The showdown in today’s Gospel reading between Jesus and the religious and political authorities of his time gives us one of his most famous quotations—so famous it’s become sort of a modern proverb. “Render unto Caesar” is a sort of shorthand for the common interpretations of Jesus’ response, usually used to mean that we ought to keep God out of politics, and politics out of religion—as if Jesus had in fact slipped out of the question posed to him without committing to a firm opinion, by proposing some version of the separation of church and state some 17 centuries ahead of his time. And sometimes this proverb is used to mean that whatever you believe, Jesus is saying that we have to submit to the demands of the government. That God has ordained every government and leader on earth and we have to obey them to be good Christians—an idea which contradicts much of Scripture.
I think these understandings of this famous exchange are mistaken, even superficial. I’m a firm supporter of the separation of church and state, but what Jesus is doing here is so much bigger—both cleverer and much more profound than anything the modern proverb hints at. But to get to it, I think we need to zoom out for a second and set the stage for everything that’s going on here.
The lectionary sets us in the middle of an ongoing conflict between Jesus and leaders who are threatened by his teachings. Now, to refresh your memory, Matthew chapter 21 describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the acclaim of the poor people and other outcasts who loved him. Immediately after coming to Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple, where he confronts the bankers and merchants who profit at the expense of poor worshipers and drives them out of the temple. And this sets up the pattern for Jesus’ stay in Jerusalem: on the one side are those who love him; on the other are those who find him offensive and want to find a way to neutralize him, by whatever means possible. The next several chapters of Matthew are relentless in depicting Jesus’ animosity towards anyone who puts themselves up as a gatekeeper between themselves and God, and the leadership’s equally venomous animosity towards Jesus.
So both the political and the religious authorities now fear Jesus so much that they join forces to sever Jesus’ relationship with his followers, as we see in this morning’s reading. This itself is pretty surprising: the Pharisees and Herodians were not natural allies. The Pharisees resisted cultural assimilation while the Herodians supported it, for example. And whereas the Pharisees wanted a member of the Davidic line to rule Israel, the Herodians, as their name suggests, supported the line of Herod the Great, whom the Pharisees, as a group, hated and feared. Yet both groups fear Jesus, his adoring crowds, and his challenge to their leadership so much that they start working together, and now they try to trick him into either making his followers mad, or saying something to provoke a violent response from the Romans.
It seems like an ingenious set-up, especially since there is a LOT of resentment about taxation at this time. And by taxation I mean tribute, since these taxes were never used for making life better for the poorest people, and rarely used for infrastructure that benefited society as a whole. Instead, they were impoverishing levies used for two main purposes: for the enriching of the Roman emperors and the Herodian king, who usually used the money to build self-glorifying monuments, and for keeping people—almost none of whom were legally considered citizens of the Empire—trapped in debt. This functioned similar to sharecropping in the South after the Civil War, a system that trapped Black and poor white farmers in a position a lot like slavery. See, if someone can’t pay their tax after a bad harvest, they’re forced to sell their land and work someone else’s land, at which point they’re trapped in a cycle of debt they can never get free from. In any culture this is bad news, but in a culture like that of Israel, where a family’s land is sacrosanct, it’s also blasphemy. Biblical law states that, even if a family is forced to sell their land, it must be returned to them at the Jubilee which happens every 50 years. When you know this it’s understandable that many of the armed conflicts that arose in Palestine under Roman dominion were related to taxation, and why tax collectors were held in such contempt.
So when the Pharisees and Herodians confront Jesus about paying taxes to the emperor, they’re hoping he’ll either play to his base and denounce taxation, getting him into hot water with the Roman authorities, or he’ll anger his followers by affirming the taxation system. Either way, they figure, he’s toast.
This is why I love Jesus so much. When he says, in Luke, to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves, he knows whereof he speaks. He has a kind of sideways, slanted perspective on things that makes this kind of trap irrelevant. Like a magician asking for help from the audience, Jesus asks for the coin used for the tribute. Receiving one, he holds it up and asks, “whose face and whose title are on this coin?” And they answer, the emperor’s.
Jesus has just gotten these people to commit blasphemy in front of a crowd, because the title on the coin actually reads, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus,” that is, “Tiberius, son of god.” Ironically, the Pharisees and Herodians have just said that “son of god” is Caesar’s title.
And then—perhaps just as they are realizing they’ve stumbled into the trap they were digging for him—Jesus makes an even more stunning move. When Jesus answers “Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and give to God the things that belong to God,” what he’s really saying is “Caesar is not God.”
So you can see why I think it’s much too simplistic to just say Jesus is a supporter of the separation of church and state; it’s just not a valid interpretation of this passage. No one in the ancient world would even understand such a separation; what we call religion was, to the ancient mind, inextricable from everyday life, from politics, economics, family, neighborhoods. This is why the Caesars were so suspicious of Jews and Judaism: The Jewish worship of God, and their refusal to worship Caesar, signaled potential disloyalty to the throne.
We also can’t accept the interpretation that Jesus is giving blanket authority to the powers that be, or telling his followers to blindly submit to those powers. After all, Jesus constantly criticizes the leaders of his time, in the best tradition of the prophets before him. He prioritizes people, their well-being, and their relationship with God over any economic, religious, or political tradition or necessity. Like many of the prophets, he is put to death by the state for his resistance to authority, for insisting on a community bound together by love, not power, tradition, or status.
If I had a year-long Bible study with you instead of a Sunday morning, we could go into all the specific ways Jesus tries to upend people’s assumptions about authority and tradition, the way he relentlessly antagonizes the powers that be, often by simply referring to the Scriptures. The first communities of Jesus-followers knew this, which is why they rejected titles, hierarchies, private property, divisions in status between men and women, or between slaves and free. Jesus’ mission was and is to establish the Kingdom of God, and his every description of that kingdom makes it clear that it is as different as it can be from Rome, with the Roman emphasis on status, on the power of male over female, the power of the citizen over foreigners and slaves.
The face on the denarius is the image of Caesar, but Jesus’ words recall a different image. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In Genesis 1, God places his own image in every human being and gives them authority to govern earth as stewards of God, who is the true king. When that text was written, just as in Roman times, kings were considered divine. The kings and emperors who kept invading and exiling Israel—they believed they were gods. It’s in their letters and all over their statues and monuments, this idea that kings ruled because they were gods themselves, or the children of gods. That the gods gave them and only them the right to rule. How astonishing is it that, in this context, an inspired scribe of Israel would assert that, no, all humans, every last one of us, is a child of God. Every last one of us, no matter how much power and authority and money we have, all of us are kings and queens serving the one true King together. Everyone, from the Queen of England or the president of the United States, all the way down in status and influence to a homeless refugee, is God’s child, and valuable, much more valuable than a coin.
So when Jesus says “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” I’d like you to consider that he’s saying not only that Caesar is not God, but that what Caesar owns is worthless. That he’s still telling us across all these years that anything that impoverishes, anything that divides and denigrates, anything that suggests that one person is better than another, is idolatry. It is idolatry because it obscures the truth that each of us is stamped with the divine image. It obscures the truth that what God intends for us is a community in which all our wealth and all our gifts are used for the flourishing of every child of God.
Please join me in prayer.
O God, Creator of all that is,
give us eyes to see how empty are money, or possessions, or status.
Give us eyes to see your image inscribed on every human being.
Give us a heart to value the people you made
more than anything we have made.
And give us the will to make a world
in which all your creatures may flourish.