests, the Pharisees, and the political establishment. He has had a series of disputes with them and has told some parables which read like sharply-worded criticisms of them and their regime. Now, in the rest of Matthew 22, the leaders are going to try to trap Jesus by asking him some trick questions, questions to which he could easily give answers that would get him into trouble. And that’s their whole purpose: to get him into trouble. Their questions are not sincere; they are out to score political points against Jesus and, if possible, to get him arrested.
The first question concerns an issue dear to the heart of Albertans: taxes! As we heard in our gospel for today, the Pharisees and the Herodians brought Jesus a question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (v.17).
Just a couple of background points here. First, the Pharisees and Herodians were political opponents. The Herodians were supporters of the family of King Herod Antipas of Galilee; they were in bed with the Roman occupation and as a result had gained a lot of advantage and wealth. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that it was totally wrong for God’s chosen people to be under foreign rule; they believed that if all Israel scrupulously obeyed God’s Law, then God would reward them by sending them the Messiah, the King who would drive out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem. So for these two groups to actually be co-operating against Jesus shows how dangerous they thought he was, and how desperate they were to do away with him.
Second, the tax in question was the poll tax; it was imposed by the Romans on every adult in Judea, including women and slaves. The tax caused wide resentment, as you can imagine. How would you feel if you woke up one morning to find that a foreign army had occupied your country and was now imposing a tax on everyone to pay for the occupation? When Jesus was a young boy a man named Judas the Galilean had led a revolt against the tax; the Romans had mercilessly crushed the rebellion and crucified its leaders.
So this was not just an academic question the leaders were bringing to Jesus. If he said, “No, it is not lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar”, he would be declaring a new rebellion against Rome, and there would be no way of avoiding violence and bloodshed. On the other hand, if he was claiming to be leading a ‘Kingdom of God’ movement, there was no way he could endorse the paying of taxes to Caesar: surely the whole point of God becoming King was that Caesar wouldn’t be? To endorse imperial taxation would have invited ridicule and resentment from the ordinary people who were all looking for a political and military Messiah to deliver them from Roman oppression and corruption.
Third, the coin in which the taxes were paid was a Roman silver coin, a denarius. The head of Caesar was stamped on the coin, and also an inscription claiming that Caesar was the son of a god and supreme high priest. These coins had caused huge unrest in Judea. Jewish law forbad the making of graven images, and the head of Caesar on the coin was interpreted as being just such a graven image. The inscription also was seen as idolatrous – who was Caesar to claim to be a son of a god and the supreme high priest? So great was Jewish opposition to the coins that the Romans had compromised and allowed the Jewish people to mint their own copper coins, with no such image and inscription, for daily use in Judea. However, the Romans insisted that the poll tax be paid using a proper silver denarius, so the coins were still in circulation in Judea. But they were seen as tainted, and it would be especially offensive for a Jew to take one of them into the Temple, the house of the one true God.
So how does Jesus respond to the question? Well, of course, he sees right through it; he knows they are trying to trap him. So he responds: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites! Show me the coin used for the tax” (vv.18-19a).
This was very clever. First of all, by asking someone to show him the coin he was making it clear that he didn’t actually have any of that tainted Roman money on him. But he was also putting the Pharisees and Herodians in a difficult situation. Would they own up to having Caesar’s money in their pockets? We can only guess that it was a Herodian, and not a Pharisee, who dug into his coin purse and shamelessly handed Jesus one of those idolatrous coins! Nonetheless, the Pharisees and Herodians were working together here, and so the Pharisees also would be tainted by association; we can almost hear the crowd start to hiss and boo as the hated silver denarius is passed to Jesus. And of course Jesus has made a point here without saying anything. He’s said, “You’re trying to trap me into a position of disloyalty to God, but I’m not the one who’s carrying Caesar’s money: you are!” So he’s already scored a point in the eyes of the crowd.
The story continues: ‘“Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s”. Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”’ (vv.20-21).
This is not just a clever, ambiguous reply that gets Jesus off the hook. It’s actually a profound theological principle that gives us a place to start when we consider the question of conflicting loyalties between God and the state. Let’s unpack it for a minute.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”. By these words, Jesus indicated quite clearly that he was not interested in following the way of Judas the Galilean or the Zealots; he was not going to start a tax revolt against Rome. He knew what human nature is like; even if a revolt was successful, the new leaders would quickly become every bit as corrupt as the old one. What was needed was not just a change in government or a change in tax policy; what was needed was a change at the deepest level of the human personality.
So on the surface Jesus seems to be endorsing the poll tax – enough to get him out of trouble with the Romans, anyway. But then he goes on to say, “and give to God the things that are God’s”. This immediately qualifies the endorsement he has given. Not everything that Caesar demands is rightfully Caesar’s. Yes, he may be a political leader, but he’s not ‘the divine Caesar’ and he’s certainly not ‘son of a god’. To give to God the things that are God’s means that when Caesar comes knocking on our door asking for those things, we have nothing to give him. “Sorry, sir: I already gave those things to God. You’ll have to take it up with him”.
What are those things that belong to God? Ultimately, God has a right to our unconditional loyalty and obedience. God is the only one who can legitimately claim this of us: that whatever he asks of us, we give it to him. No one else has that right. So to say, as some do, “My country, right or wrong”, is ruled out. To commit ourselves to loyalty to our country no matter what it asks of us is an act of idolatry; it is to put our country in the place of God.
But earthly countries do not usually like being put in second place, as Eric Liddell found out. Another person who found it out was George Bell, Bishop of Chichester in the Church of England during the Second World War. Bell was not a pacifist, as I am: he believed in the Christian theological tradition of the ‘Just War’: the idea that under certain conditions Christians may legitimately take up arms and fight for their country. One of those conditions was that noncombatant civilians not be harmed. Britain in the 1940s claimed to be a Christian country, and so Bell rose in the House of Lords to condemn the carpet bombing of German cities which was killing thousands of unarmed noncombatant civilians. Bell was the only bishop to speak out on this; he was accused of being a traitor and a Nazi-lover, and his views were ridiculed and condemned by the overwhelming majority of British Christians.
Tempting as it is to go further with this, I am not going to speculate this morning about what other specific issues might bring our loyalty to Christ into conflict with our loyalty to our country. I simply want to point out that, as our country and the other countries of the west become more and more secular, it is likely that there will be more issues on which we find that we are standing apart from our fellow-citizens. And when those issues arise, loyalty to Christ will demand that we continue to stand apart.
Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”. So it is not wrong for us to pay our taxes; it isn’t wrong for us to be good neighbours and good citizens and work together with our non-Christian neighbours to try to make our city and our country – and indeed the whole world – better places to live. Civil government is part of God’s plan for the ordering of his world, and we can participate in it as Christians with a clear conscience and even a sense of calling.
But Jesus goes on to say, “give to God the things that are God’s”. Ultimately, the Christian is a citizen of two countries – a temporary one, that will pass away one day, and a permanent one that will last forever. When our temporary country demands our absolute obedience and calls us to be disobedient to our true King, we have to be clear about our response. Jesus Christ is Lord of all, which means that Caesar is not. The kingdom of God will be a shining reality long after our earthly country has been forgotten. So we must be clear where our ultimate loyalty lies: it lies with God and with his anointed King, Jesus Christ our Lord.