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The Things of Caesar

July 4, 2012

It seems Jesus stands up for Caesar. When Jewish “religious” leaders ask him about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus says to render to Caesar the things of Caesar (Mt. 22:21). So is Jesus saying to be good citizens in the political realm–give Caesar his due there–but in the religious realm render to God the things of God?

First of all, the Jewish leaders who ask Jesus this question are Pharisees (22:15-16); they are not just religious leaders; their scribes (rabbis) are local and national authorities on the law of Moses, which is the law (constitution) for the nation. So when Jesus challenges them throughout the Gospel story, he is confronting not merely religious leaders but religious political leaders. Now that this confrontation is coming to a head in Jerusalem, they decide to test Jesus and see if he will also challenge the highest Roman political leader, Caesar. They know what the Roman emperor does to “subversives.”

After they ask their question, Jesus asks them to show him a denarius, the Roman coin used to pay Caesar’s tax (22:19). Jesus then asks them whose picture and writing are on the coin (22:20); they reply “Caesar’s.” We still have pictures of this denarius from that time, and the writing on it is: Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus. It is these blasphemous coins that are the things of Caesar; they are the things that have his picture and idolatrous words.

So Jesus says to render (give back) to Caesar these things (coins) that are his–why would Pharisees want to keep such despicable coins? Jesus is not standing up for Caesar; he is saying to separate oneself from these evil coins. Then, as a contrast to this human arrogance about divinity, Jesus adds to render to God the things that are God’s. Caesar is not God. The things (coins) of Caesar presume he is divine, but be done with them; give them up; give them back.

There is thus no basis in these words of Jesus for the common Christian notion that we should give Caesar his due, and in general obey him (unless he restricts our religious worship of God). Just as Jesus rejects the political leadership of the kingdom of Israel–as those not giving God the fruit of righteousness due Him (as in Mt. 21:33-43)–so he also rejects Satan’s offer of all the kingdoms of the world and their glory (Mt. 4:8-10). Even the greatest kingdoms of the world, like the Roman Empire, belong to the deceptive Satan, the ruler of this world. Jesus refuses these kingdoms of earth, including the Roman Empire, because he begins a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven (4:17); his disciples make up his kingdom, and follow him as their exclusive king.

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