"For 'tis love, and love alone, the world is seeking;
And 'tis love, and love alone, that can repay!
'Tis the answer, 'tis the end and all of living,
For it is love alone that rules for aye!"
Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today, we see again, as we do in diverse places in the Gospels, how the enemies and rivals of Jesus attempt to trip him up in his own words; and yet again, he cleverly foils their attempts to trap him. You might remember that the Sadducees construct an absurd hypothetical situation concerning a woman who has been married multiple times (legally!) in order to get him to deny the resurrection; here, certain Pharisees try to get him to speak sedition so that they can have an excuse to denounce him to the authorities for advising the Jews not to pay taxes to their overlords, the Romans. Jesus points out, quite rightly, that the image on the coin is that of Caesar, and that they are obliged by law to pay him tribute, whether they like it or not. He then reminds them of their duty to pay Caesar his due, even as they pay God his.
This is an important lesson for us to remember in our time as well; not just that we should pay our taxes (though of course, as citizens of a land which affords us certain benefits, it would be dishonest to enjoy those benefits and not contribute our fair share toward their provision), but that we live in not one, but two worlds, and that they are, in many ways, different places.
We live on the planet Earth; a world which is broken, imperfect, and fallen. We see the evidence around us every day; murder, rape, famine, and every other inhumanity that the human brain can conceive. Our newspapers are filled with the misdeeds of our fellow men (and women). The world we live in today is not the one we knew as children, and as we age it seems to get worse. This is the world we find ourselves in at our birth, the world we go to school and work in, the world we inhabit until we die.
But alongside this world is another one. We also live in the Church. Not the physical structure of a church building (although of course, some people do), nor yet the administrative ecclesiastical hierarchy of the institution, but the invisible church which the prayer book calls "the blessed company of all faithful people" : the Church to which we are called as witnesses for the world and for each other of God's great work of redemption. And though our citizenship on this planet is temporary, we are promised that our status as subjects of God's Kingdom is eternal.
It's very tempting because of this fact to conclude that since we are God's subjects we need not worry about any responsibilities to the temporal authorities we happen to find ourselves living under; but this would be a terrible mistake. For God expects us to obey the authorities that are placed over us, insofar of course as our responsibilities to them do not conflict with our responsibilities to God. Look at the early Christians for an example : there was no point at which the Christians rebelled against Imperial authority. In fact, it could be said of them that they were model Roman subjects (or, some of them, citizens) : they paid their tributes, didn't cause trouble, did great works of charity, and conducted themselves in every respect as law-abiding residents of the Empire. Only when the demands of the state directly contravened the commands of God did they refuse to comply, even to the point of martyrdom. The example is quite clear : we are not to use our status as Christians to get out of our reasonable responsibilities to our rulers. Our status as Christians does not absolve us from our duties as citizens.
Of course, there is another side to this coin. If the world is truly fallen and broken, and human beings commit such grievous enormities, then surely they are in need of authority to regulate their behavior. Why don't we just take hold of the government ourselves, as Christians, and simply pass laws that will make everyone behave the way they ought to?
This is the line of reasoning held by a group of Christians who espouse a political philosophy known as Dominionism, or Christian Reconstructionism. Inflamed by the example of John Calvin's Geneva, they seek to establish a theocracy which will enforce Biblical morality (complete with Old Testament punishments), ushering in a new golden age in which Christian morality will set the tone for society, and in which public drunkenness, adultery, and filial disobedience alike would be punishable by death. What's wrong with this picture? Plenty.
First of all, I am at a loss to know of any law that has ever made human beings good. Laws do not impart righteousness; following laws doesn't impart righteousness. We cannot be righteous by *doing* things. We are made righteous through grace. A law is powerless to make anybody good; the function of the law is to inform people of the behavior that is expected of them, and to provide a mechanism whereby transgressors may be punished. And certainly, the fact that there are laws against certain things does deter people from doing those things, generally speaking, but it is also true that those who are determined (for whatever reason) to be criminals are not deterred by the illegality of their chosen profession.
Secondly, and related to the first point, people cannot be converted to Christianity en masse, much less by force. Conversion is an individual process, and not one that can be imposed upon a group of people by fiat. I'm sure we've all heard of the mass baptisms of the barbarian Germanic tribes in the early Middle Ages : as awe-inspiring as the thought of all those armored, bearded, fierce-looking Franks tromping down to the river and being dunked may be, I can't help but have misgivings about the depth and sincerity of their conversions. They were simply doing as their kings and commanders told them, and it is doubtful that many of them experienced any real change in their daily lives. Conversion to Christianity doesn't work that way; we are converted one by one, and each generation provides that many more subjects for conversion. Even if we managed to successfully convert every person in the United States to a sincere and deep Christian faith, hundreds more would be born tomorrow who would require it. It's not transmitted hereditarily!
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we have no warrant in the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament for imposing our beliefs and ethics upon the rest of the world. If Jesus had wished us to take over the government and force everyone to behave by our rules, he would certainly have said so, and he was certainly capable of it himself. But he did not do so, nor command us to do so. We are not meant to rule over our fellow human beings, but to be a light unto them; not to judge and punish them, but to model Christianity to them; not to coerce, but to convince. This is not easy. It requires us to be really serious about our faith, and about how we appear as examples of our faith to other human beings. By contrast, passing laws and telling other people what to do and how *they* should behave is a lot easier--but of course it isn't as effective.
In effect, we are dual citizens : of the world and the Church, the polis and the ekklesia. Our membership in one does not excuse us from duty to the other, and although our Christian values should always guide us in our actions, we are given no warrant for imposing those values upon others. It is easy to fall prey to excess in one direction or the other; but, as is so often the case, the straight and narrow way is the correct one. Let us, therefore, always bear in our minds the necessity of rendering unto both the state and the Church that which is rightfully theirs, and let us pray for the ability to discern the difference between one sphere and the other.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.