Render to Caesar?

The saying about rendering to Caesar and to God is often quoted in election years. We may become so accustomed to hearing about it in modern political contexts that we miss the religious challenge of the biblical text.

The saying comes at the end of a debate in which the Pharisees and the Herodians together confront Jesus. This is not a friendly conversation, since the opponents want to trap Jesus and get him into trouble. The debate is about paying the census tax, which was a tax imposed on Jews as a sign of their subjugation to Rome. Jewish political insurgents (like the Zealots) bitterly resented it. Jewish supporters of the Herod family complied with it and probably embraced it. The Pharisees resented it but went along with it. If Jesus says, “Pay the tax,” the insurgents and their supporters will turn against him. If he says, “Don’t pay the tax,” the Herodians and their allies will report him to the Roman officials, who will in turn arrest him as a revolutionary. The strategy of both groups is to lead Jesus into a trap.

Jesus’ basic advice seems to be, “Pay the tax.” His reasoning is that, like it or not, Jews had already become a part of the Roman Empire, were integrated into Caesar’s system and were using coins marked with Caesar’s image and name. Those who use Caesar’s coins can hardly object to paying Caesar’s tax. But the real emphasis in Jesus’ saying comes in the last few words, “Repay to God what belongs to God.” With these words Jesus changes the subject and moves the debate into a different realm. Now the subject is carrying out one’s obligations to God. The point is this: If you are so concerned and careful about paying taxes to the state, how much more concerned and careful should you be about the service of God and our obligations to God as our creator and lord.

The biblical writers were mainly concerned with the origin and purpose of political power, not with political structures or policies. They regarded political power as coming from God and as something to be used for the common good. In Romans 13 Paul paints an ideal picture of the Roman Empire and urges the Christians in Rome to be good citizens, to cooperate with the imperial officials and to pay their taxes. In the book of Revelation, however, John vehemently criticizes the Roman Empire, because apparently some of its local officials in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) were forcing Christians to worship the emperor as a god. Jesus’ attitude of prudent ambiguity seems to fit somewhere between these two extreme views.

In the biblical tradition illustrated by Psalm 96, “the Lord is king.” This is one of several psalms that were very likely composed for ancient Israel’s annual celebration of the kingship of God. It summons all Israel, all the nations and all creation to acknowledge and praise God as king of the universe. The psalm celebrates God as the origin of all royal and political power.

The books of the Bible were composed in a world in which human kingship was an almost universal political reality. Among the most powerful and successful rulers in antiquity was the Persian king known as Cyrus the Great. It was Cyrus who conquered Babylon in the sixth century B.C. and allowed the Jewish exiles there to return home and rebuild their temple. Today’s reading from Isaiah 45 claims that Cyrus was God’s instrument (though an unwitting one) in freeing Israel’s leaders from captivity. The prophet goes so far as to call Cyrus God’s “anointed” (or Messiah) and thus traces Cyrus’ power to the God of Israel.

In greeting the Thessalonians, Paul refers to Jesus as “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Each element in that title had a political overtone. The Roman emperor was called “lord”; the name “Jesus” means “savior” and evoked memories of the biblical Joshua; and “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for messiah, which alluded to the reign of the biblical David and the hopes for one of his descendants. The point is that just 20 years after Jesus’ execution by the Romans, he was being celebrated as one who shares divine power with God the Father. The opening of Paul’s letter features the great triad of theological virtues—faith, love and hope. They have God as their origin and object and provide a framework not only for Paul’s earliest extant letter but also for Christian life as a whole. They can guide us in our efforts to render to God what is God’s.

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