Table of Duties: Of Civil Government; Of Citizens 2/24/16
Last week will not go down in the books as one of my all time favorites. Now thankfully, I did feel better than the previous weekend when I was sick in bed and had to miss church. But as you could hear last Wednesday and then on Sunday, I was still trying to get over whatever I had. I was functioning and felt better, but I didn’t feel great.
And then on top of this, most of the free evenings during the week were spent doing one of least enjoyable things that Amy and I have to do. They were spent getting our tax information ready. Now nobody like doing taxes. It’s a pain. You have to make sure that you have all the information assembled that is needed – and somehow, no matter how careful you are, there always seems to be a form or a figure that you have to track down. Often this means searching through that filed paper work, or navigating some website that wants a long forgotten password, or waiting on the phone forever to talk to someone.
This is not fun. And it’s not just that the job is tedious and time consuming. I find it to be a little stressful because I don’t want to make a mistake. After all, you are dealing with the IRS. And if there is one government agency that I don’t want to end up on the wrong side of, it is the Internal Revenue Service. They have tremendous power and don’t strike me as a particularly understanding bureaucracy.
Oh, and did I mention that I don’t like doing taxes because it means I see how much money the federal and state governments take from me? I don’t want to see money leave my pocket. And when you consider some of the ways that the government uses our money – and wastes it – it makes the whole experience pretty frustrating.
Paying taxes is one of the most direct ways that we experience the topic of the two items from the Table of Duties that we consider tonight. We take up “Of Civil Government” and “Of Citizens.” On the one hand, these topics are very straightforward. But they also confront us with challenging questions – questions that the Christian faith answers in ways that are different from the world.
The Small Catechism’s Table of Duties provides only one verse for the topic “Of Civil Government.” And to be honest it is really all that we need. In Romans 13 Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Paul says in a straightforward manner that governing authorities have been instituted by God – he is the One who has provided them. Since God put them there, to resist the governing authorities – the civil government – is to resist God.
The role of the government is very simple: it is to restrain wrongdoing and maintain order. Paul goes on to add: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” Paul can even describe the government as “God servant.”
Civil government exists because of one reason: sin. It is the means God has established to restrain and control evil. To understand how crucial this is, consider what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or closer to home – in Ferguson, MO when crowds did not feel constrained by police. The veneer of civilization is a very thin one indeed. When given a chance, sinners will do terrible things. That is why God established governing authorities. As Peter says in the verse included under “Of Citizens”: “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
The government is God’s servant. The irony is that it plays this role, even when the government itself rejects the idea of God; even when individuals in the government do so. Remember, Paul wrote these words when the government was the Roman Empire and the leader was the emperor Nero. And by the same token, since the government functions in this way, it is easy to understand why it is entirely a God pleasing thing for Christians to serve in the government, in the police and in the armed forces. These are important vocations which carry out God’s work. With good reason Luther included good government among the blessings listed under “daily bread” – life without government is a frightening thing; think of Somalia’s recent history.
Nothing is free, and so government and what it does, costs money. From ancient times, governments have raised money through taxes. The Roman world was no different and so Paul went on to say in Romans 13: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Paul told Christians to obey the authorities God had placed over them, and to do so by paying taxes. In saying this, he was repeating Jesus’ own teaching when he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Civil government is a great blessing from God. It carries out a challenging job as it restrains sin. And so Paul said in 1 Timothy 2 that Christians are to pray for their leaders and government as he wrote: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.” When you were baptized, you made a part of the royal priesthood of God’s people. And part of your priestly service is prayer. Certainly we do this together in the Divine Service each week. But prayer for our government and leaders needs to be part of our daily life as well.
Overtly, we probably all keep the Fourth Commandment in this way. I am not aware that any of you have been arrested or prosecuted for a crime. But it is not simply the external action that counts before God. The right thing done grudgingly and out of coercion is not a good work in God’s eyes. It is sin. And so these verses confront us all. Yet again, the Law reveals our sin. It shows the reason that we have Lent.
During this time in the Church year we follow our Lord as he makes his way to the cross and Good Friday. He goes there as the sacrifice for our sin. By his death he was won forgiveness, and by his resurrection he has given us life.
But as we think about civil government, we see that in his death he has provided something else as well. Paul probably wrote the words of Romans 13 during the first five years of Emperor Nero’s rule. They were good years as he was guided by his teacher, the Stoic philosopher Seneca. However, as an unstable individual, Nero eventually turned on Seneca and forced him to commit suicide. Nero’s rule soon descended into madness and injustice. Before it was done he was having Christians burned as torches at night.
Civil government itself can be warped by sin into something that does wrong. It can become something that commands things that are contrary to God’s will. When this happens, the apostles were clear as to how Christians respond when they said, “We must obey God rather than man.”
When this happens, we are called to suffer. True, we work as citizens in our form of government to bring about change. But where this does not succeed, we are willing to suffer for what it true and good. In the same chapter of 1 Peter in which the verse in the Table of Duties is found, Peter goes on to say to slaves: “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Peter says that Jesus’ suffering provides a model for us by which he teaches us to entrust ourselves to God. Now this is not a model that we want. We don’t want to experience injustice. We don’t want to be wronged and harmed. But Jesus’ model is also the reason that we are able to do this. The Holy Spirit who created faith in Jesus also enables us to walk in faith. Christ’s death and resurrection for us is the reason that we know we can trust God in the midst of any circumstance. God the Father has revealed his love and care in the death and resurrection of his Son. And therefore we are able to trust him in the midst of challenges.
Civil government is a great blessing from God. It restrains sin and allows us to live in peace. Our vocation as citizens is to obey the government, pay our taxes and pray for those who govern us. Yet when the government acts unjustly, or when it commands things that violate God’s will, we are called to follow our Lord in entrusting ourselves to God in the midst of suffering. We do this knowing that, just as for our Lord, this way leads to life and resurrection for us.