“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
Our passage this week from Matthew 22 is an interesting one indeed. But it is one that can be difficult to understand because of all the factors at play — political, societal and social. The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus with a question and he quiets them with this response. Why is it so brilliant? And what does it have to do with us?
So first, some context. The Jews at the time were an occupied people. It is one chapter in long and winding history of the Jewish people. They had not always lived this way.
In fact, the early history of the Jewish people was a rousing success. The fledgling nation selected a king and quickly began to run roughshod over the Canaanite people. They conquered and plundered and killed. The gained wealth and amassed power, seized land and subdued enemies. They established themselves as a powerful nation around their capital city of Jerusalem.
But their history was not a straight upward trajectory. The Old Testament also tells the story of invading armies conquering Jerusalem, of the Jewish people being scattered and living in exile. They knew what it was like to be king of the hill and also what it felt like to be underneath another’s boot.
It was much better to live on their own terms. And in the early New Testament, they weren’t. They were living under Roman rule. Their dreams of the coming Messiah were wrapped up in nationalistic ambition. They were tired of having someone else dictate the terms of life. They longed to have the say in their own existence again.
So the Pharisees’ question is not about taxes, really. It is about power and morality and submission and who really sits on the throne. It is about how you live in a place where you don’t make the rules. How do you function when you don’t have the ultimate say?
It’s a difficult question and they thought they’d stumped Jesus with it. They thought his answer would either bring the ire of the Roman government down on him or make him look like a traitor to his people.
Jesus’ answer is brilliant because it subverts their presupposed ideas and expectations. It’s Caesar’s money, so give it back to him. Just because your face is on the coins does not mean that you have all the power. Does living as God’s people even require you to have the say in everything around you?
So what does this story have to do with us? Especially in America, where we are used to freedom and a government who (mostly) leaves us to live our lives the way that we choose? Good question.
This week I saw a story about a couple of ministers in Idaho who were being threatened with penalties and possible jail time if they refused to allow same-sex couples to marry in their chapel. Because they operate a for-profit business, they are subject to the same discrimination laws as other businesses. You’ve probably heard similar stories about Christian bakeries or photographers who are faced with a similar moral dilemma.
Many Christians’ first reaction to stories like this is anger or resentment at having the government try to dictate to us what we can and can’t do. We believe that we should be free to practice our religious freedom and not be forced to do anything that would compromise our beliefs. I sympathize with these concerns.
Articles like this are meant to rile Christians up and collect clicks on websites. They feed off tension that most American Christians are feeling in the current culture.
Quite plainly, Christians are used to having our way. We believe that America is a Christian nation and always has been. Like the Jews, we know what it is like to be the majority and to have our way.
And yet we know that the climate has been shifting. We see numbers all the time that tell us that America is becoming less and less Christian. We feel like our cultural influence is slipping. Now we feel like the minority and are struggling with how to operate in that environment. Much like the Jews under Roman rule, there is fear and anxiety and doubt and pessimism.
So how do we operate in a place in which we don’t make all the rules? Where the parameters are set by a different standard than our own? How do we function in an environment where we do not have the ultimate say?
We give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s.
Jesus’ wisdom then is still wise today.
So what does it mean? How do we do that? Glad you asked. We’ll take a look at that very thing tomorrow.