There’s nothing like mixing politics and religion to upset everyone. As you might have guessed by the title, I’m referring to the (in)famous “Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that are God’s.” See Luke 20:19-26 for the full story. I encounter this passage a lot, usually as a way of giving voice to the complicated relationship between Christianity and politics, and often in relation to taxes.
The story appears simple: Jesus’ enemies try to get him to say something incriminating. In this case, they want him to commit treason against Rome by claiming that God’s kingdom is above the kingdom of Caesar and that the people do not need to pay taxes to Rome. Under Roman authority, they were taxed for breathing the air and for Roman “protection,” among other things. Considering that Jesus was a charismatic, 1st century Jew with a following, and that Rome had issues with people like him starting fights/riots/wars on a semi-regular basis, their plan makes a lot of sense. Once Jesus says they don’t have to pay, they can hand him over to Pilate and “taken care of.” But, If he did tell them to pay, they could accuse Jesus of selling his people out to the foreign occupiers. Either way, Jesus loses.
So they ask him if it is OK to pay taxes to Caesar – a wildly loaded question. Rome stood as the occupation force, the evil, pagan outsiders that oppressed God’s chosen people, Abraham’s descendants. Jews resented their presence, and the Romans offended almost every Jewish sensibility in existence.
And then Jesus turns the tables (he’s good at that). He asks for a denarius, the Roman-minted coin with which the tax is paid. Coins in the ancient world were more than currency; they were propaganda. When a new emperor took office, coins would be minted in honor of him. When Simon Ben Kosiba led the Jewish revolt against Rome in the 130s, he also minted coins depicting Jerusalem and the Ark of the Covenant, while also declaring it was now year 1 (and then 2, then 3, and then the Romans came and obliterated them). Both have the same function; they declare who is in charge.
We don’t know which coin they handed to Jesus, but they all had similar imagery. There would have been a bust of Tiberius, the current emperor, as well as the inscription PONTIFEX MAXIMUS – or “High Priest.” Because, as emperor, Caesar was considered the High Priest of the imperial religion. On the part of the coin that gave Tiberius’ name, they also likely saw the description ‘DIVI,’ indicating his divine standing.
They handed Jesus a coin that promoted Caesar Tiberius as both divine and the high priest of everything, which stood in complete opposition to both Jewish monotheism and the centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem (with the true high priest). When Jesus asks them whose image was on the coin, they have to name the one person in the empire who claimed to be the lord of all, divine, the high priest, etc.
Here’s where it gets interesting (and often misunderstood): When Jesus responds, “Give to Caesar the things that belong to him,” what does he mean? Or, to put it differently, what does Caesar claim belongs to him? Because the answer to that is, essentially, everything. And what belongs to God, according to the Jews? Everything. In other words, we have two conflicting claims.
Jesus is decidedly not describing two kingdoms that exist in parallel. These kingdoms (of Caesar and God) cannot co-exist because they make the same claim. Instead, Jesus is pointing out, in a very striking way, his enemies’ own implicit collusion with the empire – whether they meant it or not. After all, they were the ones with the coin.
So here’s the big question: How does this translate over to us in the 21st century, especially in terms of federal/state taxes? To be honest, it doesn’t. This exchange between Jesus and his enemies isn’t about how we relate to our government, unless, of course, our government is claiming to be run by the divine son of a god and the high priest of the imperial religion. In other words, if the government claims to be god, then we have a problem. Otherwise, this passage is not likely involved.
That’s not to say that Luke 20 has nothing to say to us in the (post)modern world. The kingship of Jesus is central to the Christian life – Jesus is king, is becoming king, and will be king. Being a part of this kingdom means that we enact what will eventually be true here and now, and we have a responsibility to hold those in power accountable for their actions. But my fear is always that this devolves into simple, party politics and single issue voting. As we can see from this apparently simple passage, there are some serious levels of complexity – probably because life tends to be that way, too. Just don’t assume that this has anything to do with the IRS.