Payback as Opposed to Patriotism
"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," are some of the most well known words Jesus spoke. He is speaking of payback not patriotism. When Jesus says, "Give" to Caesar and to God what belongs to each; He doesn't use the ordinary word for 'give.' He uses a word meaning 'payback.' We owe our country something and we owe our God something. The idea is to payback each accordingly. Patriotism, love, and devotion to one's country, while not wrong, can cloud the issue of who is owed what.
The issue shouldn't be cloudy at all. The Bible is very clear about what we owe God and what we owe country. To country, we owe the 3 P's: payment, prostration, and prayer.
While we groan about paying taxes, God is very clear that we owe our country payment. It has a right to tax us, and we should willingly pay. That's the issue before Jesus in our text. Should taxes be paid to Caesar or not? Jesus said they should. This was a radical thing to say since many Jews held that paying taxes to Rome was helping to support the oppression of God's people. That's why Jewish authorities taught that it was lawful to make false returns, to lie, to use almost any means to avoid paying taxes.
God says we owe our government payment. He also says we owe it prostration. We are to submit to it. God says in Romans 13:1, "Be in subjection to the governing authorities." In 1 Peter 2, He commands, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution." Peter goes on to say we owe our government respect and honor, and please note; nowhere in Scripture will you find an "if" in front of these commands. God doesn't command us to submit to government if it's our political party. He doesn't say respect those in authority if they are worthy. No, God says respect and submit to governing authority because it is His institution.
This means Ben Franklin was wrong when he advocated that the seal of the United States should have the motto, "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." Never were there more tyrannical leaders than the emperors who ruled in the days of Peter and Paul; nevertheless, it was to these that Paul and Peter commanded submission. Hear Luther on this: "We too ought not to pay attention to how evil the tyrants may be but to how precious and useful is the office which they have from God." Luther goes on to say, "We are commanded in Sacred Scripture to forget and cover the sins of those in authority. ...It is a special fraud of Satan that we so quickly notice and pay attention to the errors of princes."
Perhaps if we heeded Luther's words we would remember our leaders more frequently in prayer. This too we owe our nation. Jeremiah told the captive Israelites to "pray to the Lord" for the nation holding them captive. Paul commands Pastor Timothy "that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgiving be made on behalf of kings and all who are in authority." If God commanded His Church to pray for a government that held them captive, oppressed them, and persecuted them, how much more do we owe prayers for our government? If God commanded prayers be said for immoral, licentious, greedy, lying kings and emperors, then He certainly wouldn't exclude our leaders because of their many sins.
Scripture says we owe our government payment, prostration, and prayer. What does Scripture say we owe God? Love, trust, and praise.
God commands us to love Him with all of our heart, soul, and mind. There's no command in Scripture to love your country. You may very well love it, but you are not commanded by God to and nobody can require you to. This means Thomas Jefferson was wrong when he said that while we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we should love our country more than ourselves. You may indeed feel that way, but you don't have to and you're not a poor citizen if you don't.
You don't owe your country love. It's not something you have to pay back to it. Scripture nowhere commands you to love your country. What Scripture does tell us is that we're pilgrims passing through whatever country we're living in. Scripture tells us that we're strangers and exiles no matter what country we call home. It's true that we are commanded to seek the welfare of the nation we are exiled in, but our hearts are to be heaven. Like travelers on a journey, this persistent longing we have for our true home won't allow us to feel at home in the nation we're passing through.
To God we owe love. To God we are to payback love. Likewise, to God we owe and are to payback trust. Living in what many consider to be the last of the Superpowers, it's easy to put our trust in it. But we're no more to rely on our nation for protection, provision, and peace than the people of Belize, Martinique, or Malaysia are to rely on theirs.
"But," you say, "People in these tiny backward, defenseless nations would be fools for relying on their countries." You're right according to human reason, but Scripture not reason is to be our guide, and Scripture says that we would be fools to put our trust in this or any nation. Scripture puts all nations in the same category. It doesn't make distinctions like: Third World, Developing, or member of the UN Security Council. Scripture says that relying on any nation is foolish. It's like relying on a reed for support. The reed bends, then it breaks, and then it runs right through your hand.
Our trust is to be in God; we owe Him that. He is the One who made us, giving us life and breath. He is the One who preserves us, giving us all that we need to support this body and life. He is the One who redeemed us, giving His only beloved Son over to judgment and death to pay for our sins. These United States don't give you clothing and shoes, house and home, food and drink, the Lord God does. No political leader has been or ever will be crucified in your place; the Lord Jesus has been. And while many soldiers have given their lives for our sakes, not one of them went to hell in our place. While their blood was spilled for us and we rightly honor their sacrifice, not one of them delivered us from sin, death, or the devil by spilling their blood, our Lord Jesus did.
There is a fine balance to be struck here. We owe praises to God for all the He has done for us through our nation. We owe Him praise for giving us a strong nation, a prosperous nation, and a nation that allows us to practice our religion freely. But we are not to praise our nation.
It's true; God does many wonderful things through the nations, but He doesn't need any of them. God could have lifted Belize, Martinique, or Malaysia to the heights He has raised America, so He sure doesn't depend on America to preserve His Church or carry out His plans. Luther said, "God takes nations with the same seriousness as children take card games." His thought is in line with but it doesn't go as far as what God Himself says in Isaiah 40: "Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; the Lord weighs the continents as they were fine dust...Before Him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by Him as worthless and less than nothing." See? God doesn't treat nations even as seriously as a card game.
We owe praise, trust, and love to God, and prayer, prostration, and payment to our nation. But God owes something too. He has obligated Himself to payback both the nations and His people. God promises that He will payback the nations by judging them. He will judge them for shedding innocent blood by unjust wars, by the unjust killing of those outside or inside the womb, or by failing to punish murderers. He will also judge them for their disregard of natural revelation. Nations have no excuse for accepting and endorsing homosexuality, living together, and premarital sex. Nations will be judged by God for refusing to see what common sense does not miss. Well, did Thomas Jefferson say, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
Tremble for your country; tremble for the nations, because God owes them and will repay them with judgment. But don't tremble for the people of God no matter what nations they are in because God says He "owes" them mercy. God sent His Son into the world to die for the sins of all nations. He sent His Son into the world to redeem all the nations of the world. Having accomplished their redemption on Good Friday, God the Son sent this saving message into all the nations on Easter.
This saving message brings some out of all nations into Christ's Church. To those in Christ, regardless of the nation they're from God promises there is no condemnation, no judgment. God obligates Himself, for the sake of what Jesus did, to payback His people who deserve punishment for their sins, forgiveness instead, instead of war He promises peace, instead of judgment, mercy.
Our concern then is to be in the Church, among the people of God, no matter what nation we live in. As the people of God in a particular nation, we will payback that nation by paying, prostrating, and praying. But since our lives, salvation, and security come from God not from our nation, we "payback" God with love, trust, and praise.
While not wrong in itself, patriotism can make you feel like you owe your country love, trust, and praise putting God in the background. Our text brings us back to the truth about who does what for us and who we owe for what. God indebts us to our country no matter how good or bad it is by His Word. God indebts us to Himself by all that He does for us. So we could paraphrase President Kennedy's famous words: Ask not what you can do for your God; ask what you can do for your country. And ask not what your country has done for you, but what has God done for you and your country. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XXII (20051016); Matthew 22: 15-21