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To Know Christ and to Make Him Known

Oct. 18, 2020: Render Unto Caesar by Dick Hickman

Render Unto Caesar Recording: 

when available

Render Unto Caesar

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd
October 18, 2020
Dick Hickman


Jesus started a conversation more than 2,000 years ago, and He continues to challenge us — even today.

The Gospel this morning addresses a question that has confronted Mankind for over 2,000 years — what are the appropriate boundaries between Church and State? And it’s a question that is still very relevant today.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, 22:15-22, Jesus answers the question of the Pharisees with the famous response:

“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.”

This was new. This was revolutionary. And we’ve been desperately trying to figure out exactly how to do this ever since!
The “Tribute episode” is also found in the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke, so we know the story was important and well-known to the early Christian community. This exchange is set out rhetorically as a hostile question, intended to force Jesus into a response that can be used against him, with Jesus immediately recognizing the trap and responding with a counter-question, exposing the hostility and hypocrisy of his interrogators.

And in so doing, with a clever turn of a phrase, he raises a thought-provoking and completely new question that has reverberated down through the ages.

Listen to today’s Gospel, and listen especially for the hostile question from the followers of the Pharisees, and the brilliant manner in which Jesus refuses to be drawn into a false choice — and instead quickly turns the tables on his adversaries:

“Then the Pharisees went and agreed on a plan to trap him in argument. They sent some of their followers to him, together with members of Herod’s party. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know you are a sincere man; you teach in all sincerity the way of life that God requires, courting no man’s favor, whoever he may be. Give us your ruling on this: are we or are we not permitted to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor?’

Jesus was aware of their malicious intention and said, ‘You hypocrites! Why are you trying to catch me out? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ They handed him a silver piece. Jesus asked, ‘Whose head is this, and whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. He said to them, ‘Then pay to Caesar what belong’s to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.’

Taken aback by this reply, they went away and left him alone.”

The key phrase, in the translation of the King James Bible, is this: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

“Render unto Caesar” — a phrase we still hear today, and that still challenges us to exercise our God-given powers of Reason to distinguish between our duty to the State and our duty to God.

On the surface, this is a story about paying our taxes. We might conclude that Jesus is instructing us that we should send in our checks to the IRS, the Virginia Tax Department, DMV, and City Hall (and of course I have to mention that we’re going to be asking for your annual pledge to the church in just a few weeks). That’s all well and good, but there’s more — much more.

If it were that simple, I’d stop right here and my sermon would come to an end. But that would be like my telling you that Joseph Conrad’s wonderful novel, Heart of Darkness, is no more than a story about a boat ride up a river in Africa at night. True enough, that’s the setting, but the meaning of the novel, and the point of great literature, is so much deeper than the outline of the plot.

So, yes, the basic story-line in today’s Gospel is about paying taxes — and that traditional view was first set forth by Saint Justin Martyr in 155 AD, in his First Apology, when he wrote: “And we, more readily than most men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes …, as we have been taught by Him.”

But let’s take a look at the world that Jesus lived in — the context for the Tribute episode. In 6 AD, the Roman occupiers of Palestine imposed a census tax on the Jewish people. This tax was vigorously opposed, and by 17 AD Tacitus reports that “The provinces, too, of Syria and Judaea, exhausted by their burdens, implored a reduction of tribute.” A tax revolt followed — and the Romans suppressed it brutally. There was a Jewish uprising in 66 AD, resulting in a Judean provisional government, but then the Romans destroyed the City of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 AD in the First Jewish-Roman War.

So the issue of paying taxes to Rome was not an idle question; it was a matter of life and death. Pontius Pilate was the Emperor’s representative in Jerusalem — military commander, head of the judicial system, and chief tax collector. It was not a good idea to question his authority.

When Jesus asked to see the coin with which the taxes were paid, his questioners produced a denarius, worth about a day’s wage for a common laborer. This valuable silver coin was issued in the name of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, whose reign coincided with the years of Jesus’ ministry. The denarius was minted in Gaul, and was used to pay Roman soldiers, administrative officials, and suppliers. It was also the coin that conquered peoples were required to use to pay their tribute to Rome.

The denarius bore the image of Tiberius, and the inscription: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” On the reverse side of the coin, the inscription read: “Pontifex Maximus,” or the Chief High Priest of the College of Pontiffs. In the pagan Roman Empire, church and state were one and the same. The silver denarius was a tangible representation of the Emperor’s power, wealth, and deification, as well as a hated symbol of the subjugation of the Jewish people.

So this was no ordinary question, put to Jesus during Holy Week in Jerusalem. If Jesus answered that the Jews should pay the taxes to the Emperor, he would be seen as a collaborator with the Roman occupiers — and a traitor to his people. But if he said not to pay the tribute to Caesar, he would likely be branded a political criminal and an enemy of Rome. Either way, he would be a marked man, and in danger of being killed.

And, in fact, as we know, that is what happened.

Within days, at his trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus is accused of promoting resistance to Caesar’s tax. According to St. Luke, 22: 1-4:

“Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”

But, of course, that’s not what Jesus had said. He had refused to fall for the Pharisees’ trap; but no matter, he would be crucified.

So, how do we go about resolving what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? The answer lies in exercising our gift of Reason — we have to find the answer ourselves.

We believe that Man is created in the image of God. In effect, God has stamped His image on us, just as Tiberius stamped his image on his silver coins. Caesar owns the denarius — but God owns us. The state has a legitimate claim to a portion of our income to support the proper functions of government, to provide for an orderly society and the common good. That’s reasonable, so long as it’s based on our consent, through our elected representatives — but we can legitimately disagree over the details, which we have to resolve through the political process.

And, in turn, God asks that we believe in Him, and accept His Son as our Savior, and follow His commandments. He even told us what the greatest of these commandments were — Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40).

That’s our starting point, our North Star, the very foundation of our faith. But in the history of Western civilization, we know there have been profound disagreements, and continuous conflicts, and wars, over the countless details that we always have to work out, as we struggle to define the boundaries of the secular and the sacred.

That’s where Reason enters the discussion. Reason, and not just will. God didn’t make us all just to think alike; He gave us the power to think for ourselves.

Let’s take a moment for some background.

The Greek word logos means word, reason, or plan. In Ancient Greek philosophy and early Christian theology, logos, or Word, is the divine Reason inherent in the creation of the world, ordering it and giving it form and meaning. Aristotle used the term reasoned discourse. Today, we might say, intelligent discussion.

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God is logos or Reason itself, so His will follows upon His intellect. That is, His Reason rules, and His will, follows. The Word precedes the action. There is a plan, and it’s based on Reason. Creation — the world around us — carries the imprint of the Creator as Reason.

In other words, the world is the product of God’s creative reason. Today, we might say, God thinks before He acts. And, in creating us in His image, He has shared that gift with us.

This is why Man, stamped with the image of God, is morally obliged to rule himself by reason, and not by his passions or will. Jesus is letting us know, in the Tribute episode, that we are to use reason, and our God-given gifts of reasoned discourse among ourselves, to define the proper relationships between Church and State — the boundaries between Caesar and God.

So we must give Caesar his due. But, ultimately, we must give God that on which God’s image is stamped — our whole being. Ultimately — and throughout everything we do — we are called to render to God what is God’s.

This was totally new and revolutionary. Up until this moment, emperors were gods, and the people had no standing to question their rulers. The state owned the people, and maintained its authority by brute force, rather than by consent. Now, with the Gospel of Jesus, we have a new way of thinking, a new faith, that tells us God has created each and every one of us — individually, in His own image — and that we are all equal in His eyes.

And, for the first time, we are given the responsibility to determine among ourselves what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, using our own powers of reason. This was the Christian foundation of Western civilization, which very gradually — beginning with the Tribute episode — developed the transformational ideas of separation of church and state, the free exercise of religion, freedom of conscience, and the consent of the governed.

Men have fought and died over these ideas for over 2,000 years, but it was Jesus who planted the seed in Jerusalem, when he turned the tables on the Pharisees. And His words are still relevant today. Just one example:

In March, the Governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, issued an executive order in response to the pandemic, which limited group gatherings. The executive order provided exceptions for “life-sustaining businesses,” including grocery stores, law firms, laundromats, liquor stores and gun shops — but there was no exception for “soul-sustaining,” in-person services for faith organizations.

Several churches went to court to protect their rights under the First Amendment — one of the boundaries between church and state. A three-judge panel of the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Maryville Baptist Church v. Beshear, ruled in favor of the churches, and in its opinion, the court referenced the Tribute episode:

“The breadth of the ban on religious services, together with a haven for numerous secular exceptions, should give pause to anyone who prizes religious freedom. But it’s not always easy to decide what is Caesar’s and what is God’s — and that’s assuredly true in a pandemic.”

A similar result was obtained here in Virginia last month when members of two churches in Culpeper and Rappahannock County settled a lawsuit over Governor Ralph Northam’s reopening plan, and the state agreed that wearing face masks would be the only requirement for religious gatherings with fewer than 250 people.

These and many other cases involving the competing issues surrounding religious freedom and public health remind us of the importance of the conversation that Jesus started over 2,000 years ago, in today’s Gospel reading. And there aren’t always easy answers.

So by all means let us have an intelligent discussion, let us respectfully disagree and debate, responsibly exercising God’s gift of Reason, as we seek to answer the question that Jesus has set before us — what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, in today’s contentious world. But let us always, every day, with our heart, our soul, and our mind, render unto God what is God’s.