We are in a political season, and political questions seem to be at the forefront of the minds of Christians. What, if anything, does the Bible say about our civic obligations? Would Jesus support one of our presidential candidates? If so, which one?
In some ways, the statements of Scripture do not easily answer these questions. The politics of the first-century Greco-Roman world were very different from our own. Their pressing concerns and urgent questions were not the same as ours today. But Jesus does mention the governing ruler of His day, and His pithy instructions have been widely viewed as useful for addressing the political questions raised by Christians of any era. Jesus’ familiar statement is found in Matthew 22:21: “Then He said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’” (ESV).
The immediate context of Jesus’ statement involves a question, posed by the Jewish religious leaders of the day. The leaders were trying to trap Jesus (Matt 22:15) by asking Him a question about paying taxes to the Roman government. If He came out in favor of paying the tax, He might be seen as on the side of the Romans, against His Jewish countrymen; if He came out against the tax, He could be tried for sedition.
Jesus immediately put the leaders on the defensive, asking whose likeness and inscription was on the coin (Matt 22:20). Many Roman leaders avoided putting their image on coins, since having an image like this was blasphemous for Jews; but this coin had a picture of the reigning emperor. More than that, the coin itself not only pictured Caesar; it called him a ‘son of the divine.’ From the standpoint of strict Jewish law, those who carried the coin to Jesus were carrying a blasphemous idol, and by answering His question about the image, they were admitting uncleanness themselves.
After they answered, Jesus responded with a shrewd first line. While implicitly affirming Caesar’s right to the tax, Jesus also alluded to a well-known Jewish revolutionary speech, often recited by the people at Hanukkah. It was given by one of the great heroes of the Jewish rebellion of the second century BC, a leader named Mattathias, whose death led to the Maccabean revolt. Right before he died, Mattathias said, “Avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back to the Gentiles in full.” Jesus’ first statement sounds eerily similar to Mattathias’ words, though Jesus’ intent is more constructive: “Render unto
Caesar…” Jesus advocated a different sort of revolution than Mattathias’; He was not telling them to withhold the tax, but neither was He supporting outright compromise to the claims of Rome.
But the real subversion comes in the second half of the phrase, when Jesus reminds His hearers to “render unto God the things that are God’s.”
In one sense, of course, Jesus is saying that worship, praise, and hope for salvation should be vested in God and God alone. But on another level, Jesus is reminding us and them that everything belongs to God, and while paying the tax to Caesar, we can never forget that Caesar is no divine being; he cannot command our ultimate allegiance.
Jesus’ theology and His words seem to be taken from Psalm 96. Psalm 96 is a psalm of worship, which clearly declares, “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens” (Psalm 96:5a). There are no gods but the Lord alone. More directly, when Jesus says, “Render unto God,”
He is declaring the same thing as the psalmist, using almost the same words:
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord, the glory due His name;
bring an offering, and come into
Worship the Lord, in the splendor of holiness;
tremble before Him, all the earth!
Say among the nations,
“The Lord reigns!”
Our government, like the Roman one of Jesus’ day, makes many appropriate claims on our time and money. It is right to pay taxes and to serve where we can. But Jesus knew all too well that earthly leaders could and did set themselves up as rivals to God and to His people, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly. When this happens, our worship of God must continue unabated, and our allegiance to Him and to His Word as our central authority must never diminish or relent.
Dr. Jonathan Master ’98 serves as professor of theology, dean of the School of Divinity, and director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. His most recent book, The God We Worship, was published last March. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.