For many years, Vacation Bible School in Baptist circles began with three pledges: the pledge to the American flag, the pledge to the Christian flag and the pledge to the Bible. In my previous pastorate, at First Baptist Church in Edgefield, one VBS morning I was leading the children in the three pledges. I introduced the final pledge by saying, “The last and most important of the pledges is the pledge to the Bible, God’s word.” One of our parents was sitting in the back of the sanctuary and heard what I said. After the assembly, he chastened me severely for saying that the pledge to the Bible was more important than the pledge to the American flag. What he was saying, of course, was that his citizenship in our country was higher on his priority list than his citizenship in the kingdom of God.
In Mark 12:13-17, we find a story about the relative value of these two citizenships: citizens of a nation and citizens of God’s kingdom. Some religious leaders think they can entrap Jesus by asking him whether or not we should pay taxes. (Much to the chagrin of taxpayers of every generation, Jesus said that we should.) The strategy of Jesus’ opponents is clear. Since (a) tax money went to the Roman government and (b) the people in Israel detested Roman rule, the religious leaders thought Jesus would say not to pay the taxes. Then they would go to the Roman officials and accuse Jesus of sedition and inciting the people to break a Roman law.
Jesus sees through their scheme, however. He says, “Bring me a coin.” Then Jesus asks, “Whose image does it bear?” They say, “The emperor’s.” Jesus says, “Then give to the emperor what has been made in the image of the emperor. But,” Jesus insists, “give to God that which has been made in the image of God.”
What does Jesus mean? What has been made in the image of God? We have! It’s the first story in the Bible: “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in the image of God, male and female’” (Genesis 1:27). Jesus says here: “Be a good citizen of your nation. Pay your taxes. Obey the law. Give the leaders of your nation their due. But most importantly, give to God that which bears the image of God, yourself. Give yourself, without reservation, wholly and completely to God.”
In 1995, Canadian-born pastor Jim Bradford became an American citizen. In an article in a magazine called the Pentecostal Evangel, Jim writes: “Since the mid-1970’s, the government of Canada has continued to recognize the citizenship of Canadians who become citizens of another country. It’s called dual citizenship. I am a citizen of two countries — the United States and Canada. There is a difference, however. I am a Canadian citizen by birth, because I was born there. But I am an American citizen by choice, because I chose to embrace that privileges and responsibilities of being a citizen of the United States.”
Like Jim Bradford, most of us have dual citizenship. Most of us are citizens of the United States by birth, because we were born here; but we are citizens of the kingdom of God by choice, because we have chosen to embrace the privileges and responsibilities of God’s kingdom. One of those responsibilities is making sure that nothing — including nation, flag or patriotism — is higher on our priority lists than God.