In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)
The secular requirement made by the Roman governing authorities that all the world go register to be taxed plays a big part in the Christmas story. Jesus’ parents lived in Nazareth, yet they were required to go back to Bethlehem, the city of their ancestor, David, to complete this registration. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, on this road trip, rather than in his parents’ residence in Nazareth. As the prophet Micah had foretold:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2 (NRSV)
Most of the time when we have to pay tax, or have to do some of those not so nice civic responsibilities, we don’t associate them with God’s plan for our lives.
I know I don’t always think terribly Godly thoughts while filling out those nasty complicated tax forms, or when I’m waiting in line at the BMV. But as Martin Luther pointed out in his teachings regarding the Two Kingdoms, civil government is also there to fulfill God’s purpose and keep order in the physical world, even if we don’t always quite see it.
Jesus had an answer for the Pharisees who thought that the faithful were above participating in or being governed by civil, worldly governments. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were ruled by a foreign government who demanded they follow certain rules and pay taxes to their occupiers. Not too many of them were very happy about that (and who of us pay tax with a smile on our faces) but Jesus pointed out that even if we don’t like it we still need to participate in civil government, and even pay tax, for our own good and the good of the community.
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” *They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:17-21 (NRSV)
(*They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.- Matthew 22:21 -KJV)
How can we see God at work even through people and situations that don’t seem to be of Him at all? How can we see that sometimes “rendering unto Caesar” is just another way of that God works out His will and purpose for our lives?