Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Things That Are God’s

Most people use the expression “Render unto Caesar” as a slightly more literary way of saying “Pay your taxes.” The phrase is so universally recognizable it has served as the title of an episode of the Hercules TV cartoon, at least one book of teen fiction, and a whole quest in a popular videogame.

Not everyone could tell you the line comes from the Bible. Fewer know it was Jesus who said it. A smaller subset still can actually quote it in full: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

It’s funny how easily that last bit tends to get forgotten.

A Non-Responsive Response

Like many things Jesus said, the phrase “... and to God the things that are God’s” is essentially non-responsive. When questioned, Jesus did not always answer precisely what was being asked. Other times he did, but put the emphasis somewhere the questioner would never have imagined. On a few occasions he didn’t answer the question asked him at all.

In fact, the Pharisees and Herodians who asked the question which led to the Caesar declaration were not inquiring about their responsibility to God. That was the furthest thing from their minds. Mark explicitly says they were trying to trap Jesus in his talk. Learning about their own spiritual obligations was not on the agenda. So, after disingenuously fawning over the Lord concerning his disdain for appearances, they got down to business: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” they asked. “Should we pay them, or should we not?”

Tax Revolt in Progress

This question was not merely academic. It was calculated to appeal to the patriotic sentiments of the growing number of Jewish nationalists chafing under Roman rule.

The historian Josephus describes a Jewish tax revolt in the early to mid-first century led by a fellow named Judas, a Galilean, which not coincidentally had the support of some among the Pharisees. The dissidents argued that Roman taxation was “no better than an introduction to slavery” and that the God of Israel would not bless those who paid it. On one side, then, God and his law; on the other, the Roman emperor and his taxes.

With that in mind, it’s apparent the Pharisees were asking Jesus one of those infamous “gotcha” questions. Pick your metaphor: they had shaved the dice, stacked the deck and the dealer had the aces up the sleeve of his robe. Answer ‘Yes, we should pay taxes’, and onlookers would be disappointed that the kingdom Jesus was preaching appeared to have no real substance. It did not stand on its own, but was allowed to exist, docile and obsequious, under Rome’s gigantic thumb. Answer ‘No, we should not’, and the Lord could be charged with insurrection.

The More Important Point

Seeing right through them, Jesus does neither. He asks them to bring him a coin worth a day’s wage, and inquires, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Upon hearing the obvious, he then utters the famous quote about Caesar. The trap fails, and Jesus now makes a point nobody asked him to make, which turns out to be far more important than the question of when paying taxes to secular authorities is appropriate, and when it is not: “Render to God the things that are God’s.”

How do we so easily miss this? That well-known Caesar bit always generates the majority of any discussion concerning the passage. Jeffrey Barr, for example, takes a little over 5,000 words to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus was not really teaching that it is morally obligatory to pay taxes at all. Yet Barr hasn’t a single word to say about rendering to God what is God’s, which is by far the most important part of the Lord’s statement. (To be fair to Mr. Barr, that’s not the subject of his piece, but he well illustrates the relative emphasis of expositors.)

Identifying God’s Property

How do we give to God what is God’s? It is evident Jesus is not speaking merely of the Old Testament practice of tithing, since we will search long and hard for any earthly currency with God’s likeness on it, and even the “In God we trust” on American coins is struck or printed at the behest of a secular government, not a theocracy.

Well, in order to give to God what is his, we must first identify it. The Lord has made this rather easy. He identifies Caesar’s property this way: by asking the question, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”

Thus, when we speak of God’s property, we are able to identify it by looking for his image and his inscription. Where is it that God has left his mark? Surely on mankind, made in his image and after his likeness. This unique relationship and the obligation which rightly springs from it are the burden of the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses, so designated (not coincidentally, I suspect) in this very same passage: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” We who are made in God’s image are his property, and we owe all that we are and have to him: all our affections, intellects, wills and energies.

Caesar Gets the Scraps

Naturally this leaves very little for Caesar, doesn’t it? Caesar gets the scraps left over; the bits of obedience and duty we are able to give him when and only when he is sage enough to align himself with the will of God rather than setting himself squarely against it, for “we must obey God rather than men.”

So long as he asks only for my denarius, Caesar is welcome to it. God can always put more money in my hands if he so desires. But when Caesar asks for my heart, mind and devotion, I must first ensure there exists no prior claim on them.

Good luck with that.

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Original photo courtesy Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. [CC BY-SA]

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