What should we give our country?
As I grapple with personal frustrations over executive actions in my country that endanger our environment, that pull away care and protection from our sick and our elderly, and that marginalize people on the basis of ethnicity, I come upon something Jesus said about my responsibility as a citizen. When asked whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus told those who were questioning Him to bring Him a coin. He asked them whose image was on the coin, then said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s….”
What does this mean to me? For one thing, it means that I must pay my taxes.
Across the top of the dollar bill in my wallet are the words, “Federal Reserve Note.” This tells me that the piece of paper in my wallet with a picture of George Washington carries the backing of the United States of America. If I took a piece of paper with my picture on it to the grocery store and tried to buy a pack of gum with it, the clerk would laugh me out of the store, for it has no backing of anyone but me and thus carries no actual value. But if I give to the clerk the piece of paper with the words “Federal Reserve Note,” I can purchase the pack of gum because that piece of paper has the backing of the United States of America. It’s as if the whole of the United States stand behind that dollar bill, vouching for its worth. That dollar bill belongs to the United States of America, so when Uncle Sam decides that it is time for me to give some of it back to him, I must do so. That dollar is not really mine, so, whether I like it or not, I must give to the United States what belongs to the United States. In other words, I must pay my taxes.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He began with, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” then He added, “and to God what is God’s.”
What does this mean to me?
The coin Jesus inquired about belonged to Rome because it bore the image of Caesar. The dollar bill in my wallet belongs to the United States government because it bears the image of George Washington. What is it then that belongs to God because it bears the image of God?
According to Genesis 1:27, we bear the image of God because we were created “in the image of God.”
In New Testament times, to mark something as belonging to a person, that person would create a seal that would represent him or her. That image or representation would be engraved into stone or metal or some other hard substance. This would then be pressed down upon a soft substance, leaving behind the impression that represents the maker and owner of the seal. Ephesians 1:13 speaks of God doing this in the soul of a Christian. By the work of the Holy Spirit, the likeness of Christ (or the character) of Christ is pressed down upon our soul, leaving His likeness (His character) in us.
So what does it mean we are to give to my country (or to any country in which a follower of Christ lives)?
We are called to do our best to give to our country the character of Christ, for that is what this nation most desperately needs.
I cannot get by with giving merely my taxes. I am called to give that which bears the character of Christ. I am to give to my nation the compassion of Christ toward those who are hurting, who are in need, who are the least among us. I am to give to my country and to my community the integrity of Christ, upholding what is just and right, striving for what is good.
Galatians 5:22-23 describes the character of Christ (or the fruit of the Spirit) as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Continually I should be asking myself: How can I give these qualities to my country?
Tear down the barriers
When Jesus died, something miraculous and transformative took place inside the temple in Jerusalem: the curtain that separated the glory of God from people was ripped in two—from top to bottom. With that torn curtain, God sent a message: Every barrier of sin and guilt that had separated us from God has been torn apart! The implications of this are huge—not only in terms of our relationship with God, but also in terms of our relationships with each other: If the barrier between you and God has been removed, and if the barrier between God and me has been removed, then, in Christ, what barrier can remain between you and me? In Christ, what barrier can remain between any of us?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem in the days leading up to His crucifixion, He presented a visible message to people in the temple that He had come to remove all barriers that would separate people from God or from each other.
What was this visible message He provided? He cleared the moneychangers and the sellers out of the temple!
The moneychangers and sellers represented barriers that needed to be thrown aside.
Certain temple taxes were required of all Jewish men, and Jewish men from all over the world came to Jerusalem to pay their taxes. But only Tyrian silver was accepted in the temple. All other coins were considered unclean and unacceptable within the temple. Moneychangers took the people’s common currency and exchanged it at exorbitant rates. Similarly, the temple authorities appointed inspectors to make sure that any animal presented for sacrifice was acceptable. If the inspector deemed the animal unworthy, the worshiper would have to purchase an approved animal from one of the temple sellers. Quite often, the temple sellers would charge as much as 20 times more than what the same animal would have been sold for outside the temple. Worshipers were being cheated. The greed and the profiteering of the moneychangers and the sellers had become blockades to worshipers being able to come to God.
Years ago, when I was in seminary, some people tried to recruit me to sell a certain product that also involved recruiting others to sell so that I would receive a portion of their earnings. These people argued that as a person who was preparing to become a minister, this would be a great opportunity for me to supplement my income, to “bless” others through the product I would sell, and to “bless” others by giving them opportunities to supplement their income. I turned down their push to join up, asking them, “How would people know whether I care about them with the love of Christ or whether I care about them for the profit that could bring me?”
Any time a church or ministry or minister profiteers off a person in the name of God, that becomes a barrier to God that must be torn down.
The moneychangers and sellers had set up their tables in the Court of the Gentiles. This was the portion of the temple where all who were not Jewish could have access to God. But once the Court of the Gentiles became overrun by the tables of the moneychangers and sellers, there was no room left for the Gentiles to come near to God. Those who were looked upon as “outsiders” or “not like us” were effectively blocked from God.
Jesus died to remove such barriers. He died to give all people access to God. The New Testament letters are full of counsel to believers to welcome into the church family people of all races, nations, ethnicities, genders, and social standing.
Whenever we exclude a person because they are “different than us,” or whenever we shun or ostracize or demean or mistreat someone because they are “not one of us,” such treatment is a barrier to God that must be torn down.
Jesus gave His life so as to tear the curtain and to remove all barriers between Himself and us. He cleared the moneychangers and sellers out of the temple so that we might learn not to put up barriers that Christ Himself tears down!
Jesus’ attentiveness to desperate impoliteness
I was in a cafeteria the other night. Someone behind me spoke up in a very loud voice. I watched the reactions of those in the cafeteria. Everyone I could see turned to look at the one who spoke so loudly—most seemed to have scowls on their faces.
We tend to be irritated by those who are noisy or impolite—by those who “make a scene.” We want people to speak quietly, to be polite, mannerly, and demure.
But sometimes excess politeness can be deadly.
In his book, Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes how good manners may have led to some deadly plane crashes. Summarizing his ideas for Fortune magazine, he writes about a Korean Airlines crash: “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical…. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.”
Gladwell argues that amidst a series of misfortunes, including bad weather, part of the blame for the crash of Korean Air Flight 801 into a hill in Guam in 1997, killing 223 people, was due to the fact that the co-pilot was afraid to question the poor judgment of the pilot.
There are times and places for impoliteness. When life is on the line, it is better to “make a scene” than to be mannerly and demure.
In his book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “People who are desperate are rude, frantic, and reckless. Desperate people are explosive, focused, and uncompromising in their desire to get what they want. Someone who is desperate will crash through the veil of niceness. The New Testament is filled with desperate people, people who barged into private dinners, screamed at Jesus until they had his attention, or destroyed the roof of someone’s house to get to him” (p. 34).
He adds, “Jesus responds to desire. Which is why he responded to people who interrupted him, yelled at him, touched him, screamed obscenities at him, barged in on him, crashed through ceilings to get to him” (p. 31).
As Jesus and His disciples were leaving Jericho (Mark 10:46-52), a blind man named Bartimaeus shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The people in the crowd rebuked him and told him to “be quiet.” But their rebuke only made him more desperate. “He shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’”
Jesus was not put off by the man’s impoliteness. Instead, Jesus perceived the genuine desire behind the man’s desperate shouting, and He was drawn to that desire. Jesus affirmed the man’s faith, and He healed the man.
Perhaps, like Jesus, we should look for the genuine desire behind the desperate impoliteness we encounter in people from time to time.
The Uncomforting Purpose of the New Testament
One of the problems with our reading of the New Testament is that we read it incorrectly—that we read it for the wrong goal. Many times we read the New Testament only to find comfort in it. But it wasn’t written only to comfort us. Or we read it only to be inspired by it. But it wasn’t written only to inspire us. Or we read it to feel better about ourselves, or to confirm the things we already believe. But the New Testament wasn’t written to make us feel better about ourselves or to confirm what we already believe. The New Testament was written to redirect our lives, to reorient us about life, to show us how we have been approaching life in the wrong way, and to show us how to live in a new way.
Haddon Robinson shares, “A while ago I was trying to fix our garage door. I came to that one screw I had to get loose, and the more I worked to loosen that screw, the tighter it seemed to get. A neighbor came over and saw my plight. He looked for a moment or two and said, ‘Oh, this has a left-handed thread. It’s a reverse screw. You have to tighten or loosen it going in the opposite direction.’ It took me fifty years to find out how screws work, and now they change the rules! There’s a sense in which all of the Bible is kind of a reverse screw. Everything in the culture that seems right, in the Bible comes out wrong. The way up is down.”
Two of Jesus’ disciples—actually all of His disciples—received a lesson in this one day.
The reason for the lesson was that James and John came to Jesus with the request that He seat one of them on His right and the other on His left in His glory (Mark 10:35-37).
That’s our natural approach to life. We want things to be done for us the way we want—and what we want is to be given the best of what can be gotten in life! We want to enjoy the privileges of life as fully as possible.
When the other disciples heard about James’ and John’s request, they were “indignant” with them (Mark 10:41)—which is also our natural approach in life. We naturally get jealous of and angry at those who seem to get the privileges we wish we could have instead.
Here is where we begin to discover the true intent of the New Testament: Jesus does not speak just words of comfort to them, or words of inspiration. He doesn’t just tell them something to make them feel better about themselves or to confirm what they already believed. Jesus takes time to redirect them and to reorient them about life. He says to them, in essence, ‘What you want is right in step with how the world approaches life’ (Mark 10:42). But then He says, “Not so with you….” (Mark 10:43)
Jesus follows that up by proposing a radically different approach to life—an approach not of taking but of giving, not of aspiring for greatness but of aspiring for service, not of self-centeredness but of love! (Mark 10:43-45)
This is not what I want to hear from God’s Word. I want to hear things that make me feel better about myself, that comfort me, that inspire me, that confirm what I already believe in, and that confirm how I want to go on living. But I am discovering that when I genuinely open the pages of the New Testament, God has a nasty habit of challenging me, and reorienting me, and redirecting me, and calling me to new ways of living, and telling me things like what Jesus says in Mark 10:43-44: “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
Child-like Faith? Or Rich-Man Faith?
Interesting…. Immediately after recording Jesus’ warning to His disciples that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:13-16), Mark tells the story of a rich man who misses out on entering the kingdom of God because of his unyielding attachment to his wealth. In this account, Jesus warns His disciples that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through “the eye of a needle” than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:17-31).
Could it be that what caused this rich man to miss out on the kingdom of God was that he refused to receive God’s kingdom like a little child?
Here is an interesting and relevant reality about little children: Little children are uniquely tuned to the voice of their mother and will not allow any rival to distract their attention away from the primary focus of their love.
The website http://www.babycenter.com points out, “Amazingly, babies may be able to recognize their mother’s voice even before birth. A study done at the Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington found that babies in the womb actively listen to their mother’s voice during the last ten weeks of pregnancy. Then at birth they can distinguish between the sound of their native language and a foreign language, suggesting that moms are their babies’ first language teachers.”
Science Daily cites research showing the unique bond a newborn child has with the voice of her or his mother and concludes, “‘This is exciting research that proves…that the newborn’s brain responds strongly to the mother’s voice and shows, scientifically speaking, that the mother’s voice is special to babies,’ said lead researcher Dr. Maryse Lassonde of the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology and the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Centre.”
Could it be that what we need to imitate about a little child’s faith is the determination to focus our attention on the One who brought us into being without being distracted by any rival to our true Maker?
The problem with the rich man who met Jesus that day—and who turned away from Jesus in deep sorrow—is that he has lost his focused attention to the voice of God; he allowed rivals to steal away the devotion of his heart. He fell in love with his riches; they took over the highest interest of his heart.
Though this rich man lost his love for his Maker, Christ did not lose His love for this man. Mark 10:21 makes this clear: “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”
Because of His love for this man, Jesus speaks the hard truth to him. Jesus stresses that his man must receive the kingdom of God like a little child, with undivided attention to and devotion to the One who made him. He must turn away from the riches that have become a false god and a false parent to him.
Indeed, Jesus explains that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Some have suggested that the “Needle’s Eye” was a low and narrow gate beside one of the main gates of a city. During the day, all the trade and traffic would pass through the larger gate, but at night the main gate would be shut and locked and guarded so that no invading army could sweep into the city. But the low and narrow gate, the “Needle’s Eye,” was normally left open, allowing an evening straggler to come into the safety of the city walls. This low and narrow passage was barely large enough for a man to walk through. For a camel, it was even more difficult, yet it could be done—but only if the camel was stripped of its treasures then led through upon its knees.
To enter the kingdom of God, we must give up all rivals and give undivided attention and loyalty to our true Maker—the One who loves us enough to have died for us.