Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. Matthew 22:21
God and Caesar
It sounds easy. On the one hand, there is Caesar. On the other hand, there is God. God and Caesar, however, are not equal terms. They’re not even apples and oranges; they’re apples and astrophysics.
You can’t make a two-column list with God on one side and Caesar on the other, and then list what goes on each side. What does not go on God’s side of the ledger? As the Psalmist said, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1)
There was a Christian named Tertullian who lived around the year 200 that profoundly understood what Jesus meant. The denarius is stamped with Caesar’s image and therefore belongs to him, Tertullian wrote. What is it that is stamped with God’s image, and therefore belongs to God?
So God created human beings in His own image. In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. Genesis 1:27
What we owe God is ourselves. What we owe God is our hearts, our minds, our wills, our lives. We may owe Caesar many things, but he does not have a right to our souls or spirits. They belong to God alone.
What do we owe Caesar?
Your government will be happy to tell you what you owe it. If you don’t pay your taxes, you’re likely to get a letter from the Internal Revenue Service. If you don’t obey the law, the sheriff will show up at your door.
Those who work in federal service have the federal ethics regulations to follow. One of the basic 14 principles is this: “Employees shall put forth honest effort in the performance of their duties.” Seems fair enough to me.
Those of us in uniform have the Soldier’s Creed, Warrior Ethos, Army Values, Code of Conduct and similar words to guide us. When we raised our hand to take the oath of office, we voluntarily took upon ourselves the unlimited liability of being a soldier. “I am willing to give my life,” the Code of Conduct says.
More importantly, our faith tells us us that we always owe our neighbors the debt of love. The structures of government are one avenue through which we love our neighbors. As citizens in a republic, we have the right to vote and influence the actions of the government. We live in a participatory democracy. In a real sense, the government is us. We owe it to our neighbors to use our freedom and our authority for the good of all and not just ourselves.
The Setting in Jesus’ Life
But is this what Jesus is trying to tell us in Mathew 22? Is he trying to give us a civics lesson?
Remember the setting of this text. This is the final week of Jesus’ life. He has entered Jerusalem as the Son of David, the king of Israel. Now those who hated Jesus sought to trap him with a question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus knows that he is just days from being executed on a Roman cross.
Note then, that Jesus is not trying to give us an academic theory about the relationship between church and state. He’s arguing with people who want to take his life.
A Question about Taxes
Even though taxes and the economy are hot button issues in the news right now, this argument was not really about taxes.
The people of Galilee and Judea paid a lot of taxes in a lot of ways. The tax in question is a head-tax or a census-tax. It’s the kind of tax associated with the census of the nativity story.
The tax was one denarius per person per year. A denarius was a basic wage-earner’s daily pay. How would you like it if your federal income tax was one day’s pay? It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Tax freedom day for most of us comes in April some time, I think, not on January 2.
But that was not the only tax. The temple tax was twice as much. And then there were customs duties for goods that moved over land or sea, and taxes on land and its produce. Overall, the tax burden on the people was quite high, especially considering that most of them lived at the most basic level of existence.
For our purposes, though, the point is that the Roman census tax was not opposed primarily because of its economic impact. It played a relatively small part in the overall tax burden of the Jewish people. The tax was a “hot button issue” because of its meaning: the sacred land of Israel was being occupied by a pagan foreign power. The tax was an “occupation” tax.
Jesus said, Show Me the Coin
Jesus replied to the question with a request of his own. “Show me the coin used to pay the tax.”
The coin was engraved with the image of Tiberias Casear, the current emperor. The image itself is problematic in ancient Jewish eyes. In the Ten Commandments, God said, “You will not have any graven images.” Jewish coins were not engraved with the images of people.
The writing on the coin said that Tiberias was the high priest. Beginning with Augustus Caesar, all the Roman emperors were declared to be the head of Roman religion with its countless gods and spirits. If Caesar was a high priest, it was for a religion that no servant of the Lord could acknowledge.
The writing on the coin also said that Tiberias was the son of the Divine Augustus. The Roman Senate had declared that Augustus Caesar was a god. Romans had a lot of gods, a literal pantheon of idols. Can you see a unique problem, though, with a coin that declared Tiberias to be the son of a god? There is only one son of God, isn’t there, and it’s not Caesar.
So there was nothing good about the coin used to to pay the tax. It was idolatrous in every way imaginable.
Jesus’ Main Point
We should remember that other New Testament writers had at least a few positive things to say about government. Peter said that Christians ought to honor everyone, including the king. Paul said that Roman taxes serve a purpose. You could argue that Luke-Acts says a few good things about Rome.
As Paul points out, even pagan governments serve a good purpose. We wouldn’t be serving in uniform or in government service if we didn’t believe that.
That’s all true, but Jesus is not interested in discussing the purpose of government here. Jesus had one main point which we weaken when we soften it with other New Testament writings.
In this passage, Jesus isn’t interested in making us better subjects of Rome; he’s primarily interested in making us good citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The main question isn’t whether Caesar will get what Caesar wants or deserves. No, for Jesus, the main question is whether God will get what God wants and deserves.
Some things we don’t owe Caesar
The people of North Korea are expected to pay ceremonial honors to their Dear Leader Kim Jung Il, both at home and in public. He is attributed with almost magical powers. This extremely poor country spends an exorbitant amount of its budget on monuments to the ruling family. People will tell you that communist North Korea is an atheist country. Don’t believe it. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck. The cult of the Kim family is the national religion of North Korea.
No one owes it to Caesar to treat him or his government as some sort of god, but that’s exactly the situation that Jews – and later Christians – found themselves in the Roman Empire.
How does one live in Caesar’s world?
Should God’s people have even had Caesar’s money? Some scholars have suggested that even possessing a coin like this was to be guilty of idolatry. Jesus, after all, didn’t have one. He had to ask for someone to show him one. I don’t know. During much of his ministry, Jesus didn’t have money of any kind!
There were lots of kinds of money going around: Roman money, Jewish money, and other local currencies. You had to use Jewish money to pay the temple tax. You had to pay the census tax with a Roman denarius like the one Jesus saw.
One of the things that I am curious about but don’t know is this: did you have to use the same kind of Roman money in your daily life? If you worked for a gentile, did you get paid with Roman money? Did you have to use Roman money to buy certain things? Was it more possible to live an everyday kind of life without getting tangled up in godless and unsavory things back then than it is now?
Today, unless you are going to go off and live with a cult in the jungle or live by yourself in a cave on a mountain, your daily existence is going to be tangled up with all sorts of godless and idolatrous things. This is a godless and idolatrous culture. The world will get more than its share of our attention and allegiance. How can we make sure we give to God what we owe to God?
Right now, we are living like Daniel and his friends serving in the courts of Babylon. We live today, as the book of Hebrews says, as sojourners in exile. We are bound for the Promised Land. We are marching to Zion. We are pilgrims who have not yet reached our true homeland. Our situation is even more precarious than that of Jesus, Peter or Paul. The world will suck us in. How do we stop that from happening?
When We Gather as the Church
That’s why gathering together as the church is so important. Something happens when we gather around this table. We are the church, united with Christians in every place and every age. It is here that our truest identity is revealed.
Just because we meet in a military chapel, that does not mean that we are Caesar’s church. We are not Caesar’s church; we are Christ’s church. Right now, at this moment, we are not military people who happen to go to chapel on Sunday morning instead of playing golf, going for a walk or sleeping in. No, we are members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church who happen to be related to the Army.
At this baptismal font, God claimed us as his own.
We give to God what is God’s when we listen to his word and obey it, when we offer our praise and thanksgiving, when we confess our sins and then confess our faith, when we pray for the world and when we share the fellowship of the table.
As we do these things, we remember who we are. We belong to God, not Caesar. It is our life together that helps us maintain our identity as God’s people. It is only as we remember who we are that we can properly distinguish between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar.
We Owe Caesar the Truth
Nearly 30 years ago, I was the pastor of a little country church in rural Georgia and I wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov, then the leader of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. I had read that his government was mistreating Christians in his country, and I told him to stop it. I said that God would hold him accountable for how he treated God’s people and I invited him for tea if he was ever in the area. He never answered my letter.
Somewhere around the year 150, a Christian named Justin did something similar. He wrote the emperor Rome and explained the Christian faith to him. He wrote about Jesus’ life and teaching, about Christian beliefs and the church’s worship. His letter is the earliest Christian document outside the New Testament to quote Jesus’ words on paying tribute to Caesar.
On the basis of Jesus’ teaching, Justin said: we are perfectly willing to pay your taxes and serve you – more willing, in fact, than many of your non-Christian subjects. We are perfectly willing to acknowledge your power and your right to reign. But we are not willing to worship you. And we pray that you will have good judgment to go along with your power, because God is going to hold you accountable for what you do with the authority he’s entrusted to you.
When a new emperor came into power, Justin wrote him as well. And somewhere around 165, Justin was executed by the government of Rome.
We give to God what is God’s when we tell the truth about Caesar and his place in the universe, no matter what that costs us.
Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” But of infinitely greater importance is the second half of that teaching. “Give to God what is God’s.”