Is it ever right to go against the law of the land? The established church has traditionally sided with the State throughout its history. Is this always right? The Gospel reading this week is the account of the trick question put to Jesus by the religious leaders about paying taxes to Caesar.
Up to this point Jesus has been attacking the Jewish leaders (the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants and the parable of the wedding banquet) so it was natural to expect retaliation from the religious authorities. This counterattack comes in the form of a carefully framed question designed to discredit Jesus. Let us be clear, that is all it was – there was no theological interest. Interestingly the religious leaders were so determined to destroy Jesus that they sided with the Herodians (supporters of the Roman puppet king, king Herod). Normally these two groups would fight against each other (religious versus secular) but they were united when it came to trying to get rid of Jesus. There was a whole raft of legalistic and political meaning in this question with which we may be unaware. For example, if Matthew’s Gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple in AD70, then the Temple tax would no longer go towards the Temple in Jerusalem but, by decree of Caesar, to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. You can imagine therefore how much Roman taxes were despised. However, Jesus is wise. Jesus seldom laid down rules and regulations which would have only been relevant to a specific context but, rather, he lays down principles. That is why Jesus’ teaching is not out of date. What does Jesus tell us? Basically, every Christian person has a double citizenship. Firstly, she or he is a citizen of the country where live. A Christian should pay taxes, uphold the law, and contribute to the prosperity of the State. She or he must be a good citizen who is fully immersed in the administration of that country – rather than leave it all to irreligious people. The Christian must ‘give to Caesar’ in return for the privileges of communal education, health, transport, social security, defence etc. However, secondly, the Christian is also a citizen of heaven. There will be matters of conscience and principle where the Christian is accountable to God.
Is it right to go against the law of the land? For many of us, the two citizenships above may never clash. What the State decrees is in line with the Gospel. Where there is a clash, the Christian should, as always, put God first. Where does the boundary lie? Jesus does not say but, rather, leaves it to the personal conscience of the individual Christian.
Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 33:12-23
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 22:15-22
Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Psalm for this week: Psalm 99