Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Three Models for the Church-State Relationship

Not too long ago, I attended a political meeting in which the members were strategizing ways that they could address some of the systemic problems that plague my city. [E1] I was encouraged to be a part of this group because I agreed with their assessment of the problems and I liked the solutions that they were proposing. However, when they went around the table and asked each person to volunteer in one of their projects, I had to tell that I wasn’t ready to join them yet. [E2] Why not? Because for me, there was a more basic question that I needed to address first: What is the proper relationship between Christians and the government?

This is a question that has been on my mind since I was a teenager. I remember sitting in church and hearing some of the members encourage the others to vote for various national or local politicians because they opposed abortion or some other practice that they regarded as sinful. Clearly, they determined that these actions were destructive on the basis of their Christian faith, and I agreed with them. But I also realized, even at that stage of my life, that there’s not necessarily a one-to-one ratio between a religious belief and a good public policy. For example, just because I believe that people should go to church doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of a law that requires them to do it. At that church, we needed to have a discussion of what the proper relationship between Christians and the government should look like before we started advocating specific political actions. Likewise, every time I make a political post on this explicitly Christian blog or every time I make a politically-charged comment in church, I am aware of the need for this conversation. Consequently, I have written this post to create space for people to learn how I understand the church-state relationship and to give them categories for thinking about their own view and dialoguing with me about mine.

In what follows, I will outline three Christian ways of conceiving our proper relationship to secular governments. Obviously, I am not presenting these from a position of neutrality: I myself subscribe to the third view and I will argue why I think it is the best one. [E3] But I hope that I have given each of the other two a fair enough presentation that it provides the language necessary to have this conversation and to address those disagreements that often times lie at the bottom of our political dividedness. So here are three models for the church-state relationship:

Model #1: Separation of Church and State. Many Christians believe that religion and politics shouldn’t have anything to do with one another. They become very annoyed when Christian politicians try to impose their religious views on others through laws or when pastors try to impose their political views on others from the pulpit at church. In their minds, there ought to be a strict division between religion and politics: religion applies to the personal realm whereas politics applies to the public one. Inevitably, they cite Jesus’ words in Mark 12:17 as the defense of their position: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” [E4]

While this division between religion and politics sounds good in theory, it breaks down in practice. Religion and politics are inextricably tied together, as anyone who works deeply in either field will tell you. On the religion side, it is pretty obvious that the sins we struggle with and the trials we go through are heavily influenced by the societies we live in. In societies where sex saturates the media, the people struggle heavily with lust. In societies where it is extremely difficult to get a job, people are more tempted to lie and steal. In societies that emphasize the need for punishment, people turn more quickly to violence as the solution to their problems. I could go on and on. Now hear me carefully, the fact that we are influenced by society does not mean that we are determined by it. This correlation does not let people off the hook for lusting or stealing or being violent. However, it does mean that any church that only fights against sin at the individual level is serving God with one hand tied behind its back. The Bible is filled with calls for entire societies to reform. [E5] The division between church and state is just another manifestation of the ancient Gnostic heresy that seeks to separate the spiritual from the material.

On the political side, it is simply impossible to be morally neutral when making policy decisions. Many Americans believe that we should exclude moral and religious language from debates over public policy and instead argue for or against certain laws and rulings on the basis of the Constitution. But, just like everything else, the Constitution has to be interpreted. Judges and politicians who find themselves interpreting the law ask questions like, “What did the ‘founding fathers’ intend when they said that we have a right to bear arms? When we pledge allegiance to a country that offers ‘liberty and justice to all,’ does this include a right to free health care? When the colonists signed a document which claimed that ‘all men are created equal,’ were the suffragists right in pushing beyond the original scope and claiming that this should apply to women too?” Notice, these are not questions that you can answer simply by appealing to the Constitution. They force you to consider (or “reconstruct”) the moral framework in which the Constitution was written and to consider/reconstruct a historical narrative that defines what the United States was created to do and in what direction it is heading. But once you start asking these types of questions about a higher moral framework and the direction that history is moving, you are unavoidably meddling in the territory of religion and morality. Therefore, I would agree with Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s claim: “First, it is not always possible to decide questions of justice and rights without resolving substantive moral questions; and second, even where it’s possible, it may not be desirable.” [E6]

Model #2: The State as an Agent of God’s Will. In contrast to a model that depicts the state as a morally neutral entity, many Christians view the state as a divinely sanctioned institution that was created to carry out God’s will.  [E7] The proof-text for this verse tends to be Romans 13:1-7 [E8], but unlike the “Separation of Church and State” model, this one finds larger narrative support in the Older Testament. [E9] In those Scriptures, God called the Israelites not just to be good individuals but to be a holy nation. As noted before, laws and policies cannot be quarantined into the “legal” sector, as they inevitably create a moral and spiritual atmosphere that affects the entire population. [E10] David recognized and celebrated this spiritual aspect of the law. Consider his words in Psalm 119:33-35 & 40, “Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight… How I long for precepts! Preserve my life in your righteousness!” As David was well aware, there is a connection between public policy and private piety.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are shaped at an individual level by the decisions and laws passed by the government. [E11]

Thus, we find God is very concerned about creating a just society throughout the Bible: one in which widows and orphans are cared for, foreigners are welcomed and protected, and wealth is fairly distributed, not just at the individual level but in the very structures of the group [E12]. Of course, the just society of the Older Testament also included the sole worship of God, strict sexual boundaries, and institutionalized religious ceremonies [E13], because the Israelites did not believe that you could separate the political from the religious. By creating this kind of society, the community of Israel could stand as a witness to the world insofar as it was a place that overflowed with peace and justice because it was grounded in the worship of the one true God. [E14]

Many modern Americans implicitly or explicitly claim that this is the task our government should take. We too should try to create a just society that pleases God and serves as a light to the world. But there is one major problem with this view: God never called America (or any other modern nation) to be the new Israel. Without a shared commitment to the Lordship of Jehovah – as Jehovah was revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures – no “theocracy” is possible. It makes no sense, then, to try to invoke promises like 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 to any modern nation-state.

But, we may ask, what was to happen to the holy nation of Israel, to the just society that would be the light of the world? Did God abandon a project that once had divine approval? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. From my Christian perspective, I would say that Jesus of Nazareth – a Jew who was a direct descendant of David – created a new community which would carry on the divine task that was assigned to Israel: the Church. The Church is called to be a holy nation, the light of the world, and the political center of the Kingdom of God. [E15] [E16] These are not just metaphorical ways of speaking. In a real way, the Church is a distinct political institution, with its own laws and ceremonies, policies and leadership structure. When modern prophets feel called to stand up and urge the people of God to act in line with Scripture, they should direct their appeals not at the secular government but at the Church.

Model #3: The State as a Part of Fallen Creation. But if that is true, where does that leave the state? How are we supposed to relate to secular government that claims to circumscribe our allegiance to the Church? If the “Separation of Church and State” model is false, then we can’t in good conscience ignore what happens in the political world. But if the “State as an Agent of God’s Will” model is false, than we can’t try to reform the state as though it is God’s agent on earth. So where does that leave us?

The Bible deals with this problem extensively in both Testaments, but years of manipulative hermeneutics and bad translations have blinded us from their resources. The first thing to remember is that political structures were a part of God’s original intention for humanity. We get a hint of this in Genesis 1:26, when God gives humanity dominion over the year, but it is fully expressed in Colossians 1:16, which says, “For by him [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” According to Walter Wink, the term “thrones” refers to the political structures that rule the world, while “powers” refers to the power they exercise and “rulers or authorities” refer more to the specific people who occupy those powers. [E17] Yes, God designed them as a part of the original plan.

However, when “the Fall” happened, humanity was not the only group that was infected. The “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” also became corrupted by sin at an institutional level.  Thus, 1 Corinthians 2:8 notes, “None of the rulers of this age understood [God’s wisdom], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory,” and Ephesians 6:12 declares that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The kingdom of God poses a threat to these kingdoms, and so they declare war on Christ.

Nevertheless, God’s ultimate goal is not to destroy these other kingdoms and governments but to reconcile them to the Trinity through Jesus. Even as Ephesians encourages us to prepare for battle against the governments, it also encourages us to seek their reconciliation. Ephesians 3:10 says, “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Jesus Christ.”

Thus, the Christian is called primarily to participate in her own government: the Church, the kingdom of God to which she swore allegiance when she was baptized. However, we have a secondary responsibility to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” that we live in. [E18] We do this by modeling godliness in our own community and publicly testifying against injustice on the basis of our belief that Jesus is Lord. Contrary to what many think, this is a politically significant act. Governments, even empires, change simply by being put to shame by the Church’s alternative way of doing things. [E19] And when this happens, Christians may be called upon to help reform the government to make it a little more like the kingdom of God. When this happens, we are called to follow “the Joseph paradigm,” and to benefit the empires in which we live by living faithfully to our own beliefs, just as Joseph, Esther and Daniel did. [E20]

That was a long post, and one that was completely rooted in the Christian narrative, but I hope that it is clarified some differences in the way that Christians think and at least, that it can provide a better way for us to talk about politics together.

End Notes

[E1] This was a meeting hosted by IndyCAN, the Indianapolis Congregational Action Network. At this specific meeting, individuals were offering “progress reports” on the three projects that the organization were working on: reducing the mass incarceration problem that plagues the United States in general and Indiana in particular, improving the public transit system of Indianapolis, and creating greater access to citizenship for undocumentable people. I appreciated not only their specific solutions to these problems but the “theology of abundance” that explicitly directed what they were striving for.

[E2] I should clarify that I was not just participating as an individual but as a representative of my church. Thus, I would not have felt right volunteering for anything without discussing it with them first. It is possible that I/we will get involved with them in the future, but this would require some conversation first.

[E3] I am always a little suspicious when an author presents three views and conveniently places his or hers as the healthy medium or synthesis of the other two. To do this is to gerrymander the field of ideological possibilities in a way that serves the purpose of the author. Nevertheless, I find myself doing the same thing, as the most effective way that I know how to explain my own intellectual journey is through a dialectic format. The only corrective that I know to offer is the confession that the other views could also construct themselves as the healthy medium if they so desired and that there are legitimate views that I have excluded from the get-go because they don’t fit my purpose. Now that you’ve read that disclaimer, please proceed to engage the substance of the argument.

[E4] This passage is also found in Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26, with very few differences between the three versions. I believe that this story is widely misunderstood, and once you interpret it differently, the whole basis for the “Separation of Church and State” view crumbles. To defend my alternative reading of this passage would have been too much work for a footnote, so I created an extended exegesis of that text in the post: A Critical Look at the "Render to Caesar and to God" Passage.

[E5] See Amos 5:4-6, Jeremiah 4:1-4, and Jonah 3:1-10 for just a few examples.

[E6] Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009), 251.

[E7] Although I contrasted this against the “Separation of Church and State” models, there is a way to combine these two models that quite devastating: to suggest that the Church and the State rule over completely different spheres and that each is divinely commissioned to do so. The reason this is so devastating is because “ethics” and “morality” are generally assigned to the Church sphere, which gives the State unrestricted divine approval to commit horrific atrocities. We can look at war crimes, such as the wave of destruction created by the Crusades or the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not as atrocities as the pacifist would say, or as necessary evils as the just war theorist would say, or as even neutral events as a Gnostic might claim, but praiseworthy actions! God help us!

[E8] This is another verse that deserves an extended exegesis, but I simply don’t have time to write it now. But just a few observations about this text to wet your appetite:

(1) In my NIV Bible, Romans 13:1 says that we should submit ourselves to the “governing authorities,” but the word in Greek is actually the exousiais or “powers,” a term that usually refers not only to physical governments but to the spiritual forces that guide them. In other texts, the powers are depicted as being in rebellion against Christ, even though Christ rules over them. See 1 Corinthians 15:24 and Ephesians 6:12 for some examples.

(2) The material immediately preceding this passage urges Christians to respond with creative nonviolence toward those who persecute them (Romans 12:17-20), and Paul elsewhere forbids his followers from using the government as a means of pursuing personal justice (1 Corinthians 6:1-11).

(3) I believe that there is some wordplay going on in the Greek, with “overpowering” and “under-powering” being used cleverly and with a double-meaning behind the concept of the authorities “bearing the sword.” But I haven’t done the legwork to confirm this yet. Maybe if I do, I will post another exegetical blog for the two or three of you who may actually be interested in that kind of thing.

[E9] For me, convincing moral claims rest not exclusively on one or two Bible verses but on the ability of one to show how a moral response flows out of the Biblical narrative. I plan to write an entire post on this in the not too distant future.

[E10] I first learned this from Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, which effectively demonstrates that “laws” do not merely regulate the social order; they help produce it.

[E11] The most clear contemporary example of this for me is the practice of “tolerance.” Tolerance, which is established to a certain degree in the first amendment of the US Constitution, was originally designed as a public protection, not a personal value. People agreed not to stop each other from having divergent religious views with force, but that doesn’t mean they thought heterogeneity was a good thing. Many still made every effort to convert others to their religious perspective.

Today, however, tolerance is arguably the chief value shared by Americans today. (One could argue that “freedom” or “non-judgmentalism” compete for this spot, but I see these as being different ways of saying the same thing.) How did this happen? Well, as each generation affirms the government’s decision to extend religious liberty to everyone to the next generation, that generation begins to praise it and celebrate it so much that they internalize it. Now, I don’t want to get into an extended discussion of whether tolerance is a true value or whether it has any Biblical backing. I just want to point out that this is the nature of law.

[E12] Due to time constraints and limited internet access, I could only look up one OT and one NT passage for each of these. These are not necessarily the best texts, but they should at least give you an idea how much the Bible is concerned with these issues. The OT passages are generally directed at the entire nation of Israel, and the NT passages prove that these concerns remain near and dear to God’s heart in the new covenant. For widows and orphans, see Ezekiel 22:6-7 and James 1:27. For foreigners, see Isaiah 56:3-7 and Acts 8:26-40. For the just distribution of wealth, see Amos 5:7-14 and Luke 4:16-21.

[E13] My disclaimers from above apply here too. For the sole worship of God, see Hosea 8:1-6 and Galatians 4:8-11. For strict sexual boundaries, see Ezekiel 22:9-11 and 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. For institutionalized religious ceremonies and practices, see Joel 13-14 and Hebrews 10:25.

[E14] See Genesis 12:1-3, Micah 4:1-3, Isaiah 66:18-21 for some examples.

[E15] For the church as a holy nation, see 1 Peter 2:9-10. For the church as the light of the world, see Matthew 5:14-16. (Notice: This is an analogy about our corporate witness. Jesus says that a city on a hill cannot be hidden. When we act as a godly community, this stands out in a way that the world cannot ignore.) For the church as the political center of the kingdom of God, see 2 Corinthians 5:20.

[E16] One of the views that I did not include in my “Three Models” is Christian anarchism, the idea that Christ calls his followers to be against all forms of domination and therefore against all forms of government. Although I have a lot of appreciation for this view, it’s biggest flaw is that it allows the opposition to define what constitutes government. The Bible, and especially the New Testament, consistently embraces words like “kingdom,” “lordship,” and “ruling” as aspects of Jesus’ life. It redefines or recaptures these concepts so that violence and domination need not be a part of them. Christian anarchists are resisting something that needs to be resisted, and I respect them for opposing what so many Christians unwittingly embrace. But in their effort to be radical, they have cut some essential elements out of the Christian counter-witness.

[E17] Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 18.

[E18] Jeremiah 29:7

[E19] One of the most famous examples of this comes from the exchange of letters we have between the early emperors of Rome and the local authorities, who were frustrated that the Christians were making them look bad by taking care of their orphans and widows better than the government itself could.

[E20] I borrow this term from John Howard Yoder, in his essay “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” in For the Nations: Essays Public & Evangelical, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), p. 56-57. I used his term in part to acknowledge how influential this essay was for me in interpreting the Biblical paradigm differently. Yoder prevents a supersessionist reading of the “kingdom of God” by arguing that the paradigm shift in God’s government already happened at the fall of Babylon, at least according to Jeremiah. I would highly recommend this essay, with the warning that it is a little dense.

A Critical Look at the “Render to Caesar and to God” Passage

As I mentioned in my blog post “Three Models for the Church-State Relationship,” Christians who support a strict separation between church and state almost always cite the passage that says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” When taken out of context, this verse seems to be claiming that some things belong in the realm of Caesar (i.e. government) and other things belong in the realm of God (i.e. religion), and that we should faithfully participate in both, but not mix the two. Thus, it has been the standard proof-text to defend the modern democratic practice of separating church from state. However, a closer look at this passage shows that it has nearly the opposite meaning.  Rather than seeing it as an answer to the Pharisees’ question, it’s better to read it as a challenge that says, “Do you actually believe that there is anything in this world that doesn’t belong to God? If so, then you should go ahead and give it to Caesar.” In other words, allegiance to God should always trump allegiance to the government. This interpretation will sound strange to many, for we have all heard this verse interpreted as a justification for the church/state separation for many years. Consequently, I wanted to offer a close exegetical examination of this passage to defend this alternative interpretation.

The “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” text is found in all three synoptic gospels [E1]: Mark 12:13-17, Matthew 22:15-22, and Luke 20:20-26. Most Biblical scholars believe that Mark contains the oldest version of this story, so I will focus most of my attention here.  In general, the account is very similar in all three gospels, but I will comment on any points where the versions of Matthew or Luke offer significant deviations from the Markan version.

This is how the whole passage from Mark reads in the NRSV:

13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Let’s break it down section by section.

13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said.

Ever since Mark 3:6, the Pharisees and Herodians had been conspiring about how they might kill Jesus. It might be worth asking, “If they hated him from the beginning, why didn’t they just kill him then?” The answer is that they did not have the legal authority to kill Jesus outright. They had to conspire over how they could convince the Roman government to kill him, as the Romans alone had the legal right to execute criminals. Consequently, the Pharisees and Herodians had to convince the Romans that Jesus didn’t just represent a religious perspective they didn’t like but that he was a threat to the stability of the Roman Empire. To do this, they tried to get Jesus to say something that the Romans would find threatening, something that they could use against him in a court of law. Luke’s version of the story confirms this. He explains in Luke 20:20 that they tried to “trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.”

14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?”

Ah-ha! Now we can see where they are going. If you want to tick off the Romans, one guaranteed way of doing so is to stop paying them taxes. If the Pharisees and Herodians could get Jesus to say that people shouldn’t pay their taxes, then they had a slam-dunk case for him to try him as a criminal. But why would this even be a temptation for Jesus? Why did they think they could get him to say, “No, you shouldn’t pay taxes.”

Well, taxation was an extremely sensitive topic at that time among the Jews. You see, the Jews knew from Scripture that they were supposed to be an independent nation ruled by a descendant of David. In the Older Testament, whenever Israel came under the control of another nation, God would call up judges and liberators to restore them to independence. [E2] However, at this point in history, the Jews found themselves under the power of a seemingly unconquerable Roman Empire. Most of them – including the Herodians and Pharisees – reluctantly paid their taxes in exchange for the religious freedom that Rome offered them.

Nevertheless, there were still small groups of Jews who resisted Roman rule, despite the overwhelming odds against them. Scholars call these Jews “zealots,” many of whom refused to pay taxes because that tax money supported what they saw as an illegitimate government. Out of the different religious groups, the zealots seem to be the ones who were the most attracted to Jesus’ teaching. We know this because two of Jesus’ apostles came from zealot groups: Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot [E3]. If two of the apostles were zealots, this basically guarantees that many more of Jesus’ followers leaned in that direction. And this makes sense. Zealots would have been drawn to Jesus because he wasn’t afraid of anybody. He had command over demons, he talked back to the religious authorities, and he “spoke with authority” with his teaching. But the ultimate question is, would he talk back even to the Romans?
The Pharisees and Herodians capitalized on this tension. They asked Jesus this pointed yes-or-no question so that he’d either incriminate himself by saying, “No, you should not pay taxes” or discredit himself among his zealot followers by saying, “Yes, you should pay taxes.”

But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test?

Jesus knew that they were only pretending to respect him as a teacher, when in reality they were trying to trap him. [E4] In response, he used the same technique that he used every other time they tried to trap him with a question: he turned it around on those who asked it. Let’s compare this passage with two other examples where Jesus uses the same technique to get a better idea of how this works:

In Mark 11:27-33, the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus by asking him where his authority came from. This seemingly innocent question was another frying-pan-or-fire kind of dilemma. One the one hand, if Jesus said that his authority came straight from God, then they could accuse him of blasphemy (not to mention arrogance), which would make him guilty in the eyes of the Sanhedrin. On the other hand, if he said that the authority was from anywhere else, this would give the chief priests a basis for discrediting him. For example, if he said it came from the Scriptures, they could say that they were the professional scholars who truly understood the Scriptures, not him. Of course, Jesus did have an answer to the question: his authority did come from God. But he didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of saying it or the social power of holding that statement over him. So instead of answering directly – which he could have done – he asks them a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  

Jesus knew that John the Baptist was widely respected as a prophet, and so when he asked the chief priests where John’s authority had come from, all of a sudden their credibility was put on the line. For if they answered that John the Baptist was of human origin, then the people would have dismissed them as being too close-minded to know a real prophet when they saw one. But if they said that John the Baptist was from God, then Jesus could easily claim that he was too. After all, John believed that Jesus was greater than him! Thus, they could not answer Jesus’ question, which not only made them look stupid, but it allowed Jesus to continue his teaching and healing ministry without giving them any incriminating statements that they could use against him.

One more helpful example is John 8:2-11 [E5], the story in which the Pharisees bring a woman before Jesus and say, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Once again, the Pharisees were trying to “trap” Jesus (cf. John 8:6), which means that they were trying to expose him so that they could use his teaching against him in court. In this case, they knew that Jesus preached a message of forgiveness, so they were trying to pit his policy of forgiveness against the punishments prescribed in the book of Leviticus. In this case, the stakes were even higher: if Jesus said, “No, don’t stone her,” then it would sound like he was elevating himself above Moses, the holiest person in Israel’s memory. On the other hand, if Jesus said, “Yes, stone her,” then she would die, her life being used as a pawn in their chess game against Jesus.

At the risk of being redundant, let me point out that Jesus did have an answer to this question. He could have said, “No, don’t stone her,” and if they had replied, “What? Do you think that you’re greater than Moses?” he could have said, “As a matter of fact, yes.” But once again, he chose not to do this because it would have given them incriminating evidence that they could use against him. So instead, he says this: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” With this comment, Jesus yet again turned the tables around on his opponents. They were trying to expose him as arrogant, but he surprised them by “authorizing” the stoning. Now, however, for them to follow through with their plot, someone would have to make the claim that they were without sin! Then who would look arrogant?

Here’s the point: In both of these stories, Jesus could have answered their questions directly, but he didn’t. He had an answer to their either-or questions, but he refused to give them ammunition for their evil schemes. If this story is like the other two, then, we can assume that Jesus did have a yes-or-no answer to the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Which is it? Our initial inclination is to assume that Jesus was affirming tax payment. But if that were the case, their question wouldn’t have been much of a trap. When they asked him, “Should we pay taxes, or should we not,” he could have just said, “Yes, you should,” without giving this cryptic “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” answer. There would have been nothing politically incriminating about saying you should pay taxes to Caesar. On the other hand, if Jesus believed that the Jews shouldn’t pay taxes to the Roman emperor, then this trap makes more sense. In Luke’s gospel at least, it’s clear that the religious leaders believed that Jesus was a tax resister. [E6] But as in the other two cases, they tried to get him to say it, and instead, he turned their trap around on them.

“Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.”

It’s significant Jesus had to ask the Pharisees and Herodians to bring him a denarius. This means that he didn’t have one on him, and they did. Why is that significant? Because the denarius was the Roman coin, a foreign form of currency that was imposed on Israel, not the native form of currency that was used for local business (the shekel). Often times, people who opposed Roman rule – such as the Cananaeans and the Sicarri – refused even to touch this form of currency because it funded the evil empire and it had an idolatrous picture and inscription of Caesar Augustus printed on it. [E7] By making this innocent-sounding request “Bring me a denarius,” Jesus reveals whose side he’s on: the revoluntionary side. After all, he’s not carrying one! And by asking very uncomfortable questions about this common object that the Pharisees and Herodians were carrying around, he reveals that they were already complicit with the Roman Empire. If we were on the fence before about which side Jesus stood on, this question should push us in the “No, you should not pay taxes to Caesar” direction.

17 Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Now we are in a position to appreciate the punch line. The question that the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus was, “Should we pay taxes or not?” In his answer, Jesus is essentially raising a more fundamental question, “Who has a right to our money?” Psalm 24:1 claims that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” If that is true, then the ultimate answer is, “God does.” Think about it: if you try to divide everything in the world into two categories, one labeled, “The Things that Are God’s” and the other labeled, “The Things that Belong to Someone Else,” then it’s going to be pretty lopsided. Everything belongs to God! Of course, the fact that something belongs to God doesn’t mean that it can’t also belong to someone else. All of our resources are on loan from God, but certain things have been entrusted to us so that we “own” them or have a “right” to them in a secondary way. Consequently, it’s possible that something belongs to both God and Caesar at the same time. However, whenever Caesar wants to use God’s resources in an ungodly way, he loses any rightful claim he may have had over them.

This is exactly what the zealots believed. They believed that Caesar had lost the right to their money– or more accurately, that Caesar never had it in the first place. Thus they would refuse to pay taxes because they believed that God wouldn’t want them to spend it endorsing pagan empire. Presumably, Jesus agreed with them. But instead of answering the Pharisees and Herodians directly, saying, “No, don’t pay taxes to Caesar. He’s an unrighteous dictator!” he asks them, “Well, who do you think owns your money – Caesar or God?” Perhaps they had a theologically sophisticated answer, but whatever words they offered would fall on deaf hears. Why? Because they were already carrying a coin that answered that question for them: clearly, they were in alliance with Caesar!

Now, if you accept this interpretation, it raises a lot of very scary questions. Wait, is Jesus encouraging us to refuse to pay taxes? Does this only apply to oppressive governments or does it apply to all governments? Should we refuse to pay taxes whenever we don’t agree with government policy? Not only would that be illegal, but it would undermine the very democratic system, wouldn’t it? What should we make of the American currency that many of us carry, which says the words “In God We Trust,” but which also has pictures of our own “emperors” (i.e. presidents and political heroes) on them? These are valid questions without easy answers. I’ve been talking long enough. What do you think?

End Notes

[E1] The “synoptic gospels” is a term used by Biblical scholars to refer to Matthew, Mark, and Luke but not John. Critical scholarship assumes that these texts have a dependent relationship upon one another, that the authors of Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark in front of them when they wrote their texts. I personally agree with this methodology, which is why I focused on the gospel of Mark, because it seems to be the “original” source of the story. However, my exegesis does not depend on the assumptions of critical scholarship.

[E2] A number of Biblical stories could be cited here: Deborah, Samson, and Gideon are some classic examples of people who accepted God’s call to liberate them. But the story of David and Goliath makes it especially clear why was Israel’s independence was so important to them. When David arrived at the Philistine camp, he overheard Goliath spewing blasphemous words against Israel. This was an insult to Jehovah – it suggests that “he” is weak and unable to protect “his” people – and David couldn’t allow that to happen. In his speech to Goliath, David says, “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.” (1 Sam 17:26) Notice, this was not just an act of political resistance, but David had the higher purpose of defending God’s honor to the world. For many Jews, the subjugation of Israel by the Roman Empire brought the same kind of shame that Goliath brought upon Israel through his mocking speech several years before.

[E3] Scholars believe that Judas was a zealot because “Iscariot” was not his last name but a title that was attached to him. In all likelihood, it signaled that he was a part of the Sicarri group, an extreme subsect of zealots who assassinated Roman soldiers.

[E4] The word “hypocrite” originally meant “actor,” and only later came to take on the more precise definition as those who morally judge others while doing the same things themselves. In this context, it is better to translate it as, “But Jesus, knowing they were being insincere,” or “knowing that they were only acting.” 

[E5] From a critical perspective, this argument doesn’t hold much weight, as John was composed long after Mark, and John 7:53 through John 8:11 was likely written long after the rest of the gospel was completed. If my scholarly friends want to challenge me on this, I would say that the analogy from Mark 11:27-33 is sufficient to sustain the argument. However, from a theological perspective, I think an argument is strengthened when it draws support from a wide range of authors, and whatever its historical merits, this story has canonical status. Thus, it is valuable to cite it.

[E6] When the religious leaders bring Jesus before Pilate in Luke 23:2, they say, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ a king.” Significantly, these are the two things that they’ve been trying to get Jesus to “admit” all along. Notice, in Luke’s telling of the same story in 20:20, he says, “They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” But after Jesus gives his famous reply, Luke concludes, “They were unable to trap him in what he said there in public,” emphasis added. The words “in public” indicate that Jesus may have taught tax resistance in private, but they couldn’t pin it on him through one of his public statements.  

[E7] Many commentators agree that Jesus’ request, “Show me a denarius,” was intended to reveal his unwillingness to carry the pagan coin. Just to offer two examples, Donahue and Harrington write, “Jesus’ request implies that he did not have such a coin on his person, and so one had to be brought to him… [His] opponents, [who had the coin,] by their participation in the Roman system have already answered their own question affirmatively. Since they use Caesar’s coins they should pay Caesar’s taxes.” John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark., edited by Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 2, p. 345-346.

Similarly, Willard Swartley writes, “Jesus, the Son, snaps the trap on their own toes. He asks for a denarius, the prescribed tax coin, on which appeared the emperor’s claim to deity. Zealots wouldn’t touch the coin and Jesus had none. Producing the coin was itself an act of self-judgment, and a judgment upon all who carried it. Jesus’ word-sword then pierced to the heart: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ No toe was not pinched. All were amazed at the wisdom of the answer and certainly the religious leaders were smitten with the agony of their own dilemma: for what does belong to Caesar and what does indeed belong to God?” Williard M. Swartley, Mark: The Way for All Nations, (Eugene, OR: Herald Press, 1999), 173. Even though many commentators agree that Jesus’ request for a coin was subversive, Swartley is the only scholar I found who concluded that tax payment was “an unlikely position for Jesus.” (Ibid.)