So there is this story Jesus tells in the Gospels…
The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. (Luke 20:19-26 ESV)
I have been thinking a lot about this story since a couple weeks ago when I read God and Our Political Platforms by Rachel Held Evans. In it she said,
When Jesus was asked about taxes, he didn’t hold up a coin, point to it dramatically, and shout to the crowd, “WHY ISN’T MY NAME ON THIS?! I NEED YOU GUYS TO GET MY NAME AND PICTURE ON THIS THING—STAT!” (…or whatever the Aramaic equivalent of “STAT” would have been).
No, Jesus, when pressed to use his authority to make a political point said simply, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
I had never thought about this passage in that way before. It was a revelation. Jesus didn’t care that his name wasn’t on the money.
HE DIDN’T CARE.
I think all too often, American Christians spend too much time and effort on rendering to God that which is Caesars and to Caesar that which is God’s. It is a funny thing, I think Jesus understood the seperation of Church and State better than many Christians do. Case in point, this week Governor Rick Perry of our great state of Texas had a conference call in which he attributed the concept of separation of Church and State to Satan. His exact words were,
This separation of church and state, which has been driven by the secularists to remove those people of faith from the public arena, there is nothing farther from the truth…Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you and one of the untruths out there is driven — is that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena.
Rick is convinced that the separation of Church and State is a grand conspiracy to keep people of faith out of the public arena. I would suggest (to use his words) that “there is nothing farther from the truth”. As Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist said, “people of faith have always been welcome to participate in the public arena. What they can’t do is legislate their religious beliefs; when the Constitution and the Bible are in conflict, the Constitution must win. If you can’t handle that, then you belong in a church and not public office.” I agree. Gov. Perry wants to render to God that which is Caesar’s and to Caesar that which is God’s. He in effect wants the United States to be a theocracy. He would like to effectively take away the religious freedom our founders fought for from people whose beliefs differ from his. The problem with people of faith making laws based on what they believe to be sinful or permissible is three fold: First you must decide whose religious tenets you are going to make law (i.e. Will we allow drinking? What about dancing? Will all women have to wear skirts and long hair?); Second, you must go against God’s design by denying people the liberty and freedom of will to choose how best to follow God. God gives humans free will, forcing people by law not to “sin” as you define it does not change hearts. Paul actually discusses this in Colossians.
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:16-23 ESV)
Lastly, when you enact laws based on preferences or even deeply held religious beliefs rather than on “liberty and justice for all” (even when the majority of the people happen to agree with you) you run the risk of someday having laws enacted based on someone else’s religious beliefs. They are fine with someone else’s beliefs being trampled but don’t realize their own could be next. Jesus expects more of us than that. He says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” with no qualifier. That includes your Muslim neighbor, your gay neighbor, your Democrat neighbor, your Jewish neighbor and your Palestinian neighbor. You MUST love them as yourself in order to follow Jesus.
People in Jesus’ time looked for him to be a political or military savior. He was neither. When asked point blank he said give to Caesar that which is his and God that which is his. Jesus was not concerned that his name be on the money or that the Jewish people were being required to pay taxes to Caesar (who the Roman’s regarded as divine). Once again, HE DIDN’T CARE. I think we often spend our time as American Christians fighting battles Jesus would be unconcerned about such as prayer in school, gay marriage and having his name on the money when we should be loving our neighbors, caring for the “least of these” and reconciling people to the lover of their souls. Everything already belongs to God (“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” Psalm 24:1). Giving tribute to Caesar or taxes to the US government that they in turn spend on things you may or may not agree with cannot change that.
God will not be erased from existence because we don’t have specific time set aside for praying in the school day, his purpose will not be thwarted nor his cause advanced depending on whether his name is on our currency. His love cannot be stopped because of who we elect as President of the United States or even whether or not the government recognizes same sex marriages. God is not American nor is he partisan. God belongs to all nations and peoples and is at work everywhere in every culture. He is much MUCH bigger than our politics or even our religious beliefs (none of us has everything right, just ask a Pharisee).
Jesus, It seems, is much more concerned with whether his name is written on our heart than on our money.
6 thoughts on “Render unto God that Which is Caesar’s?”
“Render unto Caesar what belongs etc…” was Jesus’ answer to two questions, as reported in the Gospel of Mark Chapter 12, “Is it lawful (according to God’s law) to pay Caesar’s tax? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” His ambiguous answer was skillfully devised to extract him from the trap set for him by his questioners, which according to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 20, was intended “to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” The governor was Pilate, who was responsible to Rome for collecting Caesar’s tax in Judea. Jesus’ answer dumbfounded his questioners who fully expected him to condemn Caesar’s tax, because taxes, which are based on force or coercion, are contrary to everything Jesus taught. But his answer was not ambiguous to anyone familiar with Sacred Jewish Scripture, as was Jesus. Scripture is not ambiguous. It states in at least five places, but most explicitly in Psalm 24, verse 1: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.,” which leaves exactly nothing for poor old Caesar. And noting is just what Jesus meant his followers should give Caesar. When those deceitful questioners returned to the chief priests and scribes who had sent them on their devious mission and reported what Jesus had said, the religious leaders who also knew Scripture knew exactly what Jesus meant. So they soon thereafter sent their henchmen to arrest Jesus and dragged him before Pilate, They told Pilate, ““We have found this man subverting our nation. (Rome) He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar…He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”–Luke 23:2-5.
So you see, Jesus’ idea on separation of Church and state was that there should be no state, since taxes and the initiation of force to collect them are inseparable from the state. Because the state cannot survive without taxes. resistance was a capital crime in the Roman Empire, which called for the most excruciating means of executing guilty parties in a public venue. And thus did Pilate crucify Jesus.
If that were true, Jesus would not have said, “Whose image is on this coin?” When they answered “Caesar’s,” He answered, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” He didn’t say, “No, you’re wrong. It may be Caesar’s image, but everything belongs to God, including this coin.”
When He said, “Render unto God that which is God’s,” He was speaking against the worship of Caesar as a diety– which Caesar insisted he was.
I don’t think it works to say Jesus was saying there should be no state. If He were, Paul would have been going against His words when he said, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every governing authority,” in Romans 13. Peter also, in 1 Peter 2, said Christians should submit to earthly institutions of authority– while realizing they were nevertheless part of the New Creation, in which God was the authority and we all enter “as little children.”
So when the Pharisees told Pilate that Jesus opposed paying taxes to Caesar, they were twisting his words– not echoing them. The coin had Caesar’s image, and Jesus was saying to render the coin (representing the tax) to Caesar. But worship belongs to God. Jesus was not an anarchist, and neither were His apostles.
Jesus certainly was an anarchist in the sense that the only kingdom he recognized as legitimate was the kingdom of God, which he also referred to as the kingdom of heaven. He would obviously oppose giving “tribute” to Caesar in whatever form and regardless of whose face was on the coin of the tribute. The only tribute Jesus recognized was due to God alone–Caesar was nothing but a usurper, as were and are all earthly kingdoms for until the Jews abandoned God in favor of a human king (Saul), God was their only lawmaker. As for the Roman empire of his day, he certainly went out of his way to disrupt its taxes by suborning at least three tax collectors (Levi, Matthew and Zacchaeus) by calling on them to follow him, which meant abandoning their tax-collecting duties in midstream at, likely, great cost in lost revenues to Caesar. He also told Peter that he and his followers were exempt from earthly taxes. (Matthew 17) The state, with its dependence upon the initiation of violence, if for no other reason than to collect its taxes, is opposed in its operations (e.g. wars) to almost every way of living Jesus preached in his Sermon on the Mount.(Matthew 5, 6, 7).
Politicians forget that when they use the Bible as they see fit, some people pay attention.
I wish more of their constituents did pay attention.
I really appreciate this post. The Founding Fathers wanted no established religion in the new United States, because they had experienced what it was like when church and state are joined. They didn’t want Europe’s systems to be the United States’ systems– because whenever church and state get mixed up in each other, it’s bad for both of them– and especially for the church, which so easily loses sight of its mission and seeks to establish itself as a power on the earth.