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Authority, All the Way Up

Keep asking, "Who says"?

Who Says? (4)

And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Luke 20.25

Oh yeah?
The Jewish people of Jesus’ day hated the Romans, mostly. And for obvious reasons.

The only people they hated more than the Romans were Jewish people who worked for the Romans, especially tax collectors – like Matthew. (Isn’t it interesting to consider that Jesus chose such a cast-off, despised, low-down person as a disciple?)

Jesus embarrassed the Jewish leaders twice when they came seeking to undermine His authority, hoping to silence His preaching. So, a bit bruised and chagrined, they retreated for the moment, but they sent “spies” (v. 20) to see if they could put Jesus on the spot another way.

The objective of this encounter about taxes was to trap Jesus on the horns of a dilemma, and thus to discredit Him, either before the people or before the Romans – who were never very far away. If Jesus said it was legitimate to pay taxes to Rome, then the people would see Him as bad as a tax collector, and then they would surely reject Him. If He denied the responsibility of paying taxes to Rome, well, the Romans would take it from there.

The spies sought to force Jesus between a Scylla and Charybdis of authorities – either the people with whom He was so popular or the Romans who could terminate Him forthwith. To which of these authorities would Jesus yield?

A hierarchy of authorities
What Jesus did in telling people to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s, and to God what belongs to God, was to remind them of the hierarchy of authorities under which everyone lives. In ancient Greek mythology, Atlas was supposed to be holding up the earth on the back of turtle. One wag asked what was holding the turtle up and was given the reply, “It’s turtles all the way down.” Jesus’ answer points the people beyond mere earthly authorities, as if to say, “When it comes to questions like this, it’s authority all the way up.”

Jesus, on His own authority, asserted the authority of God over people, taxes, Romans, and everything else.

No one is a law unto himself. We can’t just do whatever we want to do. We’ve all heard people who insist there “are no absolutes” or “no truth” and “everyone needs to decide for himself how he wants to live” and other such nonsense. These are the same people who politely wait in line at the post office or the DMV, just like everyone else. They drive on the proper side of the road, show up for work on time, and tend to keep their hands off other people’s property. Mostly.

Why do they do this? Because they understand that, as much as they’d like to just “run free” and “have no limits” and do whatever they can imagine or would like, they accept the fact that there are certain authorities, which are as true and necessary for them as for everyone else, and they must submit to those authorities, if only in their own best interest.

Everybody understands this, but sometimes folks can lose sight of the reality. And for most people, you can count on the fact that they haven’t identified the whole hierarchy of authorities under which they must live. Part of our job is to invite them to think bigger about this matter – higher up, as it were, all the way up, in fact.

And above that?
In His answer Jesus validated the authority of Rome’s government in a way that everyone who heard Him would have acknowledged. It simply made sense. After all, they all used Roman coins, benefited from the Roman Peace, and enjoyed certain economic advantages from having Roman soldiers and administrators stationed in their midst. Jesus said they should give to Rome whatever Rome required of them in return for the benefits gained by the Roman occupation. Hard to argue with that.

To a point, at least. Jesus also reminded them that they and Rome were subject to an authority higher than every other. The “image” and “inscription” of Caesar on that coin, about which Jesus specifically asked, would have reminded the people of their civic duties. It may perhaps also have reminded them of the image of God, in which they were made, and the Law of God, inscribed on their hearts (Rom. 2.14, 15). Thus Jesus pointed them to a higher authority.

The result? “But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent” (v. 26).

When you ask someone a variation of the “Who says?” question, you’ll get an answer. “Well, everybody knows that!” you might be told. Or “That’s what science says” or “It’s the law!” or some other attempt to rally some “recognized authority” in support of their views. The follow-up question is just the same as the original: “OK, but who says this is the last word on the matter?” In other words, “By what authority do you defer to these authorities rather than others? And how can you be sure there isn’t some unchanging, eternal, ultimate, ‘higher-up’ authority you may have overlooked?”

Will pursuing that line of questioning lead people to Jesus? Probably not. But it will cause them to reflect on this important question for perhaps the first time in their lives, and it might cause them to back down on their confidence and be a little less assertive about things they’ve always taken for granted, but which may not be entirely true. You may get them to begin thinking beyond their own frame of reference to the larger, transcendent question of God.

And if you get someone to that point, well done.

For reflection
1. Everyone lives according to some authority or authorities beyond themselves. Why is this necessarily so?

2. All authorities aren’t bad. Some of very necessary. They just aren’t ultimate. Why is this an important distinction?

3. Why, in doing the work of evangelism, must we insist that people examine the authorities on which they depend?

Next steps – Conversation: You can “short cut” this “Who says?” question. Ask a friend if he believes in God. If not, then ask him why not? Then challenge him to account for whatever answer he gives with some version of the “How do you know…?” question. Don’t be smug or cocky; just ask and listen.

T. M. Moore

You can download this and all the studies in this series, “Let God Be True,” by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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