Wednesday, October 2, 2013

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.)

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