“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
There must be quite a library of commentary occasioned by those words of Jesus as quoted in Matthew’s Gospel. Few scripture verses so clearly cross whatever dividing line exists between theology and politics, between religious and secular life. But just how it’s used and to what ends makes all the difference. And there’s a lot of layers to this encounter:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (NRSV)
Jesus was constantly confronted by people trying to trip him up, to make him say something incriminating or volatile in a theological, political, or social way. This time he has two quite different groups, the Pharisees and the Herodians (who ordinarily wouldn’t give one another the time of day much less cooperate in a stealth attack on a common “enemy”). The Pharisees were very much anti-Rome, and they believed strongly in total separation from their pagan overlords. Their ongoing concern was for the purity of their religion, for after all they were God’s “chosen ones,” which to them meant not only separate from but better than. The Herodians, on the other hand, actively colluded with Roman authorities. Herod had been put on the Judean throne as a way for Rome to maintain control over the always contentious Jews. No doubt they liked the perks of power this brought. In any event, it’s fascinating that Matthew records this episode with both political camps seeking to make Jesus look bad. Interestingly, although Luke also relates the story, he doesn’t provide the Herodian/Pharisee connection.
At first glance it looks like a lose/lose proposition for Jesus. If he says it’s appropriate to pay taxes to Casesar, the zealously religious Pharisees can use that against him to prove he’s not a true and faithful Jew. If he rules the other way, then the Herodians can label him a threat to the state, a revolutionary if not quite a terrorist (to add a common 21st-century twist to all this).
But Jesus, once again, turns the question back on his accusers. He asks to see a Roman coin: “Who’s image is on it?”
“Caesar’s,” one of the group replies. Curiously, Matthew doesn’t tell us whether it was a Pharisee or a Herodian who pulled the coin out of his pocket. Surely a Pharisee wouldn’t have been caught dead with one–or would he? We can’t say for sure.
If the money bears Caesar’s image, then in a sense it belongs to Caesar. Wealth, and all it can buy, can appropriately be taxed by the civil authorities. So often in a discussion of this scripture text, this part of the story gets primary focus and attention. The second part, not so much.
While coins bear Caesar’s image, what is it that bears God’s image? The answer is straight out of the opening section of Genesis: human beings are made in the image of God. Our first allegiance, therefore, is to our Creator.
Well, that’s the easy answer to all this.
On the other hand, what does it mean for us to essentially have dual citizenship in two very different kingdoms or empires? After all, the basic meaning of the gospel–or good news–of Jesus Christ comes from his own words: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” Yet while it is at hand and is inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it is not fully present “on earth as it is in heaven.” It can be “seen” by those who follow Jesus as his disciples, but those same disciples are still living in a world subject to secular, or worldly, authority and power.
I consider myself blessed to be a citizen of Canada by birth and of the United States of America by naturalization. (Earlier this year my 20-somethings son and daughter, born on this side of the 49th Parallel, discovered they could claim Canadian citizenship through me, which they have now done. Dual citizenship has already proved to be quite helpful to my son, whose employer moved to Vancouver earlier this fall. And my daughter? Well, for some reason she’s long wanted to visit Cuba, though let’s not get into all that right now, eh?)
But what does it mean to have dual citizenship, beyond simply having two passports? I, too, lived in Vancouver as a young adult back in the 1970s. That experience changed my worldview, my perspective, my approach to and understanding of the world. Of course, to “have” two countries, two homelands, can mean having none. It can also lead to serious consideration of what is often taken for granted. I’ve felt strong emotional tugs when hearing both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.” And I’ll rather sheepishly admit I currently possess only a valid U.S. passport. But who’s to say there might not come a need to have a Canadian one, too? (Cuba? Probably not.) In short: Don’t even ask me to choose.
All this only hints at the issue raised by Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians. It’s one thing when both kingdoms are earthly ones. Everything changes when we begin to consider citizenship in a heavenly one. I can’t get away from that short but important part of the Lord’s Prayer: on earth as it is in heaven. God’s kingdom, while certainly a heavenly one, continues to unfold here on earth. That tells me that followers of Jesus will always live in tension between the demands of “Caesar” and the commands of God. Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives us a clue as to how to navigate between those two:
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. –Matthew 6:24 NRSV
In the first century CE there was absolutely no doubt what “empire” meant? Rome. And Caesar was not simply its leader. He was its god, and the religious/secular/social cult surrounding him was in many ways the glue that held the empire together. The Greek and Latin words translated as “Savior” and “Lord” were reserved solely for him. Certainly the apostle Paul knew that as he repeatedly wrote to churches throughout Caesar’s empire and used those same terms for Christ. It’s no coincidence Paul was jailed and eventually executed by the Roman authorities. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but peaceful, of course. It was a civilization ruled by violence, lust for power, and greed. No wonder both Jesus and Paul used it in comparing it to God’s “empire.”
And what of the centuries since then? Certainly there have been many other powerful nations and empires. They, too, have been characterized by violence, lust for power, and greed. Now, in the 21st century, who or what is Caesar? Certainly no individual or single nation, regardless of its position, dominance, military strength, or wealth. A good argument can be made, however, that our “Caesar” is unchecked global capitalism. Now before anybody goes all “Class Warfare!” on me, let’s get some things straight. I’m not opposed to capitalism. Philosophically, I’m not all that opposed to the concept of socialism, either. But neither system is perfect. And it’s obvious that the practical expressions of socialism are, well, more imperfect than capitalism.
Capital (money) moves freely across national boundaries, with little if any control. To put it bluntly: greed, a lust for power, and violence (in many forms) are ever-present characteristics of unchecked global capitalism. People don’t matter. Individuals and groups (national, ethnic, economic, etc.) don’t matter. All that matters is amassing more money, and woe to those who get in the way. This moral argument is what appears to empower at least some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. (I think I prefer the alternate title: the 99% Movement.)
Of course, it’s still too early to gauge the movement’s short-term much less long-term effect on society, although it’s already moved beyond New York City to other U.S. cities and other major centers throughout the world. It’s a people movement, which means it’s imperfect and hard to pin down. It’s nonpolitical yet has already had an effect on politics. It’s rather messy and unfocused, but that may be part of the point of it all. I find it fascinating that there’s beginning to be a theological, specifically Christian, element involved. And by that I mean that some people are quoting the words of Jesus regarding the poor and their place in the kingdom of God. The Bible clearly shows God’s preference for the welfare of the poor. More and more middle-class folks are being pushed into that category.
So much of our world bears the image of this modern-day Caesar that we no longer even see that. Perhaps the key question for us all to ask is this: Where is the image of Christ, the visible expression of “God with us,” in our world? That kingdom–Pax Christus, if you will–continues to grow and transform all creation. It is our present and our future.