Deuteronomy 5:1-7 April 6, 2003
Mark 12:13-17 Byron C. Bangert
According to Mark and the other Gospel writers, the days immediately leading up to Jesus' arrest
and crucifixion were filled with high drama. Recall the several controversies that confronted
him in his last days in Jerusalem. The religious and political leaders first come to him with a
question about his authority. They come to him with a riddle concerning the resurrection. One of
their lawyers comes to him asking which is the first commandment of all. And they come to him
with a question about taxes!
According to Mark, it was actually two questions: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or
not? Should we pay them, or should we not?" The first question asks whether it is permissible,
under their Jewish law, to pay taxes to the secular state. The second asks whether it is advisable
or commendable to do so. I suppose Jesus could have answered that it is lawful to pay the taxes--there is no rule against it--but it's hardly required: "It's OK if you pay them, but don't think you
have to." On the other hand, with April 15 only nine days away we might rather Jesus had simply
said, "No way! Paying taxes is contrary to religious duty. Don't do it." But if he had, it seems
unlikely that, three centuries later, the emperor Constantine would have recognized Christianity
as an official religion, and it seems unlikely we would be Christians here today.
Actually, it is a trick question they put to Jesus. Had Jesus simply said that it was lawful and
commendable to pay taxes, and left it at that, he would have offended many of his Jewish
supporters. For both religious and national reasons, they objected to paying tribute to the
occupying foreign power of Rome. They would have seen it as capitulation, or at least
unwarranted accommodation, to the illegitimate ruling power. But had Jesus said that it was
unlawful to pay such taxes, and they really shouldn't do it, he could have been charged with
political disloyalty-- not simply lack of patriotism but even treason and fomenting insurrection
against the established power.
Jesus answers clearly, but ambiguously: "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's,
and to God the things that are God's." His answer begs the question. What are the things that are
the emperor's? And what are the things that are God's?
This text is often interpreted as an affirmation of the duty and allegiance that a Christian owes the
state: "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's." We are to pay our taxes; we are to
obey the laws; we are to render our service in the military or otherwise. We are not to engage in
activities that might be construed as unpatriotic. We are not to engage in acts of civil
disobedience. We are to support our nation's policies abroad, especially in time of war. If Jesus
meant that we are to pay our taxes, then it is only logical that he meant we are to support all those
things paid for by our taxes.
But surely this is not what Jesus meant to say. After all, the state in question was a foreign
power. The taxes in question were tribute paid to help finance the Roman occupation. The Jews
were being forced to pay for what many regarded as their own oppression. There were some
good things about the Roman administration, but there is no indication that Jesus made allegiance
to Rome a touchstone of his ministry and teaching. Our text is not an affirmation of our duty to
be loyal, patriotic subjects of the state.
A more compelling interpretation of Jesus' teaching sees it as an endorsement of one version of
what we now call the separation of church and state. There are those things that presumably
belong to Caesar, and there are those other things that belong to God. In our role as subjects and
citizens, we are obliged to render certain service and allegiance to the state. In our role as
religious believers, we also have religious duties and obligations to God. These two ought not to
be confused or intermingled. Politics is one thing, and religion is another, and it is essential to
keep the two apart. Therefore, it should possible to do what the state requires and what political
duty calls for without violating one's religious obligations. And it should be possible to fulfill
one's religious obligations toward God and the religious community without infringing upon the
political order or taking exception to its legal demands.
This interpretation of our text has a certain aesthetic appeal--it keeps the categories of our
political and religious life neatly separated--but it is surely not what Jesus had in mind. It would
have been unthinkable to a first-century Jew to separate religious and political identity. And even
though Christianity would soon transcend historical and national identities, as well as cultural
differences and political divisions, it has never been indifferent to the policies of the state. Those
policies were often hostile to first- and second-century Christians. For the most part, early
Christians did their best to steer clear of all entanglements with the state. Paul counseled his
churches to avoid the courts. Most early Christians would not hold political office, nor did they
engage in military service. They regarded Jesus as an opponent of violence, a pacifist, and so
were they. If early Christians separated their religion from politics and the state, it was not so
they could be both good Christians and good citizens. It was so they could keep their religion
free from the corruptions of the state. They would obey the laws, so long as those laws did not
require them to go against conscience or religion, but otherwise they kept their dealings with the
state to a minimum.
If Jesus had in mind any particular posture with respect to the state, I suspect it was one of
minimal engagement. When asked about paying taxes, Jesus first asks for a coin. "Whose head
is this, and whose title?" he inquires. It was the head and title of Caesar, the emperor. First
century Jews would have known the commandment against graven images, and the emperor's
image might have seemed such to them. Jesus could be saying, "Have nothing to do with this
money. Give it back where it came from." At most, his answer to the question about paying
taxes is a very ambiguous "yes." We are to render to the state whatever belongs to the state, but
what is that? A coin bearing the emperor's likeness suggests, perhaps, the contribution that the
state makes to the social and economic order. Government ordinarily brings some stability,
regularity, and security to human commerce and affairs. The state is due some payment for the
service that the state provides. But how far does this go?
As he does so often, Jesus effects a reframing of the question. Should we pay taxes or not?
Should we render such service to the state or not? Jesus answers that we should render to Caesar
the things that belong to Caesar. But there is no way to say what belongs to Caesar until we first
determine what are the things that belong to God.
Here and throughout the New Testament, Jesus' teaching is centered on God. Whatever the
question, we must start with God, and our relation to God, and God's relation to the world. The
first and greatest commandment is to love God--a God who loves us, and who calls us to love our
neighbors. So when we think about our life in relation to others, including our social and
economic and political life, God must be at the starting point and the center of our thoughts. The
first principle all of social, economic, and political affairs is this: "to God the things that are
God's." If God is first, everything else will sort itself out. Putting God first does not allow us to
be blissfully ignorant or carelessly indifferent toward the rest of life, but putting God first enables
us to see everything else in its proper light. As Jesus kept insisting, if we will seek first the
kingdom--the sovereignty of God--then everything else we need will be ours as well.
Now just what are "the things that are God's"? To God belongs our ultimate loyalty and
allegiance. The first commandment is "you shall have no other gods before me" [Deuteronomy
5:7]. For ancient Israel it was not a matter of one god or none. Israelite faith was forged in a
culture where there were believed to be many gods. It was a matter of being faithful only to one.
We live in a culture that believes there is only one god. But in actuality there are still many.
Whatever competes for our ultimate allegiance is a god. The most constant and demanding of
these competitors has been the nation-state. People rarely talk about dying for their school, their
business, their team, or even their church or family. But many still do talk about dying for their
country. The nation-state remains the single most powerful contender for our ultimate loyalties.
That is what makes our text, with its clear juxtaposition of Caesar and God, so compelling.
Because our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, so do our very lives. We are called not to spend
our lives, not to waste our lives, not to sacrifice our lives, except in service to God. We do not
have the right to abuse what God has given. We are obliged not to render our lives for the sake
of any other being or power. [Neither the state nor any person or power has a claim upon us in
any cause that diminishes or imperils our lives, except that cause serve the purposes of God. Nor
do we have claim upon our own lives, either to preserve them from the perils of serving God, or
to waste them in empty pursuits, or to terminate them before the time when we have given all we
have to give to God and others. We are not to take our own lives, nor are we to allow our own
lives to be taken, except in service to God.]
To God also belong all other lives. As the Psalmist declares, concerning God, "For every wild
animal of the forest is mine, . . . and all that moves in the field in mine. . . [F]or the world and all
that is in it is mine" [50:10, 11, 12]. Ancient peoples had a much more vivid sense of this reality
than most of us today. Many religious rituals were centered around the taking of animal life for
food, in open acknowledgment that a sacrifice of the animal was being made for the preservation
of human life. The taking of any life, and especially the taking of human life, is the taking of
something that belongs to God. We have no right to do so unless we can be confident that what
we are doing is a somehow necessary and justified means of serving God.
Note that Christianity does not attach an absolute value to human life. Most Christians are not
absolutely opposed to all forms of taking human life. We engage in difficult and painful debates
regarding war and capital punishment, euthanasia and abortion and suicide. But Christians, when
they are true to themselves, recognize that every individual human life possesses a value not
dependent upon human valuations, a value given by God. Every human life possesses inherent
dignity and worth. The life of the stranger, the enemy, the infirm, and any who are only
marginally recognized within the human community, is cherished by God just as surely as the life
of one's loved one or one's own. [We may say that Jesus died for others--but it makes no sense
whatsoever, unless God really cares about those others. So, if and when we give our lives to God
it must not be to protect and preserve ourselves over against the lives of others. It must be to
render ourselves in love and service, if need be in suffering and death, rather than that others
should suffer and die.]
Finally, we must say that the ultimate vindication of justice and the reconciliation of the world
belong to God. As Paul put it to the Romans, "Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the
wrath of God" [Romans 12:19]. Paul's point is not so much that vengeance is God's business as
that it is not ours. As one commentator observes, "We are neither wise enough nor good enough
to punish our enemies justly" [THE OXFORD ANNOTATED BIBLE, REVISED STANDARD
VERSION, n. Romans 12:19]. It is not our task to accomplish the perfection of human society or
to render ultimate judgment upon human affairs.
Of course, we are not to be indifferent toward the evils of this world. We are not to be quiescent
in the face of social and economic and political injustice. We still have responsibility to work
toward the reconciliation of all human beings and societies. But we are to do so without any
pretense that our efforts are either sufficient or final. Whatever service we render to our
neighbors, to our communities, to our societies, to the state, we recognize that it is imperfect and
incomplete. Whatever judgments we render concerning human affairs, we recognize that they are
compromised by our limited vision, our own selfish interests, our own moral blinders. Moreover,
we are constrained to regard every human individual as possessing dignity and infinite worth.
Therefore, regarding ultimate verdicts upon human individuals and affairs, regarding final
solutions to the evils we deplore, we must forswear the role of judge and jury and executioner.
Nor does the state have any claim upon us in this role.
In times such as this, when the world is racked by turmoil and war, and the moral ambiguities of
social existence are exposed, the temptation is for individual Christians and churches to cast their
lot with the policies of the nation. Christian faith calls for a different stance. The policies and
practices of nations are never more than partially conformed to the purposes of God. The pride of
nations is invariably unwarranted by what we know to be the perennial failures of every
particular historical existence. We are called to stand apart in some measure from the disorder
and violence in our world, not in self-righteousness condemnation but in faithful witness to an
alternative vision of universal community.
God's claim upon us includes life itself, our lives and all other lives, the whole created order. And it encompasses the ultimate disposition of every life and people, whatever there may be of final judgment and reconciliation, our individual and our corporate destinies. These things we must not usurp from God, nor render to Caesar. We owe to Caesar no more than what is Caesar's. AMEN.