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Church and State pt 1: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s (but to God what is God’s)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 16, 2007

Mark 12:13-17:

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

Most interpreters of this passage (which occurs in the other synoptics as well) assume that it is referring to two separate spheres of obligation. In our relationship with the State, we are to pay taxes (and by extension, to be good citizens); in our relationship to God, we are to offer our obedient fidelity. This interpretation, it seems to me, is foreign to the text. You see, we come from a time and culture that has a separation of Church and State—a separation of religion from the political order. This sort of separation is a relatively recent innovation. As Richard Horsley asks: “…if Jesus’ questioners and listeners all assumed such a separation of Caesar and God into utterly separate spheres, then how could the question have possibly been part of a strategy to entrap Jesus?”

We must try to hear Jesus’ response through first century Jewish ears, if possible (which is ultimately impossible, but still worthy of an attempt). Remember, we are talking about Jews under the rule of Rome. There was no distinction in the minds of the Jews between the socio-political sphere and the religious sphere—Israel was a theocracy who was occupied by a foreign, pagan, world power.

And so, the Pharisees and Herodians, knowing well that it was indeed UNLAWFUL under Mosaic Law to pay taxes to Rome (especially with idolatrous coins that contained an image of the Emperor). At the same time, however, a refusal to pay taxes would have been understood to be an act of rebellion against Rome. In other words, they had created the perfect trap for this “Jesus.” This man had already upset the established socio-economic-religious order (read Mark 11, where Jesus comes into Jerusalem as a King (political), cleanses the temple (religious and economic), and then implies that his authority comes from heaven (religious). In other words: Jesus is holistic in his subversion!

And so, as a sort of “payback” the Pharisees (who were supposed to be the great spiritual leaders of the people) and Herodians (who were likely a faction that supported the Roman-supported Herodian political dynasty) join forces (even though these two factions should have been political enemies) to trap this fellow. In his response, Jesus avoids the trap by saying “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus doesn’t directly say that “it is not lawful” to the question of paying taxes to Rome. But it is hard to imagine that they would have interpreted his words to mean that he supported the Roman government. Instead, it seems to me, given the context, he is saying: “let Caesar have his stupid money…but give to God his due.” Jesus is clearly and simply reasserting the Israelite principle that Caesar, or any other imperial ruler, has no claim on the Israelite people, since God is their actual king and master.

In my mind, this points to a form of Christian anarchy…but not in the sense of open rebellion against the political rulers. Instead, Jesus seems to be discounting Rome’s authority. If Rome was serving any function, it was as God’s instrument to judge Israel (read N.T. Wright for more on this). But in no sense would faithful Israel be under Rome’s authority. Especially in light of Mark 11, where the new King has come who will restore proper worship and establish economic justice.

Next, I’ll look at Romans 13…

for further reading . . .

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Comments

9 Responses to “Church and State pt 1: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s (but to God what is God’s)”

  1. graham on January 16th, 2007 5:25 pm

    I would say that Jesus was being purposefully ambiguous; each group would have heard what they wanted.

    I’m looking forward to your thoughts on Rm 13. I was about to post a dozen or so points on it, but I’ll wait until you’ve posted to see if there’s anything good to nick! :-)

  2. dlw on January 16th, 2007 7:29 pm

    It’s a good interp, but the connection to Christian Anarchism at the end is weaker(still waiting for Mark’s reply to my earlier comment, but I’m cool if you don’t feel like responding.). I believe Yoder also argues that we need to determine for ourselves what we ought to render to Caesar and what we ought to render to God.

    And I don’t think any church historian would serious question that the Roman Empire was critical for much of the early spread of Christianity, as the US has been for its later spread throughout the world.

    dlw

  3. dlw on January 16th, 2007 7:31 pm

    ps, you might find interesting my integrating motif.

    dlw

  4. markvans on January 16th, 2007 9:52 pm

    dlw,

    I seriously believe that we must assume that Christ’s rulership is political in a full sense and be convinced otherwise (instead of vice versa). In other words, the burden of proof is in showing that we ought to be functioning citizens of a nation, since Christ’s rulership seems total.

    The idea of figuring out for ourselves what we ought to render to Caesar and what to God seems like a reading that is perhaps steeped in personal spirituality.

    I looked at your motif and left a question for you there.

  5. dlw on January 17th, 2007 8:32 am

    I don’t think we can say his rule is political in a full sense and also say thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven when we pray the lord’s prayer.

    Do you mean Christ’s rulership on us as Christians or on our countries?

    The issue of citizenship is about what sorts of disciplines we undertake as part of following Jesus. Can we develop habits that advance the kingship of God by study of Scripture, learning from our past mistakes and from the experiences of others?

    MV:The idea of figuring out for ourselves what we ought to render to Caesar and what to God seems like a reading that is perhaps steeped in personal spirituality.

    dlw:I never said anything about us personally individually deciding such. I am arguing that Yoder implies that this is really a call to deliberation. It isn’t clear-cut what we ought render to Caesar or how we render our lives to God. Though, I believe they are inevitably connected, though the question is subject to change with the historical contextual situation. Or there is not simply a once for all answer to this question.

    dlw

  6. markvans on January 17th, 2007 10:22 am

    dlw,

    I get what you’re saying about Yoder. Makes perfect sense, and I agree. In regards to rulership, of course I mean his rulership is complete (including political) in regards to those who are in Christ. I agree that we need to develop habits of discipleship that advance the Kingdom. But, in my mind, since our full political allegiance is to Christ, it severely limits how those disciplines are enacted within the American political sphere. My fundamental belief is that the American political system competes with the Kingdom of God and one must only engage in the American political system (and in American society as a whole for that matter) “as Christians”–as Hauerwas (and Yoder) would point out. I think what that looks like is indeed contextual. Obviously, one can not successfully opt COMPLETELY out of the political realm, since it cannot be divorced from American public space. But we must always struggle to do so in full political fidelity to Christ. It is my belief that the Kingdom is much more “already” than most content (I have a mostly-realized escatology). Therefore, we must always struggle to be faithful to our King in the land of our sojourn. The way this looks to me seems to fall under the broader category of “Christian Anarchy.”

  7. dlw on January 17th, 2007 12:19 pm

    MVS:I agree that we need to develop habits of discipleship that advance the Kingdom. But, in my mind, since our full political allegiance is to Christ, it severely limits how those disciplines are enacted within the American political sphere.

    dlw: I don’t know if political allegiance is the right word for how we relate to God. Do we lose part of our witness when we accept the duties and privileges associated with being a citizen of a country? I think our Christianity shd relativize the import of our membership in a country or party, but not sever it. Did Paul give up his Roman citizenship or use it as part of his missions work?

    If you want to argue for a less is more approach to disciplining our habits for political participation (outside our communities where our sphere of influence is the greatest) and strong skepticism to the use of state-based violence to solve the serious global problems of today, I have no problems with that.

    My problem is that I think many political ideologies set up barriers between people and that baptizing a strong political ideology with theological language sort of sets up barriers between Christians. I see it that our political activism shd complement our missional witness as Christians, though I think we can’t perfectionists on this, but it shd generally help to lower barriers to our ability to interact with others.
    When we claim our full political allegiance is to Christ, that may set up barriers between us and our neighbors who still pledge political allegiance to the flag and it may put too much weight on how we do act politically. As a fallibilist, I fear the use of the strident language of faith on areas that can easily prove divisive for Christians.

    MVS:My fundamental belief is that the American political system competes with the Kingdom of God and one must only engage in the American political system (and in American society as a whole for that matter) “as Christians”–as Hauerwas (and Yoder) would point out.

    dlw: That seems manicheistic to me. The American political system is an evolving entity that both affects Christianity and has been affected by Christianity to a degree. It is a combination of democracy and plutocracy and the democracy side has been hurting for the past thirty plus years, in large part due to the shallowness of many USChristians habits of political deliberation and how we have become culturally captivated to the detriment of our faith.

    The kingship of God, as I described in my integrating motif, has to do with the esteem given to God as a sovereign in the minds of God’s human subjects. This is not in competition directly with the US political system. We can accept and submit ourselves to the political system in its mandate of using sinful means to restrain human sinfulness(This is from “The State in the New Testament” an essay in Discipleship as Political Responsibility by Yoder.), without detracting in one bit from our esteeming of God.

    MVS:I think what that looks like is indeed contextual. Obviously, one can not successfully opt COMPLETELY out of the political realm, since it cannot be divorced from American public space. But we must always struggle to do so in full political fidelity to Christ.

    dlw:We also must struggle to make sure that our fallible notions of “full political fidelity” to Christ do not lead to interminable quarrelings and acrimony among Christians.

    MVS:It is my belief that the Kingdom is much more “already” than most contend (I have a mostly-realized escatology). Therefore, we must always struggle to be faithful to our King in the land of our sojourn. The way this looks to me seems to fall under the broader category of “Christian Anarchy.”

    It is my belief that Christianity in the US and much of the world is still struggling to overcome the pervasive aftereffects of the thirty years war on Christianity. Our kingship of God has been soiled and wrt its holistic implications for our lives, we’ve just begun.

    Just as the state and technology have changed dramatically in the past century, how we live faithfully to Christ in this complex world of ours is not something any of us have cornered. For, while we are God’s children, we are not as we will be and what we will be has not yet been fully revealed(1 John 3:2).

    I also replied this morning at my blog, thanks for the response.
    dlw

  8. Aric Clark on March 3rd, 2007 9:55 pm

    I actually think you demured a bit in your interp of this passage. It seems to me that prior theological understanding is that there is nothing which does not belong to God. It is therefore, ironic, because of course giving Caesar his due would imply giving him exactly nothing.

  9. Garret Jimison on June 14th, 2007 4:08 am

    This one makes sence “One’s first step in wisdom is to kuesstion everything - and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”

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