Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
Today’s Gospel is from St. Matthew’s account of when Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees and Herodians whether it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not. In response Jesus asked them to show him a coin of the tribute. When they showed him a coin he asked them whose image and superscription was on it. They replied that it was Caesar’s. He then told them to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
But what was the context in which this incident took place? At the time Judea was a province of the Roman empire and was therefore required to give tribute to Caesar (the Roman emperor). The Roman conquest had come due to the failure of the Maccabean rulers, who had re-established an independent Jewish kingdom but had squandered their gains in futile internal squabbles. This had eventually led to the Roman conquest and the end of Jewish independence. Initially the Romans ruled through native client kings such as Herod the Great. Herod’s kingdom was divided between his three sons. Archelaus, Philip and Herod Antipas. Archelaus failed so badly in Judea that he was deposed and replaced by direct Roman rule, although Herod Antipas continued to rule in Galilee. The Jewish high priestly establishment was strictly conservative in outlook and sought to acquiesce in the situation. They supported Roman rule in exchange for autonomy in religious matters. But this collaborationist policy made them very unpopular with the mass of the people who found the situation a national humiliation.
In opposition to the official policy of collaboration Judas the Galilean staged a revolt at the time of the imposition of direct Roman rule. He believed that since God was Israel’s true king, the pagan Roman rulers had no authority to levy taxes upon the Jewish people. Though the revolt was brutally suppressed the sense that paying taxes to Caesar was an illegitimate imposition upon the Jewish people remained an underlying issue. Revolts broke out from time to time, though eventually when the whole people rose in rebellion the movement was brutally crushed and the city of Jerusalem and the temple destroyed (as Jesus had predicted a few decades before).
Where did Jesus stand on this issue? Since he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God in his own person and ministry it was reasonable to ask where he stood on the question of paying taxes to a pagan ruler. The claims of the pagan emperor stood in direct opposition to claims of the Kingdom of God. If Jesus said that it was legitimate to pay taxes to Caesar he would be seen to be publicly siding with the conservative and collaborationist Jewish establishment. This would fatally discredit him in the eyes of the people. On the other hand if Jesus said that it was not legitimate to pay taxes to the Roman ruler then he was placing himself alongside the cause of the violent revolutionaries, who regarded Roman rule and paying taxes to the Emperor as illegitimate and so took up arms against it. This would be popular with many of the people, but the association of his message with violent revolution would fatally compromise it by trying to defeat the world using the world’s own methods of war and violence.
Jesus extricated himself from the trap that had been set for him by asking his questioners to show him a coin of the tribute money. When they did so he asked them whose image and superscription was on it. They answered Caesar’s and he then told them to render to Caesar the things that are Ceasar’s and to God the things that are God’s. In other words, the image of the emperor on the coin showed that it was fundamentally a pagan imposition, for the image represented the kingdom of this world rather than the Kingdom of God. Since that was the case it was better to return the pagan currency to Caesar, to whom it belonged for he was the supreme ruler in the present age. But it was not Caesar who was the ultimate authority, but God. The things that belonged to Caesar could be rendered to him because he was not (whatever delusions of grandeur he may have possessed about himself) the final authority. What ultimately mattered was to render to God the things that are God’s, to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. Hence, Jesus repudiated the conservatism of the religious establishment who made unacceptable compromises with the rulers of this world. But he also repudiated the violence of the revolutionaries who sought to defeat the world by the world’s own methods. In their use of violence they were as compromised as the conservative collaborationists. All they who took the sword would die by the sword, a prediction that that proved to be accurate in the long term, since the cause of violent revolution ultimately led the movement to be crushed by the might of the empire, and the ruin of the Jewish nation and temple.
This message still speaks powerfully to us today. There are many within the Church today who, like the Jewish high priestly establishment in the first century, see the way of survival for the Church as an alliance with political conservatism. This inevitably leads to the Church being embroiled in worldly compromises and fatally discredits the Christian Gospel. Political conservatism is essentially an opportunist philosophy that is fundamentally at odds with the basic message of the Christian faith to render to God the things that are God’s and to avoid entanglements in worldly compromises. On the other side there are those within the Church today who see the way forward for the Church as an alliance with political progressivism. This also inevitably leads the Church to become embroiled in the affairs of this world. Riots and demonstrations on behalf of progressive political causes also fatally discredit the Christian Gospel. The world cannot be defeated by the world’s own methods of violence and if the Church becomes associated with riots and revolutions it ultimately undermines itself.
The Church must find a way of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God in our own time. Governments are a necessary evil in a fallen world to keep the civil peace. They are therefore entitled to raise taxes for that purpose. But because any government is made up of fallen and fallible human beings there is always a danger of it overreaching itself. When this happens the Church must respond that the authority of the State is not the final and ultimate authority and it is more important render to God the things that are God’s than compromising with the things that are Caesar’s. For the early Christians the fundamental area where no compromise was possible was the cult of the Emperor. The Roman Empire could be accepted as preserving the civil peace in a fallen world, but it was fundamentally of this world and not divine and so the emperor could not be worshipped. That is why so many early Christians became martyrs. They were witnesses to the truth that the things of God are more important than the things of Caesar’s. On the other hand, in this witness they took no part in violent revolution against the Roman state, but instead prayed for the political order that sent them to their deaths.
While there is not at the present time such a direct confrontation with a civil power that orders people to worship it governments are constantly looking to extend their powers and to see this as the solution to every problem. The events of the last few years have shown how easy it is for societies that see themselves as liberal and democratic to use totalitarian powers to deal with problems caused by disease and climate change. It is unlikely that this is being done with an explicitly anti- Christian intent, but in practice it is producing a situation rather like the cult of the emperor in pagan antiquity in which people increasingly worship the civil power. Like the cult of the Emperor the modern worship of the civil power seems to be popular and those who are prepared to speak truth to power, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear, are unpopular.
In this situation the message of the Church must be the same as it ever was. This is that governments are necessary to preserve the peace in a fallen world, but that since they are made up of fallible human beings they are not divine and their authority is strictly limited. In this world it is legitimate to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but what ultimately matters is to render to God the things that are God’s.