How Do We “Render Unto Caesar” in a Democracy?

CaesarThe following exchange takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22: 16-22.

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.

Several Trump evangelicals are using this verse to justify their support for the POTUS.

Over at the Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz asks a question about coins:

So how might we hear Matthew 22:21 differently if we’re looking at the metallic relief of a long-dead president who held limited power for a relatively short period of time, rather than that of a living emperor with the hubris to believe himself a figure of unimpeachable power?

Great question.

Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, adds:

Perhaps we’d then hear “render unto Caesar” as a reminder that, if American Christians owe limited allegiance to any secular authority, they owe it to no one person, but to the American people, who govern themselves through elected representatives sworn to protect the Constitution. The same Constitution that keeps even presidents from benefiting financially from their position, from obstructing the work of those who investigate lawbreaking, or from inventing fake national emergencies in order to subvert the work of those who make laws.

So render to God what is God’s: your image-bearing self commanded to love other image-bearers. And render to Trump what is Trump’s: your responsibilities as an American citizen to dissent from unwise and unjust uses of American power and to hold American demagogues accountable for their attempts to play Caesar.

Read Gehrz’s entire piece here.  It deserves a wide readership, especially for his thoughts on court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s use of this verse.

13 thoughts on “How Do We “Render Unto Caesar” in a Democracy?

  1. Alex,

    Ultimately everyone in the federal government theoretically works for us, but I can’t see how we are Caesar. We are the citizens.

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  2. I should mention that Cicero has also had a huge impact on Christianity from the early Church fathers such as St. Jerome, to early medieval scholars such as Aquinas, and European Scholasticism from the Renaissance to the modern.

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  3. Cicero is well worth studying. His influence is incalculable on the law, philosophy and political science that shaped what we would call the west, and certainly this applies to the ideas on government that helped shape the founding. Lot’s of good stuff available. I’m disappointed that Stewart (Nature’s God) didn’t expand on the few Cicero citations that he referenced. I don’t know of a single book that traces his effect on the founding but maybe John does.

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  4. I would interpret it according to the natural law that early Christians inherited from the Stoics. It’s the idea that there is a law above human law, an order to the world that trumps all else. This relates also to how the Stoics reinterpreted liberty. In a slave society like that of Rome, liberty simply meant legally not being a slave. But Stoics asserted that even a slave could have liberty in their own mind/soul.

    It’s the same basic message as that of Jesus. There is something within us that can’t be claimed by other humans, no matter their social position or what the law says. This conviction is what allowed the Stoics to embrace martyrdom and they did so prior to Christians did so. It means denying worldly power by refusing to fight against it. Ya know, resist not evil.

    Jesus said “If someone takes your coat, give him the shirt off your back also.” A Stoic took this a step further. When some Roman soldiers broke one leg, he offered his other leg for them to break and they did. Someone can take your property or even your life, but they can’t take what is within you that can’t be touched by human hand.

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  5. I found Gehrz’s piece interesting as a thought experiment, from the standpoint of Jesus using the coinage of the day as an illustration of the point He was making, and then Gehrz asking how the coinage of our day reflects our values and our view of our leaders in a modern-day republic. Of course, his reframing of Matthew 22:21 for today on the basis of his thought experiment is, as I said, largely extra-Biblical.

    The next time there is a Democratic president, I doubt that Falwell will eat his words at all. He will just disregard them and move onto a different set of proof-texts that seem to argue for opposing unjust leaders. Perhaps from the books of the Prophets.

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  6. Rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s doesn’t mean supporting, promoting, defending, and voting for Caesar. In the context, it simply meant let the Caesar’s taxmen take your money, a passive act of not directly fighting against false power. It was an indirect way of denying any claim that Caesar has over one, since what Caesar is owed is very little. Your soul, your identity, your freedom, your faith cannot be claimed by a tyrant.

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  7. I basically agree with Dave H. on his posting. Both Young Falwell and Mr. Gehrz are stretching the passage far beyond the simple intent of Christ. Falwell runs the risk of having to eat his words if we get another liberal secular DEM as president and Gehrz simply appears to be suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome. His remarks are simply foolish.

    I hope neither of them attempts to give a sermon to impressionable minds on this passage.

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  8. From a purely exegetical standpoint, the meaning of this passage is quite limited. Jesus is answering a very specific question posed by His contemporaries, namely, whether the Jewish people paying taxes to Caesar violates the Jewish Law. His response is that it is appropriate for them to pay those taxes. *Everything* else we derive from the passage is a matter of interpretation in light of passages elsewhere in the Bible and in light of faith principles, as when Christians ask what the application of this passage is for us today.

    “Pay the taxes you owe” seems likely to be a principle we might fairly draw from this passage with very little of our own additional interpretation. Adding some further interpretation might extend this out to a principle such as “fulfill your civic responsibilities.” A little more interpretation plus some input from Romans 13 might extend it out to “be a good and law-abiding citizen.” And so forth. Each extension of principle is the result of an additional layer of our own interpretation. And, not insignificantly, is also an extrapolation of the original principle to our own present time and place (where we have a republic and not an empire, and a democratically elected president beholden to the Constitution and not an emperor ruling by force and decree, and we are citizens of our country and not inhabitants of a conquered territory, etc.).

    Getting all the way to the level of “Because he is president, do not question or criticize Donald Trump when he says we need to build a wall on the Mexican border, and give him what he wants” is so many layers of interpretation removed from the original meaning that it would be like an onion. A huge onion. So, for that matter, would be the interpretation of the principle Gehrz shares in his piece. That of course leaves people free to debate their interpretation and understanding and what conclusions are more consistent with other Biblical faith principles seen as a comprehensive whole. But using a verse such as this as a simple “The Bible says…” proof-text to say we must give unqualified uncritical support to a President’s demands is absolutely ridiculous. And Falwell and others using the verse this way certainly know this, because they surely does not hold to this principle when the presidency and/or Congressional leadership is not held by their preferred party.

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