It’s an election year. The primaries have already been over-the-top contentious, and the mud-slinging and dirt-dishing is sure to continue as we barrel toward November.
Christians rightly raise questions about how best to discharge their civic responsibilities. For whom and for what should a devoted follower of Jesus vote? The questions are many and complex, and there are no simple answers. But a story from the life of Jesus has reminded me recently of the need to have my priorities straight.
The story is found in Matthew 22:15-22. It’s Passion Week. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has just finished telling three parables that condemn the unbelief of the Jewish leaders who were challenging him openly in the temple courts, and the list of enemies is growing: the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and now, the Herodians. After feeling humiliated by Jesus’ stinging parables, the Pharisees understandably retreat and regroup, trying to map out a better strategy for trapping him in his words.
Somebody comes up with what seems to be a brilliant idea: “I’ve got it! Let’s ask him about the imperial tax! There isn’t a Jew alive who wouldn’t want to see that tax abolished–who wants to see their money go to Rome? And remember what happened to Judas the Galilean a couple of decades ago? Some of our people thought he might be the Messiah because he spoke out against the tax and preached a message of revolt against Rome. Remember how the empire crucified him, him and all of his sons?
“So here’s the plan. Let’s ask him whether he thinks the tax is permissible. If he says yes, the people will hate him. If he says no, well, the Romans will take care of the problem for us. Either way, we win.”
It seems like a foolproof plan. Matthew tells us that these Pharisees don’t even go back to confront Jesus themselves, but send some of their disciples instead. Are they that confident? (“Send the interns. They can handle it.”) Or are they just afraid of failing again, and decide to hedge their bets?
Back in the temple courts, these Pharisees-in-training launch their opening gambit. They bait the trap with flattery: “Teacher–wise, respected Teacher! Your reputation precedes you. You are the very embodiment of truth. Everybody knows that you always speak God’s truth without fear of what others may think. So we think that only someone like you can give us an honest answer to this question, if you would be so kind: is it okay to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
Jesus, of course, sees right through the hypocrisy, openly asking why they’re trying to trap him. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he commands. They obey, bringing him a denarius, a Roman coin bearing the image and name of Caesar. The coin itself would have been detestable to a devout Jew, for it violated the commandment against graven images.
Holding out the coin, Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription are these?” I imagine his opponents hesitating a bit in their response, wondering why he was asking such an obvious question and where he was going with it. “Caesar’s?” they respond, tentatively.
“Fine. Then give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And give God what belongs to God.”
It’s a brilliant and entirely unexpected response. He doesn’t actually tell anyone that the tax is morally right, but neither does he say anything that would earn him the ire of Rome.
Yet the story is not about Jesus’ debating skills. Nor is Jesus giving a theological disquisition on church-state relations. “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” is his necessary answer to his opponents’ question. He could conceivably have stopped there.
But he didn’t. “Render unto God the things that are God’s” is the more important point, as if Jesus were cutting through the first answer to get to the second. To my mind, it recalls the earlier parable of the wicked tenants who refused the owner of the vineyard the fruit that he was rightly due (Matt 21:33-41). And lest there be any misunderstanding on that point, Jesus gave his opponents the unwelcome interpretation and application: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matt 21:43, NIV).
Are we that people? The ones who will give God the fruit he expects?
It’s possible to be so caught up in questions of what we render to Caesar that we lose sight of what we are called to render to God.
And without the latter, the former means nothing.