Render unto Caesar

So far this series on Empire and Spirit has looked at how the Gospel teachings of Jesus and Paul challenged the thought world of the Roman Empire. We’ve seen how disciples of Jesus are to reject the might-is-right Roman models of authority, but are instead to lead through humility; Christians likewise shake up the normal web of social patronage by claiming allegiance to Christ alone; and they understand that true peace, justice, and faith are demonstrated in the story of Jesus and not in the stories of political propaganda. We’ve also seen how even something as seemingly apolitical as “The righteous will live by faith” is deeply rooted in anti-imperial prophetic traditions. If we could summarize all of this in one simple saying it would be simply: Jesus is Lord. (And Caesar is not.)

This is all true, and yet it doesn’t tell the whole story of the New Testament’s relationship to Roman power. There are texts that seem quite a bit friendlier to Empire than the ones we’ve looked at so far. In the next two posts in the series, I’d like to spend some time in two of these texts, which can provide some nuance to what has been said so far.

The first text I’d like to look at is Matthew 22.12-21 (a story also told in Mark and Luke). Here, the religious authorities try to trap Jesus into speaking out against Roman rule: “Tell us: Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar?” Jesus sees this for the trap that it is and gives a shrewd answer: Pointing out that it is Caesar’s head on the coin, he says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

It can be easy to read this passage simply as Jesus carving out an area of secular responsibility, a version of the famous ‘two kingdoms’ way of looking at the world. And there is something to that. Unless you’re an anarchist, we can agree that civil governments have a job to do and, to the degree that the Romans did it well (I can’t help but be reminded here of the ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’ scene from The Life of Brian), Jesus seems happy to give them the taxes that are their due. And so, Jesus can be seen here as pushing back against those who would shirk civic responsibilities on religious grounds. (And who among us hasn’t met people like this!)

For the more radical-minded among his contemporaries and among us today, this may be enough to get Jesus written off as a collaborator with imperial authority. But, I think he’s doing something more interesting and nuanced than that.

Yes, he is carving out a sphere for the secular state and doesn’t seem to have a strong opinion about who it is who is in charge of it. He is no political revolutionary (which is ironic, considering this was exactly the charge on which he was executed). But, we have to remember that he was speaking in a world where the Emperor claimed not only divine authority (a topic to which we’ll return next week), but also to be divine himself. And so, in this world where the state has divine pretensions, Jesus is also carefully carving out a place for God apart from the Empire and Emperor: Yes, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but within this statement is hidden the truth that not all is Caesar’s. Caesar is owed your tax dollars and basic civic responsibilities, but he is not owed your heart, mind, or conscience. In our context this may seem mundane, but in Jesus’ context is was tantamount to treason.

This text is pretty straightforward, and provides some simple guidance for how we are to live in the world and in relationship to governments. Far more challenging is the next text I’ll address in this series, Romans 13.1-7. But, I’ll leave that until next week, since this coming Sunday’s Epistle reading is the text that directly precedes it and will provide some very helpful context for that discussion.

For now, as we go about the ends of our week, let’s remember the simple words of Jesus. The world and its powers has some rightful expectations of us, but those have limits. Wisdom is knowing where those boundaries are. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what is God’s.

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