Today’s gospel contains the Jesus’ famous saying: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ Jesus says things in many different contexts: for instance he gives sermons, he tells stories – parables - and he answers questions. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ is an answer to a question – and needs to be understood in that context.
It’s a difficult saying for various reasons and seems to have more than one meaning – a bit like a parable. You rather wish Jesus had gone on to explain precisely what he meant: particularly because the saying seems to deal with the issue of the relationship between religious and political beliefs: which of course is still a huge question today.
The question that the Pharisees had asked was: ‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Taxes were a big political issue in those days – as of course they still are today – the particular tax that is probably being discussed here is the ‘Census’ tax introduced in AD 6 or 7 when Judea came under direct Roman control. The Census tax was hugely resented by the Jews – and resentment over taxes contributed to the revolt in AD 70 which led to the destruction of the Jerusalem and its temple. Of course if you were a Roman you’d argue that taxes were a good thing – necessary if you were going to build roads, aqua-ducts, etc. – and bring the benefits of ‘empire’ to small, unruly countries like Judea.
The Pharisees’ question is a trick question. If Jesus says yes it is right to pay taxes to Caesar then this puts him on the side of the Romans if he says no it’s not then this puts him on the side of the Jews who were opposed to Roman rule. He puts himself at risk of alienating – even enraging – his Jewish listeners if he says yes. And he perhaps even risks arrest by the Romans if he says no. We know – because we know what is going to happen later - that answering such questions and telling the truth as he sees it will eventually lead to Jesus being arrested and killed.
So does Jesus answer the Pharisees’ question? Well yes I think he does and his answer is really a disguised ‘on the one hand yes and on the other no’. But putting it as baldly as this would have satisfied no-one and would have also looked evasive – even cowardly. Instead Matthew records that those who heard Jesus answer went away marvelling. And I don’t think this is merely because he has for the moment outwitted the Pharisees with a clever response – his answer is not just clever it also gives them an answer – an answer to a question they hadn’t actually asked – or at least an answer to ponder.
The Pharisees frequently try to trick Jesus with questions – mostly religious questions – but note that this time the Pharisees’ question is a political rather than a religious question. It’s really asking: which side are you on in this political debate about taxes. One answer Jesus could have given is ‘I don’t know: I’m not interested in politics: I’m a religious leader not a politician’. But interestingly he doesn’t do that. Jesus responds to the question by talking about God in his answer. He brings God into politics if you like. He is saying that paying taxes only makes sense in a wider context – that of God’s overall control.
Of course the idea that God is concerned with political questions is controversial. And I am not saying that God is necessarily on the side of one party in political debates but I am saying that, following Jesus’ example, what God wants and requires from political structures and policies needs to be taken into account.
Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question about taxes illustrates this point. What he means by ‘render’ – in the translation of the passage we heard today – actually means ‘give-back’. Jesus though the visual aid of the Denarius borrowed from the Pharisees is in effect saying that since Caesar’s head appears on the coin then give back to him what is his, or even give back to him what he deserves.
He seems to be accepting here that taxes are a good thing in general, without necessarily supporting the controversial Census tax in particular. And this is of course quite a radical perspective on taxes. Even today many politicians seem to suggest that taxes are a bad thing in general seemingly forgetting that they would be out of a job without taxes to pay their salaries.
So Jesus acknowledges that we have political obligations – particularly though paying taxes but also surely through engaging with the political process in other ways. This nowadays means voting but also taking our part in local and national political decision making in other ways: writing to your MP about things, etc. etc. To what extent each of us should get involved in politics must be a matter for individual prayer, just as any other decision about how we lead our lives must be.
However Jesus’ injunction to give to God’s what is God’s in his answer to the Pharisees’ question also relativises the political obligation. It means that our decision about our political obligations cannot be made in isolation from our decision about our religious obligations – what we must do for the state is set in the context of, and is subordinate to, what we must do for God.
In this context note that there is in Jesus’ answer no firm principle of loyal submission to the state. On the contrary some have argued that when Jesus says ‘render under Caesar what is Caesar’s there he is a subversive implication. What does Caesar actually deserve? Death on a cross?
At the very least the implication is that one’s obligation to the state – to pay taxes for example – is much less important than one’s obligation to God. God surely trumps Caesar when it comes to giving back what is due.
Nevertheless Jesus does seem to be saying that obligations to God can co-exist with obligations to political authorities even though obligations to God are much more important than obligations to political authorities.
Now all this could be, and has been, taken to mean that Jesus is suggesting that there are two worlds – God’s world and Caesar’s world – the spiritual world and the secular world and that the two are quite separate In God’s world – the spiritual – God is in control – in Caesar’s world – the secular – Caesar is in control. Of course nowadays various other powerful individuals and bodies have replaced Caesar. But are there really two separate spiritual and secular worlds? This idea has been a continuing idea in western thought. And theologians from Luther onwards have bought into the idea.
But I do not think that Jesus is suggesting this here. In the context of what he says elsewhere I think he is saying that there is another way of looking at power and control. On the face of it Caesar – or his replacement may seem to be in control – he may seem to dictate important aspects of our lives – the amount of tax we pay, to whom and for what for example. But Jesus is also saying – as he has said many times before – that there is another way of looking at things. That he has come to announce a new kingdom – where God is in control of everything and where power relations are essentially and fundamentally transformed.
The Kingdom of God that Jesus announces is not just a spiritual kingdom: it’s a kingdom where the financially poor are blessed, not just the poor in spirit; where the physically blind are cured of their blindness, not just the spiritually blind. The Kingdom of God is both earthly and spiritual, both here present and yet to come. If we accept our membership of this new kingdom then things are completely and utterly different: including even the way we view taxes.
Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s is not then an invitation to eschew earthly things and to devote ourselves to heavenly things. Earth and heaven are now inextricably mixed. God became a human being in the person of Jesus and things have never been the same since.