Christ or Caesar
“And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar's. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. And they marvelled at him.” (Mark 12:13-17)
This passage of scripture has been understood by some people to teach that we have separate obligations in our lives – that we have a duty to the State, and a duty to the Kingdom of God. If Caesar tells us to invade and kill, or to steal and destroy, then we should obey, or at least we are free to obey, and we will not be guilty because we obeyed the government. We will have done this for our “country”, so it is said, therefore these actions are not unrighteous. It has also been used to teach that compulsory taxation from tyrants is God's will for us.
I believe this is an absurd misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the text that has been used to justify service to the evil State.
In the movie Sergeant York, Alvin York is a country boy from Tennessee who was a drunk and liked to fight. On his way to exacting revenge against a man that backed out of selling York a piece of land, York and his mule are struck by lightning, and this led to York’s dramatic “conversion” experience. When the United States entered World War I, York initially requested an exemption by claiming he was a conscientious objector, but his request was denied. The movie depicts York as struggling with the idea of going to war because of the Bible’s prohibition against killing. York was given the opportunity to go home and resolve his inner conflict, and in a highly dramatized scene, York “sees the light” when he reads the following from the Bible:
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”
The rest is history. York went all in on the war effort and was hailed as a national hero for his feats. As for the details of York’s life, it is hard to say what is fact and what is fiction. Later in his life, York denied that he had ever been a conscientious objector. “I never was a conscientious objector” York wrote in his diary. He also never mentioned the lightning and the mule in his conversion experience. (Source)
In York’s diary, he seemed to be a God-fearing man, but it also appears that he fell prey to war propaganda, and that despite his inclination that killing was wrong, the aforementioned statement from the Bible was taken to mean that his country’s call for him to kill trumped God’s command for him not to kill. As such, this story has been used to propagandize young Americans to join the military for many years, and since many of them are more influenced by Hollywood dramatizations than the scriptures, it has had its intended effect.
What does it mean to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s? Does this mean that we are to submit to whatever government officials order us to do? What if they say it is for the “good of the country?” As it has been noted by able historians, the U.S. had no business sending men to die or to kill in this conflict, but they were sent because of the democratic aspirations of government officials. The U.S. was not in danger. No military force was capable of crossing the ocean and launching a serious attack on the American people, but the U.S. government had to get its piece of the pie.
If the Lord Jesus meant that we are obligated to render unto Caesar whatever is good for Caesar, then it was wrong to oppose the Germans who were rendering unto Hitler what he demanded. They were merely “obeying the powers that be.” That in and of itself proves the interpretation to be false. But, someone says, America’s involvement was righteous; it was only the enemy that was doing evil. The U.S. government wasn’t torturing and murdering millions of Jews in this instance, as was Hitler, but that does not mean their motivations and intentions were righteous. I would suggest reading books about the World Wars that reject the government propaganda that is foisted on the slaves in the public schooling system. A good start would be Patrick Buchanan’s book "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War".
So what was this interaction between the Lord and these people all about? The previous chapter tells us that the scribes and the chief priests were looking for a way to destroy Christ, for they feared him, because he was drawing the people away from their control (11:18). They wanted to take him by force, but they feared what the people would do, so they went away and sent some of the Herodians and Pharisees to try to catch him in his words. They knew that taxation was a touchy subject, and so they asked him if it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not. If he said yes, it would disappoint the people who were being drawn to him. If he said no, then they could refer him to the Roman authorities for punishment. The Lord knew they were up to no good and he told them to bring him a coin. He asked them whose image and superscription were on the coin. They answered, it was Caesar’s. The Lord then stated:
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”
This was no call to yield to God and Caesar, it was a call to choose one or the other. Will you follow God no matter the earthly consequences? Or will you trust in the securities of the State?
Jeffrey Barr tells us the following:
“The denarius in question would have been issued by the Emperor Tiberius, whose reign coincided with Jesus' ministry….”
“….The denarius was truly the emperor's property: he used it to pay his soldiers, officials, and suppliers; it bore the imperial seal; it differed from the copper coins issued by the Roman Senate, and it was also the coin with which subjected peoples, in theory, were required to pay the tribute. Tiberius even made it a capital crime to carry any coin stamped with his image into a bathroom or a brothel. In short, the denarius was a tangible representation of the emperor's power, wealth, deification, and subjugation.”
“….The front of the denarius shows a profiled bust of Tiberius crowned with the laurels of victory and divinity. Even a modern viewer would immediately recognize that the person depicted on the coin is a Roman emperor. Circumscribed around Tiberius is an abbreviation, "TI CAESAR DIVI AUG F AUGUSTUS," which stands for "Tiberius Caesar Divi August Fili Augustus," which, in turn, translates, "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus."
“….The coin of the Tribute Episode is a fine specimen of Roman propaganda. It imposes the cult of emperor worship and asserts Caesar's sovereignty upon all who transact with it.”
“…Jesus tells His interrogators, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's." This response begs the question of what is licitly God's and what is licitly Caesar's.”
“….With one straightforward counter-question, Jesus skillfully points out that the claims of God and Caesar are mutually exclusive. If one's faith is in God, then God is owed everything; Caesar's claims are necessarily illegitimate, and he is therefore owed nothing. If, on the other hand, one's faith is in Caesar, God's claims are illegitimate, and Caesar is owed, at the very least, the coin which bears his image.” (Read the entire article here.)
In reference to the parallel passage in Matthew, Greg Boyd wrote:
“Jesus came into the world in politically turbulent times. Consequently, people were always trying to get Jesus to weigh in on the political issues of the day, but Jesus never took the bait. He always found a way to turn their political questions around on people and transform them into Kingdom questions.
Christians often cite this episode to argue that Christians have a duty to the state (“give to Caesar what belongs to him”). The passage actually implies nothing of the sort.
To grasp the ironic brilliance of Jesus’ response, we need to realize that the Jews of this time were deeply offended by currency that bore the image of the emperor. They saw it not only as egotistical on the part of the emperor but as a direct violation of the commandment against making images (Ex. 20:4; Lev. 26:1). Only God can make an image of himself, and he did so when he made humans (Gen. 1:26-27).
Jesus ingeniously linked the issue of pagan egotism and idolatry with the issue of paying taxes. With a tinge of sarcasm, Jesus was in essence saying, “You of course believe this coin is an egotistical and idolatrous offense to God. So why should we who are God’s people fight with each other over how much of this we should keep or give back to the egotistical, idol-making offenders? If it bears his image, give it all back to him for all I care.”
The thing people should rather be concerned with, Jesus is saying, is whether or not they are giving to God what bears his image and what therefore belongs wholly to him – namely, their very lives. Indeed, Jesus was ironically suggesting that an inappropriate preoccupation with what we should do with Caesar’s image may reflect a heart that is insufficiently preoccupied with what should be done with God’s image. Even if someone comes up with the “correct” position on paying taxes (is there one?), what good does it do her if she loses her soul (Mk 8:36)?
In this way Jesus wisely used the kingdom-of-the-world issue as a spring board to pose the kingdom-of-God question and the kingdom of God option. He was demonstrating, once again, that he hadn’t come to resolve the ambiguous and controversial issues that characterize the kingdom of the world. He rather came to offer a radical alternative way of doing life, answering a completely different set of questions. And they all concerned living under the reign of God.”
Boyd argued from the onset of this article, that we owe nothing to the State (Caesar), that our allegiance is to be to the Lord alone, though for practical reasons we are to go along with Caesar’s laws (unless they contradict God's laws) to avoid unnecessary trouble. Boyd continued:
“I’ll argue that Kingdom people are called to pledge their allegiance to God alone, not to any nation, government, political party or ideology. Because Kingdom people are under the rule of God alone, they are not under any other rule. Kingdom people are thus called to be “anarchists” (meaning without [“an”] human authority [“archy”]). Not only this, but the main task of Kingdom people is to keep the Kingdom “holy” — meaning “set apart,” “separate” and “consecrated.” We are to take great care to live lives that are set apart from the ideals, values and methods of the world’s politics.
I need to say at the start that this doesn’t mean Kingdom people are to be law breakers. When laws conflict with the rule of God, of course, we must break them (Ac 5:39). But otherwise we’re to submit to them, for not doing so would unnecessarily get in the way of our call to build the Kingdom. But we submit to laws not because they have authority over us, but because we submit to God.” (Read entire article here.)
Taxes were the topic of discussion in the passage, but the Lord opened this up to the much bigger issue. Who do you pledge your allegiance to?
What do we owe Caesar? What do we owe the State? We may pay taxes to avoid jail, but this does not make paying taxes holy. If we are to give the State whatever the State demands, where does it stop? Should we give them all of our money and resources if they demand it, making us unable to provide for our families? Should we give them our children so they can be educated, drafted, and regimented for the State’s purposes? Should we kill when they say kill? Should we believe them when they call people from other nations our enemies? Should we surrender to them our ability to protect our families from harm?
I believe it is a grievous error to take these words of the Lord as teaching anything other than the fact that we must choose whom we will serve – Caesar or God. We are to render unto God what is God’s. And what do we owe him?
What do we owe the Caesars of the world?
Though we may obey the laws of the State to a point, such as paying taxes, we do this to avoid unnecessary trouble, not because the evil State has a right to our God-given resources, and not because it has a right to claim our allegiance.