The following is a reflection on Matthew 22:15-22, the Gospel lesson appointed for October 16th, 2011 according to the New Revised Common Lectionary. (Proper 24, Year A) On this site there is also
• a reflection on the Hebrew Bible Lesson for the same day, and
• a version of the Prayers of the People, based on the lessons of the day.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This phrase has become ubiquitous in our times, and western culture as a whole. It seems, at face value, a support for the separation of “church and state,” and a framework for understanding that we each have civic responsibility and religious responsibility–and that those are separate endeavors. We have duty to the state, and duty to our God.
However, that isn’t even close to what Jesus is talking about here.
First of all, in the ancient world there was no concept of a separation of civic and religious life. There was no way to even express that in language.
To suggest that that’s what is going on here is to read our own cultural norms into the culture of Jesus’ day. And that’s not helpful. At least, not if you’re looking for the truth.
For Caesar wasn’t just the secular head of state there…he was proclaimed (certainly self-proclaimed) to be a god. The Caesar was worshipped–with full religious honors. And those who didn’t exalt the Caesar as Lord were in big, big trouble.
In Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book “The Last Week,” they have a very good treatment of this, and quite rightly say that when Jesus asks the disciples of the Pharisees and Herodians to produce a coin, and they produce a Roman coin with an image of the Caesar on it, they show how guilty they are.
Carrying around an image of a pagan god in their pocket, they are guilty of idolatry.
At this point in the encounter, Jesus has won. They have self-identified themselves as part of the pagan-religious-state. They have broken the first and second commandments.
At this point Jesus could just walk away, victorious.
But, he doesn’t.
He has more.
He raises the question: what then belongs to the Caesar, and what belongs to God?
If we reframe the question just a bit, the clear answer emerges. If we gave to Zeus the things that belonged to Zeus, and to God the things that are God’s…what would WE end up giving to Zeus?
Hopefully nothing. He is a sham. A non-existent entity, with no more divine power than the average tsetse fly.
And, what belongs to God, then? Everything.
In the words of King Solomon, and echoed in many of our churches every week: “All things come of thee, O God, and of thine own do we give to thee.”
Obviously then, this isn’t a call for separation of state and religion. This isn’t the establishment of a dual responsibility to God and country.
This is a call to give all that we have and all that we are to God. And, I have to say, that both our religious and civic lives could use a little more of that these days.