Mr. Niles Anderegg
Kay Spiritual Life Center
“Give unto God what is God’s and give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”
We have all heard this quotation of Jesus and the story of taxes that accompanies it. The story is often told and presented both in the text and by the priests and scholars since then as the story of Jesus’s cleverness. He gives an answer to a question that does not commit him to either side, and thus avoiding any of the punishments that would come from such an answer, Either from the Romans or from the religious establishment.
I have a problem with this portrayal of this story. Not because I think Jesus is not clever. He clearly is and shows it time and again. But there are two major problems with this presentation of the story. The first is the idea that Jesus would stand down to either side when clearly he does not the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection would not happen without that radical stance that he takes against the Romans and the religious establishment of Judea. The other problem I have is that this whole presentation actually deemphasizes what he that is Jesus is trying to say. It is presented as a middle of the road answer. Essentially, Jesus says under most peoples understanding of the story is , pay your taxes and worship God. Something both sides could take something away from. Indeed, the only mention of the importance of what Jesus as he said is that the people asking the question are “amazed” by his answer.
In fact, Jesus is saying something much more radical. Neither the Romans, nor most Jews, in the ancient world are suggesting that religion or faith should not be a part of government. Remember the whole debate is about the coins. It is that they have Caesar’s face on the coin, Caesar was a god or so, the Romans were to believe. Under Jewish law images of God are idolatry. But Jesus’ answered, sidesteps this issue, and as he so often does in these stories he creates a new issue. He says to those gathered around, and the one who asked him the question. Give to the government, What is necessarily there’s, in this case taxes, and give to God what is God’s (what falls under religious practice). Keep that for its own sake. Another way of putting this concept is in a very American legal term separation of church and state.
Essentially, what Jesus is telling those ancient people is government is not a religious institution it is not something that the faithful should try to use to spread the message of God. He is saying that there is a place for God that is central and holy and we should follow God’s law, and his teachings. But that there is a place where faith should be separate, where faith should not be apart of and that is in government. I think the central reason for this is not for the protection of the government, but protection of the faith.
Government and its necessary partner, politics, Is a messy, compromising and sometimes dirty business. Politics is about power the power to control, the power to decide, the power to conquer. It is by its very nature unequal There are winners, there are losers and ideas that prevail and ideas that flameout. The faith is about equality, Jesus tells us to love one another as we would love ourselves. We are not in the business of judging or of deciding who or what is better than another. Now that does not mean that if there is an unjust law, we should not oppose it. That if the government takes in unjust action we should not denounce it does not mean that when the government is trying to put its foot down on the people we should not stand up. It means that there is a balance, there are issues and ideas and philosophies that go so totally against Christian teaching that they must be in the name of love and peace and Justice opposed by those who are faithful. But that does not mean that the faith itself should involve itself in the mechanics of government in the process of choosing an emperor or president. That religion functions best when it works outside the establishment and is a voice of the people and the voice of the faithful.
Benjamin Franklin was right when he said that power tends to corrupt. When religion and politics mix there is the danger that the tendency of power to corrupt robs the faith of its perspective, instead of focusing on the right priorities or issues facing people here and around the world. There becomes a focusing on the polls and fundraisers and the speeches. And soon people are consumed with what candidates to support for election. And since this is politics and politics by very nature is compromising begin to give and give on some of those issues that brought you in the politics. And therefore you are no longer the voice of the people or the faithful. But Part of the power and the institutions, and that is what Jesus denounces in his answer.
Just as he throws the money changers out of the temple and tells the people to separate God and emperor he is saying, the voice of God, the voice of the good news, must be from the outside. Not from the halls of power, but from Main Street., where the people are who have been forgotten by the politicians and the royalty live. When Jesus tells us that it is the poor the degenerate and the slave, shall inherit the earth. He’s telling us the proper place for us to spend our time as followers of God and Christ is with those people. Leave it to the politicians the magistrates and the Kings to worry about the issues of taxes and of power to the earthly kingdoms. But to the issues of real importance to the people living in the slums, in slavery in the lowest of the low that is where God should be. And so should his people.