If I had a denarius for every time I have heard the “render unto Caesar” argument used as a reason for why we should just pipe down about high taxation and concentrate on “spiritual” matters, I’d sure have a lot of denarii. Well okay maybe not that much, but that’s mainly because the state would no doubt come along to demand half of them upon threat of imprisonment. Still, mustn’t grumble; render unto Caesar and all that…
I am on the point of reacting to the next use of this argument with a low, Aslan-like growl of disapproval. Yet before I quite reach that point, I thought I might give it one more go to see if I can muster an argument or two as to why Jesus’s response does not mean that Americans should accept Obamacare and every other form of oppressive taxation with a shrug of the shoulders and an appeal to the “render unto Caesar” argument.
I want to make just two main points: firstly, that the main theme of Jesus’s answer is not really about Caesar at all; and secondly, what it does have to with Caesar is not really what modern evangelicals who use the phrase “render unto Caesar” usually think it means.
So to point one. Picture the scene. Jesus, the Son of God, is standing in the Temple of God a few days before his execution. The Pharisees and Herodians come along and, after attempting to flatter him, ask him a question of profound difficulty: Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?
Answer “no” and Jesus gets reported to the Romans as a revolutionary. Answer “yes” and the whole of Israel will hear of his treason. But of course Jesus gives a different answer entirely. An answer that is as astonishing now as it was then. Not only does he get himself out of the trap that they have just set for him, but by the time his words sink in, he is standing on the edge of the trap, looking down at his flailing opponents who have just fallen in themselves.
One thing that we often miss is the high irony of this incident. Yet it is irony on steroids. When they ask him the question, Jesus specifically asks them for a coin. He has no real need to do this. He could have just made his point by mentioning the fact that they already use Caesar’s coin. So why does he do this?
I think he does it to make a point. When the coin is produced, there is a juxtaposition of immense proportions going on. The coin is brought out and Jesus asks them whose is the image and inscription on the coin. We all know it was Caesar’s, but what is less well known is the inscription: “AUGUSTUS TI CAESER DIVI AUG F” meaning “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus”. On the flip side of the coin, there was almost certainly a picture of Tiberius dressed as a priest, with the title “PONTIFEX MAXIMUS” – High Priest.
So picture the scene. There is the Son of God, the great High Priest, being asked by his enemies who hate him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to one who blasphemously pretends to be Son of God and great High Priest. The Pharisees understand the blasphemous pretentions to divinity of Caesar. What they don’t understand is their own blasphemies. They ask a question about paying tribute to little Caesar on his tiny coin, but the irony is they refuse to pay tribute to the eternal Son of God and High Priest who is standing in front of them.
It is also important to get behind their question. They ask whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, but this is just a cover. Rather, the real question behind this was, “Whose side are you on?” Jesus is given two choices. He is either on the side of the Romans and the great blasphemer, Caesar, or he is on the side of the revolutionaries who want to drive Caesar out of the land. Either way he loses.
Yet he bows to neither side. He is no more on the side of revolutionaries and insurrectionists than he is on the side of Caesar. His response – “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” – throws the question back in their faces and asks of them essentially the same thing: “whose side are you on?”
So whilst it is often assumed that the point he is making is about the state, and our relationship to it, his main point lies elsewhere. This is not to say that he is not making a point about Caesar – he is of course and I will come on to that next – but this is not the main thing he wants his enemies to see. Rather, the response he gives is designed not so much to tell them that they ought to pay their taxes to Caesar and keep quiet about it, but more to make the following point with regard to God: “You already give tribute to Caesar; yet don’t you think it’s about time you started paying you dues to the true image of God, and by the way he is standing right in front of you?”
But even if you accept that Jesus’s main point is more about giving tribute to God than it is about giving tribute to Caesar, it could be objected that even so, he still says to give money to Caesar. Indeed he does. But what is his disposition towards Caesar? Is it the disposition of many modern Christians who just blithely accept the state and all it does, quoting this verse as reason not to bother too much about it? Or is it something else entirely?
All the people present in the scene at the Temple knew that the Roman Empire must collapse and be replaced with the Kingdom of Messiah. They knew it because they had read it in the book of Daniel. In chapter 2, Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the great image as referring to four kingdoms:
“You, O king, were watching; and behold, a great image! This great image, whose splendor was excellent, stood before you; and its form was awesome. This image’s head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighsof bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
The fourth of these great kingdoms was clearly the Roman Empire, and it was due to be defeated by the Kingdom of Messiah. A similar theme is presented in chapter 7 of Daniel. Furthermore, the hope of the Jews of Jesus’s generation was that all this was about to happen. The 70 weeks of Daniel was at an end (dispensationalism hadn’t yet arrived to correct them ;-)) and so it was the belief of everyone present that Messiah was about to deliver them from the Roman yoke. But if this was so, how was it to happen?
For the Pharisees, it means Israel being purified – according to their false standards and traditions that is – which will then create the conditions in which God will come to bless them and judge their enemies. To them, Jesus, is a false prophet who has come and spoiled their plans with his “base ways” – not washing his hands, dining with sinners and healing on the Sabbath. They want rid of him partly because he is exposing their wickedness to the nation, and partly because he is dashing their hopes by leading Israel astray.
But Jesus is no less convinced than them that Caesar’s card is marked. He knows the import of Daniel’s prophecy, because Daniel is his prophet. However, he also knows how the Romans are to be defeated, and it isn’t by the false purification of the Pharisees, or the insurrection decades later. Rather it is through his disciples employing the weapons of the Kingdom that he has revealed to them during his ministry, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.
Decades later, the Christians and the Jews go head to head, as it were, in the battle against the power of Rome. From 67AD to 70AD, the Jews rise up in rebellion and in the wars that follow, culminating in the destruction of the Temple, they are decimated. From 64AD to 68AD, the Christians get beaten to a pulp because they refuse to acknowledge the divine claims of Caesar and instead hold Jesus to be the Son of God, but they suffer the ignominies done to them with the kind of grace, love, patience and cheerfulness that astounds their oppressors and ends in the conversion of many of them.
You see a glimpse of this principle at work at the very cross itself. As Jesus dies and the earth shakes, a Roman centurion, who has grown up being told that the Caesar’s were the Sons of God, testifies that, “truly this was the Son of God.” What changed him? He has seen Jesus turning the other cheek. He has seen Jesus love his enemies and bless those who cursed him. He has heard Jesus pray for those who have been instrumental in his death. In other words, he has seen Jesus put into practice the behavior he has exhorted his disciples to copy.
This is how Caesar is to be defeated. Not through armed insurrection, but by the disciples of Christ as they imitate their master – the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, those who rejoice when persecuted. And history shows that it was indeed the case. Old Covenant Judaism died. The Roman Empire eventually collapsed. But the Kingdom of God grew and continues to grow wherever the love of Jesus is displayed most fully.
So the point then is this: when Jesus said render to Caesar, he wasn’t doing it because he approved of Caesar. He wasn’t doing it because he was indifferent to Caesar. Nor was he giving divine approval for Caesar to confiscate private money and property of people at will. On the contrary, Jesus knew that the Roman Empire would fall and the Kingdom of God would remain and grow. But his way of bringing this about is essentially the same as Jeremiah’s exhortation to the Jews at the time of the Babylonian captivity: “Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” (Jeremiah 29:7).
In other words, you want to know how to get back to Jerusalem? Don’t try and fight against Babylon. That will only prolong your captivity or end in death. Instead, do things God’s way: without compromising your faith and worship of Yahweh, seek to be a blessing to the nation that holds you captive. That is how God will deliver you.
By the same token, you want to know how to defeat Rome and usher in the Kingdom of God? Don’t try and fight against Rome. That won’t work. Instead, do things God’s way: without compromising your faith and worship of Yahweh, seek to be a blessing to Rome. That is how God will deliver you from Rome.
This attitude contrasts pretty starkly with how many Christians see things in our era. Many use the “render to Caesar argument” as a reason to separate “spiritual things” from “civil things” and to be utterly indifferent to what the state is up to. But Jesus and the Christians of the first century were a million miles from this position of apathy and acceptance of the evils of the State. The fact that they submitted to Rome through the payment of tribute did not mean that they were happy with life in the Roman Empire and blithely accepted its government as being in a “non-spiritual” realm. Rather, they submitted to Rome whilst at the same time calling upon God for deliverance from this wicked empire and for the Kingdom of God and righteousness to flourish. However, in order to achieve this, they submitted to God, following his way of bringing deliverance about, part of which meant paying the tribute money.
Our problem today is that we don’t even want deliverance. We don’t even know that we need deliverance. We live with a State that is corrupt and wicked to the core, we send our children to be educated in its system, we pay taxes at levels way beyond what Caesar ever demanded and then we blithely say, “render unto Caesar”. This is not what Jesus was advocating.
Yet at the same time, whilst recognizing the wickedness of the system, Jesus condemns attempts to defy the State by force or by withholding tribute. Rather he advocates a third way: neither insurrection nor blithe acceptance – but rather fighting Caesar and all his wickedness with the weapons of the kingdom: love, peace, longsuffering, prayer and mercy.