One of the New Testament readings for this past Sunday, October 18, featured the well-known line “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Reading that line in the context of the encounter the author of Matthew narrates, it strikes me that this has to be one of the most domesticated of all Jesus’ teachings. Let me show you what I mean.
First, have a look at the narrative in Matthew 22:15-22. The Pharisees and the Herodians who pose their cynical question to Jesus would have been unlikely allies. The Romans, who currently occupied Jerusalem, had imposed a much-resented census tax on nonRoman citizens. The Pharisees saw themselves as the religious establishment, the keepers and interpreters of the Law, and they wanted the Romans out. The Herodians were partisans of Herod, leaders who had benefited from their association with the Romans and thus were viewed as sympathizers. Only a threat like Jesus and his popularity could bring them together, and so they conceived a plot to trap him.
Actually, their maneuver was brilliant. First, they engaged in a bit of flattery, as in, “Teacher, we know you are genuine and truly teach the way of God.” But this is a set-up. The Pharisees promoted themselves as the only true interpreters of the Law, so if Jesus refuses to answer, he loses credibility with his followers as a Teacher, but if he answers their question “with authority,” he must base his answer on scripture — their home turf. Then comes the trap: “Is it or is it not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Notice the word lawful, as in, according to Torah, the Law.
What’s at stake? Think about it: If Jesus says yes, then he betrays the faithful Jews following him, playing into the Pharisee’s hands. If he says no, then the Herodians have him, a traitor and revolutionary against Rome. And if he answers at all, then he sets himself up as a rival, a rebel against authority.
Instead of responding, Jesus acknowledges them for what they are and unexpectedly counters, “Show me the census coin.” Everyone under Roman rule was required to pay the census tax with this particular coin, so everyone would know this coin — and its design. On one side, we find the head of Tiberius, with the inscription, “Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs,” which means, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” The other side shows the goddess Pax with the inscription, “High Priest.” Jesus turns the tables with a question: Who is depicted on this coin and what does it say about him?
Think about it: You’re in Jerusalem, where no “graven images” are even allowed. And yet, somehow, the people sent to corner Jesus produce a coin that not only has an image of Tiberius, but an inscription proclaiming him the son of a god. Where did that come from? Don’t you hear a bit of anxiety in their clipped response? “Caesar.” Now we get that famous line, which I translate like this: “Repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Jesus wins, end of story, right? Not quite.
For much of the last 500 years, it’s been convenient to interpret this famous line as saying that we should pay the tax and worship God, as long as we take care to keep those realms separate. In other words, on this interpretation, we’re free to mix it up and deal in this world as we wish, as long as we’re doing the right things on Sunday. That’s not how I read this narrative.
Put yourself in the place of one of those questioners, and think about that sentence again: “Repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Jesus has tossed you the ball. Before your next move, what question do you have to answer?
When you think about what might be going through their minds, the question they face really is this: What are those things that are Caesar’s — and what are God’s? What belongs to whom? What should I do about it?
Wouldn’t it be a bit scary if what popped into your head just then was Psalm 24:1? “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it“? Or worse, maybe you hear a dim echo of the words of the Shema, that foundational statement of the Jewish faith: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God — the Lord alone.”
So, maybe it’s not about dealing with your worldly business on one track and keeping things going nicely with God on another. Maybe Jesus is asking you to pledge your allegiance — your whole allegiance — and doesn’t that mean that you live your pledge like you meant it? Because your life, your choices, your presence, your every move, everything about you tells you and everyone else where your allegiance really is. The choice is yours, whether you respond in words or deeds.
So, what will it be?