The other day I was thinking (which in my case is quite dangerous) that during this coronavirus crisis we have heard a lot from Romans 13, but we have heard very little from Mark 12:17. Further, I cannot recall hearing that or the parallel verses of Luke 20:25 and Matthew 20:21 ever being discussed in examining what our response should be to the coronavirus government-mandated shutdowns. Surely, someone somewhere has discussed and applied them to our current situation. After all, those are the words of Christ, repeated thrice by the Evangelists, so they are important, to say the least, in discussing right obedience to government. But I cannot recall hearing anyone discussing them of late. And God knows I have been listening to and reading Christian teaching and discussion even more than usual seeing I am not addicted to Netflix or video games like some people are.
Well, I surely have the time to opine (also quite dangerous) so I might as well do my part to get us considering Mark 12:17. Let us start at verse 13 to give some context, which is usually a good thing:
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
These opponents of Jesus thought they were so very clever. First, they lay the flattery on thick, which is ironic given that what they were saying about Jesus was actually true though they did not think so. Then they asked him one of those questions that will get you in trouble no matter how one answers. Why was the tax question such a trap? The Romans and their tax collectors were hated. At the same time, the Romans and their allies, which included the Herodians, expected taxes to be paid. Just about any answer to the tax question they asked was bound to displease greatly a great many – not unlike the question today, “Should we save lives or save jobs?”
Jesus was not going to play their game, and, being God, was both clever and edifying in dispensing with the question:
But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus used the trick question to teach that there are things that properly belong to government. And St. Paul went into some detail about that in Romans 13 on taxes and other areas. At the same time Jesus taught that some things belong to God and not the government. Now he did not explicitly say some things do not belong to Caesar, not on this occasion at least. After all, he had no intention of falling into the trap the Pharisees and Herodians were setting. Instead, he very strongly implied some things which belong to God do not belong to the government. And that is enough given that scripture elsewhere does clearly teach that.
May I humbly suggest what some of those things may be? Well I am going to anyway.
Our freedom of religion belongs to and comes from God; it does not belong to the government.
Our freedom of speech and peaceful protest belongs to and comes from God; it does not belong to the government.
Our freedom to assemble belongs to and comes from God; it does not belong to the government.
Our freedom to arm and defend ourselves belongs to and comes from God; it does not belong to the government. (I note this because some state governments are trying to use a virus to shut down gun sales.)
Our freedom to do ethical work for a living belongs to and comes from God; it does not belong to the government.
Trust that I can continue, because there are quite a number of rights and freedoms that belong to and come from God and do not belong to the government.
And the Constitution on which our government should be based makes it quite clear that these and other rights and freedoms are to be “retained by the people.” I do not believe in the plenary verbal inspiration of the Constitution, but it does agree with Jesus on this point: there are important areas of rights and freedoms that do not belong to the government. In other less polite words, there are a lot of areas where government is to butt out and is violating the Rule of Law if they do not do so.
Not so by way, the Constitution also gives the right to free, fair and not fraudulent elections. That has to be said, too, given that a certain political party is trying to use COVID-19 to rig our elections by making them more vulnerable to fraud.
All this is not to say that we should always exercise our freedoms to the fullest extent. The law of love guides us to be restrained and careful in exercising our freedoms at all times, particularly when lives are at stake. And, of course, issues of what government should and should not do during war times, pandemics, and disasters are complex indeed.
But in most of the country, the damage government is doing to our freedoms and livelihoods far exceeds the damage the coronavirus is doing to lives as awful as the lost lives are. I for one think it is time for Christians and Americans to exercise their right to protest and tell the politicians that our rights and freedoms belong to God and to us, not to them.
And the time may be nearing in some parts of the country for the church to resume assembling no matter what state and local government dictate. “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) Not only is obedience to God at stake; rights, like muscles, tend to whither away if not exercised.
Now you can certainly disagree with my application of Mark 12:17. I have no monopoly on the correct interpretation of scripture, and I would rather you disagree with me on Mark 12:17 than to ignore Mark 12:17. For, in the midst of the current crisis, I do think too many are practically ignoring that there are some things government should not do and some times government should not be obeyed. To be more specific, the church as a whole (There are commendable exceptions.) is not giving enough consideration to the likelihood that government is using the coronavirus as a pretense to do what they should not do and have no right nor authority to do. This is the rotten fruit of the neglect of Mark 12:17.
And if you hear someone interpreting Romans 13 as teaching, “Obey, obey, obey,” that is probably what they are doing.