“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.”
The Pharisees and Herodian sympathizers, normally mortal enemies, conspired together to trap Jesus. They sensed his growing popularity and authority among the people. They knew the days of their own religious and political power were numbered. Strange coalitions are often formed when a fall from power is imminent.
They went to Jesus with a question, prefaced with flattery. “Jesus our teacher, you are so truthful, sincere, and full of moral courage; give us your opinion.” Jesus was no fool. He dismissed their songs of praise because he knew they had never before truly heard or obeyed any of his teaching. He exposed them for the hypocrites they were. They unwittingly revealed their true level of respect with the phrase “give us your opinion.” No true follower of Jesus considered his words mere opinion. They were truth and life.
“Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not?” they asked him. If he said no, they would hand him over to the Romans as a revolutionary. If he said yes, some of his Jewish followers would turn against him as a collaborator with the occupying force. And so Jesus, once again nobody’s fool, asked them to show him the coin used in paying the tax. The coin was a special coin the Jews had to purchase in order to pay their taxes. Producing the coin was an immediate indictment in the eyes of many in the crowd, to even own one made you a traitor. Jesus had turned the tables on the Pharisees and Herodians. Still he went on to answer their question. “Whose face is on the coin?” “Caesar’s,” They replied. “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.”
Jesus’s answer thus became the puzzling question for Christians down through the centuries. What is Caesar’s and what is God’s? They answered, “Jesus is Lord,” for us a religious response, for them a political statement. The early Christians recognized that it was a question of who has ultimate authority. Caesar means Lord. They were making the bold claim that the ruling man in Rome could not be considered Caesar, that title belonged to the newly crowned king and Caesar, Jesus Christ. A new kingdom had been born which supplanted all others. Roman Caesar collected back taxes, however. Many Christians paid the ultimate penalty, their lives, for their stance.
The early church did recognize the legitimacy of government and gave back to the ruling powers in money and service whatever was asked of them as long as it did not conflict with their ultimate allegiance to Jesus as Lord. They paid for civil services but refused military participation. The question before them as they considered any government demand was, “Is this Caesar’s, or is it God’s?” “Is there a moral conflict present?” As the Roman Empire began to crumble, the Church, the largest stable institution, began to pick up many of civil government’s obligations out of charity and necessity. Later the Church held on to government temporal power even though there was not the same need simply because it’s hard to give power up once you have it. They didn’t understand the true bottom-up subversive power of the Kingdom of God. The answer to the question of “What is Caesar’s and what is God’s?” got pretty confused.
Today I’m afraid we don’t bother much with the question. Many, in fact, automatically assume that the will of the government is the will of God. We go forth for “God and Country” as if they are conjoined twins. Recently, however, a few have answered the question by withholding the portion of Caesar’s coin which goes toward funding nuclear weapons or the illegal U.S. sponsored, low intensity warfare in Central America. Perhaps many more will soon answer the question by withholding the portion of Caesar’s coin which will go toward a government sponsored health care system which may fund abortions.
(Note: I wrote Peace Connections in the early to mid 90s. I’m simply dusting them off now for use on social media and email which were not then available or in wide use. To update this reflection, with the recent passage of HB40 in Illinois, which will use tax payer monies to fund abortions, is it time for a tax resistance action? What shape might that take? I’m interested in hearing your ideas.)
Is. 45, 1: 4-6; I Thes. 1: 1-15; Mt. 22: 15-21
Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz. “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.