God Meets Politics, part one: Render Unto Caesar

When you broach the subject of faith and politics (like I did here and here), it tends to lead to more questions about how these two realms (for lack of a better word) interact. For many people the question is should they even interact at all? Can’t we just keep God and our politics in separate boxes? In this series of blogs, entitled God Meets Politics, I’ll try to respond to those questions/objections by looking at the particular passages in the Bible that come up most often in these discussions. Today, we begin with an oft (mis)quoted passage from Mark 12/Matthew 22/Luke 20.

They sent some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”

Since Jesus recognized their deceit, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me.” And they brought one. He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” His reply left them overcome with wonder. (Mark 12:13-17, CEB)
The interpretation of this text often goes like this: See? Jesus himself says that we should keep God and Caesar, faith and politics separate, in their respective lanes. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.
But is this text really affirming that faith and politics shouldn’t be mixed?
In short, no. Actually, this passage teaches quite the opposite.
First, a bit of context. This interaction between Jesus, the pharisees, and the Herodians, comes during the time known as Holy Week. Jesus begins this week on Palm Sunday by riding a donkey into Jerusalem while his followers waved palm branches, declaring: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

This is a politically charged event. First, by choosing a donkey (and not a war horse!) Jesus is connecting his mission with that of Zechariah 9: 

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth. (v.9-10, CEB)

Jesus choice of a donkey implicitly ties him to this idea of the king coming to rid the city of its enemies. Further, the use of palm branches is an homage to the last time the Jewish people knew freedom and independence, in the Maccabean era. In the 160s BCE, the Maccabeans gained Jewish independence from the Seleucid dynasty (which is where the festival known as Hanukkah originates), and to celebrate they minted coins with palm branches on them. So, to wave palm branches was also a loaded political idea.

And then there’s David, the once and future king. David was promised (2 Samuel 7) that, as long as they were faithful, one if his descendents would forever be on the throne of Israel. To call Jesus the “son of David,” or to reference the “coming kingdom of David,” was to say that Jesus is this coming king, the anointed one (messiah) that will lead in the revitalization of Israel.

Kings and kingdoms, donkeys and Davids all point to one inescapable reality: whatever Jesus is doing, it isn’t something that can be separated into two, distinct columns. There is no way to dissect the spiritual/religious concerns from the secular/political concerns. They are two sides of the same coin.

Speaking of coins, back to our story in Mark 12.

Holy Week was a week of controversy for Jesus. He waded into discussions about authority and taxes, resurrection and marriage. This specific text, about paying taxes, also known as tribute, to Rome was a hot button issue. Let’s break down this story a bit so we can better see the nuance that is present.

First, Jesus’ interlocutors are representative of two groups: the pharisees and the Herodians. These two groups would not normally play well together. The pharisees were focused on piety and purity; the Herodians were collaborators with Herod Antipas, and as an extension, Rome. So, as one seminary professor I had put it, “Jesus makes strange bedfellows.” Both the religious establishment and the collaborators with the empire see Jesus as a threat to their interests.

 Second, let’s look at the trap these two groups unite to spring against Jesus. When they ask about paying taxes to Caesar, they put Jesus in a seemingly no-win situation. If he says, “No, we should not pay taxes,” he is effectively calling for resistance to Roman rule, thus committing treason. If he says, “Yes, we should pay taxes,” he is essentially accepting, and submitting to, Roman rule. This would have been an extremely unpopular decision with the crowds who followed him. The Herodians and Pharisees would have been happy to have either answer. So, which answer does Jesus give? Hold that thought.

Third, notice Jesus’ response to their less-than-above-the-board question. He recognizes immediately that it’s a trap. Then he asks for a coin. The coin in question would have been a denarius, which was worth a day’s wage for a worker. On this coin, during the time of Jesus, would have been the image of the Caesar, Tiberius. Above the image of Tiberius was the inscription, Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus. What would such an inscription mean? That Tiberius is the son of god (which was a political term as much as a religious term). On the reverse side of the coin was an image of the Roman goddess Pax, symbolic of the Roman imperial ideology of peace through victory.


This coin, then, is a violation of the command from the Decalogue: 

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth…

Here’s the irony of the situation: Jesus doesn’t have a coin, yet those trying to entrap him readily produce one! Their trap is turning back in on them, and their hypocrisy is exposed. 

Fourth, notice Jesus’ response. He looks at the coin and says, “Whose image and inscription is this?” His questioners respond, “Caesar’s.” Which is correct. The coin is made in the image of Caesar. Then, Jesus tells them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

His reply left them “overcome with wonder.”

This response is often taken to mean that Jesus says, “Keep these two separate. They are oil and water. Make sure you keep God and your politics separate.”

Jesus, however, is actually doing something brilliant. When he says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, he’s making a bold claim. When Jesus says “give to God what belongs to God,” what would be included in that? What belongs to God?

In Genesis 1, we are told that God created human beings in the image of God. Using the logic he presents in this text, Jesus would say all human beings, even Caesar, belong to God. 

Later, in Psalm 24, the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.” Not only are the inhabitants of the earth God’s, all of creation belongs to God as well.

Put concisely, what belongs to God? Everything. 
What, then, belongs to Caesar? Nothing. 

Jesus, friends, is brilliant, and in this shrewd response he offers a critique of the hypocrisy of his questioners and the absurdity of Caesar’s empire. Because Caesars come and go. Yet, the reality of justice, compassion, and love that we call God, and in whose image we are made, is here to stay.

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