What's Caesar's? What's God's?
Text study for Matthew 22:15-22 Lectionary texts for October 16, 2011
"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s," says the text in the King James Version (Matthew 22:21). It’s one of those memorable sentences that looks simple, but as with many of Jesus’ best-known lessons, it’s not simple at all. It raises at least as many questions as it answers.
What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God? How do we tell the difference?
Later in this same chapter, Jesus says that the first Jewish commandment is that we love God with all our heart and soul and strength and then our neighbor as ourselves (v 37-40). If we give God that primary love, if we honor God above all things, where does that leave Caesar?
That was a crucial matter in Jesus’ lifetime. Judea was a conquered state. The government was Roman. The police -- or in Judea’s case, the occupying army -- was Roman. Taxes paid went to Rome.
And those taxes had to be paid with a coin that showed the head of the emperor, Tiberius, and bore the inscription, "Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus." The "Cult of the Emperor" was very much a part of polytheistic Rome’s religious life, and it did create a real problem for the devout Jew.
What should his or her relationship be to such a government?
Jesus shows us one answer in the text. The coin has Tiberius’ image on it. It belongs to him. Give it back to him. Put the matter in perspective.
A jacked-up emperor thinking himself divine doesn’t make it so. God is the ruler of the universe. Tiberius and his tax and his self-image just aren’t that important.
Tiberius is long dead, but the question remains very much alive and requires a discerning answer on the part of Christians.
Being good citizens
What do we owe our government? Loyalty? Obedience? How much? Presumably we should be "good" citizens -- pay our taxes, vote, obey the laws, keep our lawns cut. What else?
How about a healthy skepticism regarding earthly power? From God’s perspective, how important is it really? Maybe we owe it to Caesar to cultivate healthy humility about his role in the world and speak that truth to him.
We also need to be very aware of the danger of assuming that God shares our preferred political point of view.. Political preference, like taxes, is in Caesar’s realm, but the temptation to believe that God is only on "our" side is a seductive one. History, sadly, shows us that the church has not always been immune to it.
Perhaps what we owe Caesar most is to be the loyal opposition: To remind him that he is not No. 1; to speak out and object when he passes laws that harm our neighbors or the widows, orphans and poor (see the second part of that Great Commandment); to object when he wants to hijack our faith for his political ends.
We owe Caesar -- and our neighbors -- the refusal to play along when he wants to usurp a power that is not his own.
• How do you place God first in your life, above the things of this world: governments, political parties, cultural institutions, and more?
• How do you discern between political rhetoric and God’s will for our society? How do we work it out when God’s will is cited on both sides of an issue?
• How do we speak up on behalf of the sovereignty of God in public life? What are the dangers? What are the benefits?
Nancy Bartels, a lifelong Lutheran, is the managing editor of Control, a business-to-business magazine.
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