Render To Caesar reflection for St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community – Steve Clemens. Oct. 16, 2011
The Gospel lesson assigned for today comes from the Gospel according to Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how they might entrap [Jesus] in his talk. They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are honest, and teach the way of God in truth, no matter whom you teach, for you aren't partial to anyone. Tell us therefore, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the tax money." They brought to him a denarius.
He asked them, "Whose is this image and inscription?" They said to him, "Caesar's."
Then he said to them, "Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard it, they marveled, and left him, and went away.
In the English of the King James version, Jesus statement is recorded as “Render to Caesar …” and this phrase has been bandied about by apologists for submitting to governmental authority for decades, in not centuries.
Note in the story told, the purpose of the question was to TRAP Jesus. The question comes from “the Pharisees and Herodians”- the Pharisees were “separatists” stressing personal purity in the face of Roman political and military domination; the Herodians were the collaborators with the colonial occupation of the Jewish homeland.
Ched Myers tells us we should understand the word render as “Repay Caesar what belongs to Caesar but repay God what belongs to God.” Jesus is inviting his opponents to act according to their allegiances which are stated clearly as opposites. Note again: Jesus is NOT carrying one of these coins that bear the image and inscription of Caesar. To carry such for a devout Jew would violate the “no graven image” commandment. The image on the coin was a constant reminder of two things: Caesar is divine and Rome controls you politically and militarily.
Obviously the response by Jesus causes us to ask, “What belongs to Caesar – and, what belongs to God?” While Caesar is always wont to claim more and more, Psalm 24 indicates that everything already belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein…”
But render to Caesar could also be a call (to us) to support the Commons. This was not possible under the occupation reality of the Jewish nation by the Roman Empire when Jesus lived in Galilee - but what is our call today? Some Tea Party advocates in a lashing out against any and all taxes might say we shouldn’t have to pay taxes for “government programs”. But what about funding for the Clean Water Act, for Fair Housing laws, for enforcement of regulations making public buildings accessible to those with disabilities? Maybe there are some areas where it is appropriate for us to render our taxes to Caesar. If “Caesar” stands for “government”, is all the government “evil” as some Tea Party advocates might conclude? Many Catholic Workers and other anarchists argue that we don’t need government to tell us how to behave. But others see government as a helpful organizing tool to help avoid social chaos. Ultimately, however, Christians need to remember that government is backed by “the sword” and its threatened use.
What we cannot render to Caesar is how to respond to our “enemies” – in fact, we cannot allow Caesar to define for us who our enemies are.
In Dec. 2002, I traveled to Iraq to be part of the Iraq Peace Team. Shortly before I left, I got a letter from the US Government which told me that anyone traveling to Iraq in violation of the Economic Sanctions was subject to 12 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. While in Iraq, I learned how the economic sanctions destroyed the Iraqi economy so that the Iraqi Dinar was now virtually worthless. This 250 dinar note [hold it up] was worth $85 before the sanctions were put in place. In Dec. 2002 this same bill was worth only 12 ½ cents!
So I decided that if “Caesar” was threatening to order me to “render” to him $10,000 for traveling to Iraq and taking aspirin and ibuprofen with me to give to a Children’s hospital, I would pay the fine with Iraqi Dinar notes based on the value before the crippling economic sanctions – so I did the math and then brought a stack home with me! [hold them up]. (It comes to less than $15. at the then present value)
You could call this being prepared to “render to Caesar” with a twist!
The Render to Caesar quote has frequently been used by politically conservative theologians in their arsenal against what they see as anarchistic radicals bent on rebellion against authority. It has often been paired (especially during the late 1960s era of social change) with the Bible passage of Romans 13 in a call for obedience to the government. However, it is critical to note that even the “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” phrase of Romans 13 does not call for obedience but rather something else. There were good words in the Greek language Paul could have chosen if he meant to write that we are called to obey but he did not do so. In fact, Paul’s context in the book of Romans refers to refusing to seek vengeance on enemies and claiming to owe no one anything other than love. Echoing Jesus call for discrimination in this area, Paul calls the Church at Rome to determine what is properly “due” to whom or what.
John Howard Yoder used to help Christians understand our relationship to the State by informing us that this infamous Romans 13 text, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God…” should be understood that there is a clear distinction between “obedience” and “being subject” – the latter only implying that one be prepared to suffer the consequences of disobedience. This attitude was modeled so well for us by the stories of Martin Luther King and his comrades sitting in jail. It means for us to be willing to pay the costs for our nonviolent resistance rather than our acquiescence or obedience.
Looking more broadly at who is Caesar for us today, theologian Walter Wink talks about “the Domination System”. All of the “Principalities and Powers”, the term the Apostle Paul uses, includes more than just Caesar – basically all those individuals and institutions which seek to dominate and oppress others. A more current manifestation of this principle could be a “render to Rome?” question. Our friend, Roy Bourgeois claims that when push comes to shove, he cannot faithfully subvert his conscience to an exclusive male hierarchy – even after he was threatened with excommunication and de-frocking unless he recants of his public stand for full women’s equality in the Church. For him, he must render to God – rather than the man who claims to be God’s Vicar and a male domination system.
If we are going to resist the call when Caesar asks us to render what we feel belongs more properly to God, it is well to note that Jesus’ resistance was done in the context of community. Jesus deliberately sought out community with his disciples and other close followers whenever possible – although, at the end, when standing before Caesar’s Governor, Pilate, he was alone. Sometimes, like Jesus, sometimes, like Franz Jagerstatter, like Dietrich Bonheoffer, we must make our “render” decisions alone - BUT the preferred strategy is always better when one can be challenged and encouraged by a small group of fellow disciples. This is the call to our church fellowships today: to help each of us to better faithfully discern what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.
Another question arising from the text for us today is: WHO bears the “image of God”? And, thusly, how are we called to respond to that image? I saw it in March on the first Day of Spring in the faces of young men and women I met in Afghanistan - in the faces of Zahra, Abdulai, Basir, Sharbanoo, Mohammed Jan, and Zikrullah. Jesus is abundantly clear: Caesar does not define for the followers of Jesus WHO are enemies are!
Every time the Early Church used the phrase “Jesus is Lord”, the political echo of that declaration was also readily understood: Caesar is NOT our Lord. Followers of Jesus must never allow Caesar to determine what belongs to him – he always seeks to be the Lord. “Being subject to the authorities” means that we must also be prepared to pay the cost of our lack of obedience.
At the 9-11 anniversary service held at the State Capitol last month, I chose to remain seated for the “presentation of the colors” (all 3 sets of US flags were paraded in by people in uniforms carrying guns) and for the Pledge of Allegiance. I can’t pledge allegiance to competing “Lords” – I have to choose the flag or my faith in a God whom Jesus reveals to us as nonviolent. You won’t win a popularity contest by remaining seated during the National Anthem! Why couldn’t the event organizers substitute the song “Findlandia” instead? “Oh hear, my song, O God of all the nations. A Song of Peace for their lands and for mine” instead of the “rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air”?
You might rightfully ask, “Why should we listen to a convicted criminal?” – especially if you know of my record of having been a “guest of the State” several times, having been arrested dozens of times. Fair enough – but so were the Apostle Paul and Jesus. And Peter, James, John … in fact one would be hard-pressed to find an author of one of the New Testament books who hadn’t been tossed in jail after they chose to follow the executed carpenter from Nazareth. So “rendering to Caesar” or rendering to God is a choice all of us need to make. Some of these decisions are small and likely inconsequential – but other times, as we discern the call of the Spirit, they could be very costly.
Some of those who heard Jesus that day reported back to the governing officials; when he was tried, one of the charges against Jesus according to Luke’s Gospel was that he advocated refusal to pay taxes to Caesar. We all remember, each week, here at Mass, what the results of that trial were. BUT we also remember the YES of God that is commemorated on Easter Sunday. When we render to God, we leave ourselves and our future to “the One who holds the future”.