Sometimes a pope, a bishop or a national conference of bishops will issue a challenging statement on a matter of public policy. Topics like capital punishment, abortion, economic justice and the pre-emptive use of military force come readily to mind. Those who object to such interventions by religious officials sometimes claim that Scripture itself supports a tidy separation of faith from politics. Three New Testament passages regularly surface as warrants:
• “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8), understood as an assurance from Jesus himself that poverty will always be part of the human condition, and that it is therefore futile to try to mitigate it.
• “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17; Matt 22:21 and Luke 20:25 in the King James and Rheims translations, the versions most people recall), understood as supporting a vision of two separate worlds, that of God and that of human governance.
• “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21 in the King James, Rheims and NIV translations, the versions most people recall), understood as restricting God’s reign to the interior life of the believer.
On the surface, each of these texts does seem to imply a separation of Christian practice from the public life of citizenship. In my opinion, however, to use these texts in this way constitutes an unfortunate and even dangerous misunderstanding of each.
The Poor Among Us
“The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8).
According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, Jesus makes this observation during a dinner in Bethany, early in the final week of his life. Since Mark provides the fullest version of Jesus’ response, let us consider his account. (I use the Revised Standard Version translation because it renders the Greek more accurately than most other versions.)
A woman—nameless in Mark—enters the dining area with an alabaster jar of expensive ointment, breaks it and pours it over Jesus’ head (the way ancient Israelites used to anoint kings).
Some, infuriated, say to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? It could have been sold for more than three denarii, and given to the poor.” They are infuriated with her. But Jesus says:
Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she had done will be told in memory of her.Mark 14:4-9 RSV
Several points stand out:
1. Jesus’ words are not primarily about the poor but about himself. Jesus’ interpretation serves as his fourth prediction of his death (see Mark 8:31, 9:31 and 10:33). Mark likely expects his readers to make connections between the (king-like) anointing of Jesus’ head, the reference to his approaching death and his status as Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) achieved in death and resurrection.
2. The reference to the poor is not a prediction. While the NAB translates the Greek verb in the future tense, “will always have,” the original Greek is the present tense, “always have.” Jesus is not looking to the future, but using a recurring human situation (people in need) to highlight the uniqueness of this moment (Jesus’ presence with them at one of his last meals).
3. Jesus’ statement is a quotation from the jubilee legislation of Deuteronomy 15:
If one of your kinsmen in any community is in need in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand to him in his need. Instead, you shall open your hand to him and freely lend him enough to meet his need. ...The needy will never be lacking in the land; that is why I command you to open your hand to your poor and needy kinsman in your country. Deut 15:7-8, 11
Here again, reference to the poor is clearly not a prediction of a permanent underclass. Rather, the text implies a mandate to help people in economic need. Indeed, as we hear a few verses earlier in that passage, “Since the Lord your God will bless you abundantly in the land he will give you, there should be no one of you in need” (Deut 15:4).
Thus, the best response to those who would quote Matt 26:11; Mark 14:7 in support of a policy of “benign neglect” of the poor is simply to cite Mark’s fuller version, and to note the obvious allusion to Deut 15:11. Clearly, Mark would have us hear Jesus’ statement in that context.
Caesar and God
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (RSV Mark 12:17; Matt 22:21; Luke 20:25).
Understood as implying that God and “Caesar” govern separate realities, this text is sometimes used to argue that church teachers should confine themselves to the “things of God” and refrain from commenting on such Caesar-like things as taxation and other economic structures. A careful contextual reading of Jesus’ saying, however, shows that he is making no such separation of divine and human worlds; indeed, he is suggesting quite the opposite.
Some adversaries of Jesus—Mark and Matthew identify them as some Pharisees and Herodians, whereas Luke calls them “spies” sent by the scribes and chief priests—come to trap him with a question: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” On the lips of these religious authorities “lawful,” of course, means “permitted by Torah,” and by this time the name “Caesar” has become a title referring to the current Roman emperor. This question is not an honest enquiry but a trap. A yes will alienate the tax-burdened public; a no will seem to deny Roman authority.
Sensing this, Jesus asks for a Roman coin, a denarius, which one of them produces. The very fact that one of them comes up with the coin settles the question of the “lawful-ness” of submitting to the Roman system. If it were not lawful to submit in any way, the man with the coin would be a Jew carrying on his person a “graven image” of the most blatant kind, an image of a pagan emperor proclaimed as divine!
“Whose image and inscription is this?” Jesus asks. “Caesar’s,” they say. Jesus responds, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s....” The logic here is that an image embossed on an item indicates who has authority over the item. A coin with an image of the Roman Emperor is under the authority of the emperor. Matthew’s version, “Render therefore,” makes this explicit.
Jesus continues, “and to God the things that are God’s.” Within this statement lies an implied question and answer that no one familiar with the first page of Genesis could miss: If the coin bears the emperor’s image, what bears God’s image? The answer, of course, is the human person. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind [adam] in our image, after our likeness so God created humankind [adam] in his image” (Gen 1:26-27, N.R.S.V.). Thus, Caesar may currently govern the economic system, but the Creator is owner and governor of all—everything and everyone. To live as image of God is to be steward of the divine property and live righteously the justice of the covenant—precisely what Jesus’ treacherous adversaries were refusing to do.
What we have, then, in Jesus’ famous remark about what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, is not a demarcation of separate worlds but an assertion about the reign of God: the Creator is lord over all creation. The details of social arrangements like taxation and social order are to be worked out by followers within that horizon of divine ownership. This Jewish and Christian worldview thus warrants cooperation with, and critical scrutiny of, the structures of taxation and governance.
The authors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church make a telling application of this saying of Jesus in their treatment of the obligation to follow one’s conscience when it is at odds with civil authority: “Refusing obedience [italics original] to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community”(No. 2242). Here they quote Matt 22:21. This distinction is a matter of priorities, not of disconnected realities. As Benedict XVI puts it in his first encyclical, “The two spheres [church and state] are distinct, yet always interrelated” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 28).
“The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21b KJV, Rheims, NIV).
This saying, unique to the Gospel of Luke, is often quoted to support an individualistic model of Christian spirituality. I once heard a priest claim that “the kingdom of God is within you” means that Jesus’ teachings are primarily focused on the individual’s relationship to God. Admittedly, this translation lends itself to such an interpretation.
More recent English translations, however, have recognized that the Greek phrase in question, entos hymo-n, is not adequately rendered as “within you.” For one thing, the English translation “you” obscures the fact that the Greek pronoun is plural, not singular. The best translation of the phrase as a whole is also debated. Four current English versions offer three different translations:
• “The kingdom of God is in your midst” (American Standard Bible).
• “The kingdom of God is within you” [with a footnote: “Or among”] (New International Version).
• “The kingdom of God is among you” [with a footnote: “Or within”] (New Revised Standard Version and New American Bible 1986).
The inclusion in the NIV, NRSV and NAB of the alternatives “among/within” demonstrates the ambiguity that translators have come to recognize in the phrase.
Other examples of Jesus’ teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, leave no doubt about Jesus’ concern for the interior response to God’s reign and word, and Luke 17:21 surely includes that dimension. The Pharisees are being chided for their wrongheaded effort to “observe” the kingdom in a noncommittal way. Yet the verse also implies that the kingdom is “among” them, “in their midst,” in the person and action of Jesus. So in the passage that precedes this quotation, emphasis is placed on God’s activity through Jesus. Ten lepers approach Jesus for healing and are cured. But only one, a Samaritan, returns and thanks Jesus. Jesus laments the nine who were healed and yet did not see clearly what has happened in their midst: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” (Luke 17:17-18).
Interpreting the preposition as a reference only to individual interiority, then, as well as using that reading as an interpretive key for the other kingdom sayings of Jesus, are clearly distortions of the teachings of Jesus.
The ‘Wall of Separation’
If Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state is to be taken seriously, it must be understood as a one-way wall. That is to say, the image refers to the principle of the First Amendment that government should neither promote nor obstruct the religious institutions and activities of its citizens. There is no wall preventing citizens from participating in civic life with motives derived from their faith, as expressed, for example, in the papal encyclicals of the last 115 years, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 2003 letter on “Faithful Citizenship,” the recent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church from the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace (issued in English in 2004), and Pope Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est, No. 28. Nor will those who would separate faith from citizenship find any support in the Bible for that position.
On the other hand, those seeking a biblical mandate for bringing the Catholic social tradition to bear on public policy need look no further than Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. For people of faith living in contemporary democracies, that means participating in public life to ensure that the gifts of the Creator are used to meet the needs of all.