13 May 2018

“Render Unto Caesar What Is Caesar’s, and to God What Is God’s”

Religious 5 Comments

Someone emailed and asked me to discuss the famous “render unto Caesar” story. So I’ll quote it in full (from Matthew 22), but I’m going to follow with what comes after, to put it in context:

Paying Taxes to Caesar

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.[b] 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.[c] 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Sadducees Ask About the Resurrection

23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.

So the first thing to realize, is that the question about taxation was an attempt to trap Jesus. And it was a good strategy, because apparently no matter what He answered, they would have him. Remember that the Jews were suffering under the occupation of the Roman army, paying tribute to the distant Caesar. They longed for the Messiah to appear, as the prophets had promised. They thought that their king would rise up from the line of David and deliver them from their enemies.

So in that context, the Pharisees in public ask Jesus, should we Jews be paying taxes to Caesar? Now what could He do?

(1) He could say no. But then the Pharisees would be sure the Romans heard about that, and they would get rid of him as a rabble rouser.

(2) He could say yes. But then the hopeful Jews would have stopped speculating that maybe this healer was the Messiah.

(3) He could hem and haw and not answer. Then the crowds would realize he was afraid and his support would also dissolve.

Now that you realize the situation and how the Pharisees would have thought they had Him no matter what, go re-read what actually happened. It is one of the coolest little stories in literature.

Notice that it’s crucial for the “effect” that Jesus didn’t say the punchline first. He had to disarm everyone, suck them in (as it were), by telling them to pull out a coin and asking about it. This is absolutely masterful. It’s like a magician misdirecting the audience, or a comic professionally pacing the timing of his grand finale joke before saying goodnight.

What’s so astounding about his actual answer is that, simultaneously:

(A) He’s speaking a tautology that nobody could possibly doubt, and yet,

(B) It seems as if He’s giving them a very specific answer to their question.

I’m not saying this as a joke: Jesus’ answer here, in addition to all its other attributes, might be an example of a true synthetic a priori proposition.

Beyond all of that, His answer invites you to explore yourself, your worldview, your value system. The devout Jew could have paid taxes to Caesar because those tokens of secular commerce had nothing to do with the kingdom of God. (This is probably what most people think He was saying.)

However, He also could have been saying that God owns everything, and that the servant of God does not serve two masters. If a devout Jew thought that the tax money were being used for purposes contrary to God’s instructions, then he could have in good conscience disobeyed participation in an evil system. (After all, later on Christians would be fed to lions because they refused to pay allegiance to Caesar.)

5 Responses to ““Render Unto Caesar What Is Caesar’s, and to God What Is God’s””

  1. Andrew says:

    I love your Sunday posts Bob (this one included) but you happened across one of my pet peeves near the end here.

    His answer invites you to explore yourself, your worldview, your value system.

    Christians need to be careful with this kind of phrasing. It is important to remember that we serve God and not ourselves. Telling people to follow their own unique value system is only a short distance from, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” God speaks to each of us but we are capable of resisting His voice, placing our values above His for convenience sake. When we do so, we sin against Him.

    • Mark says:

      You are being purposefully dense here. Why couldn’t one “explore yourself, your worldview, your value system,” against the biblical standard? Murphy’s phrasing doesn’t connote what you’re saying, so its uncharitable at the least to take it that way.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Andrew, I wasn’t telling people “follow your own unique value system” as a general principle, I was giving two specific examples of how you could have understandably walked away thinking, “Jesus wants me to pay the tax” or “Jesus doesn’t want me to pay the tax,” and in both cases you would be a good Christian about it.

    • Andrew says:

      I apologize that my comment came across uncharitable. I was not being purposefully dense and I do understand what you (Bob) meant by that statement.

      I mentioned this as one of my pet peeves because I see a lot of non-Christians and progressive Christians use this same kind of phrasing to justify a “do whatever feels right” kind of morality. It rubs me the wrong way regardless of the writer/speaker’s intention because I’ve seen the same language used to justify a devil-may-care attitude towards sin. I think that Christians would be wise, for clarity’s sake, to replace this kind of language with something more like this:

      His answer invites you to serve God’s plan as He has revealed it to you personally.

      I’m confident that this is (at least very close to) what Bob intended in the original sentence, but I think that the original sentence lacks clarity in a way that sometimes causes confusion.

      Sorry for the nitpick/mini-rant. I really do like the post.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Andrew wrote: I apologize that my comment came across uncharitable. I was not being purposefully dense and I do understand what you (Bob) meant by that statement.

        FWIW, I didn’t think you were being purposefully dense, that was the other guy. 🙂

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