Rendering to Caesar
Are Christians required to be patriotic? Simply obey the laws? Pay our taxes?
The story of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and the Herodians (supporters of Herod and hated by the Pharisees) about paying taxes is one of the most often quoted. (Click here to read it.) Indeed, it is in all three “synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) so we know it was considered both important and informative by the Gospel writers. But what are we to make of it?
The Pharisees and Herodians, both of whom wanted to discredit Jesus, thought they had found an unanswerable quandary for Jesus. They asked if the Jews should pay taxes to the Emperor or not. If Jesus answered yes, the Jews would see him as a traitor since he would be supporting the accursed Roman invaders. If he said no, the Herodians could have him arrested for sedition. Traitor or jail?
Jesus surprised them both by asking for a coin in which the tax was paid, noting the head of Caesar on it and, quite famously, saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This is not the answer to all our questions about religion and politics, but a couple of things seem clear. First, while we have an overarching and controlling obligation to God, we also have a proper obligation to our civil society and government. This seems right because these structures have great influence on people’s lives. Bad governance isn’t just inconvenient, it can destroy lives and livelihoods, bringing serious harm to the children of God. So, too, the less tangible structures and norms of our society can be harmful or helpful.
“Rendering to Caesar” clearly means that we are obligated to pay our taxes due. Remember that the government of Rome was hardly benevolent toward the Jewish people. Yet, the taxes should be paid. Even with laws we may disagree, government waste, incompetence in Washington and outright corruption, we are to pay the taxes that are due.
It also means that we are to obey the laws. Yes, I sometimes creep over the speed limit as I ride my motorcycle around town. And I grumble about some of the rules and regulations to be followed both as an individual and as the manager of a non-profit corporation (the church). But I do believe that I am obligated both as a citizen and a Christian to do my best to follow the rules.
When it comes to election seasons, even when I can’t find a candidate I want to support, I believe that I need to cast my vote. I should pay attention enough to make responsibly informed decisions in the ballot box.
We have no active draft at this time, and I did not volunteer, but had my country called on me, I would have served. Even if I don’t agree with all the politics that led to whatever conflict we may be embroiled in, I believe I am obligated to “render to Caesar” even the ultimate sacrifice.
But “rendering to Caesar” does not mean that I must agree with what my government does, or what our elected leaders say. And I can freely say so.
Which brings me to the final point I would make today. As a Christian first, I must work to ensure that my participation in our civil society is for the good, that my words and deeds commend my Savior. I can’t say things that simply serve to divide or enflame, and not to heal and build up. Will my words feed division, anger, frustration and despair? Then I should keep them to myself. Our words must be words of truth, but truth in love, truth to heal, build up and make whole.
Does your participation meet these obligations?
This column appeared in the October 18, 2020 edition of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
If you are reading this at a different time, you may click here for the current eNews.