Mark 12: 13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
What did Jesus, the Son of God, think as he looked at the other self-proclaimed “Son of God,” Tiberius Caesar? Not that they ever met in person. But the coin that Jesus drew from among his interrogators bore the portrait of the self-proclaimed God-king that was common currency everywhere throughout the empire. Not only a piece of commerce then, it was evangelistic in a way, religious propaganda, as well as political.
As Jesus looked at the God-king’s profile, and read his blasphemous, outrageous title, did it cross his mind just how ironic it was that the very people who came to him, so huffy and so serious, to put him on the spot with this lose-lose trap of a question, should be the very ones who carried that controversial coin, and who could produce it on demand? At roughly the value of a man’s daily labor, say, $100 today, Jesus and his disciples would rarely have currency of such value in their hands, and surely not for long. But his interrogators had no trouble coughing one up. I find that not only ironic, I find it funny, even slapstick. So, yes, I think that was the point of his command, “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it,” to make plain their hypocrisy.
As he looked at the coin, did Jesus also think about the three of the Ten Commandments that it violated? The first, against having other gods, the second against making idols and images of other gods, and the third, about using God’s name in vain? If so, he would not have been the only Jew to have thought that way. That was one reason why the coin was so controversial.
And when he thought about the “imperial tax” for which this coin went back to Rome, in effect, a head tax, paid directly to Caesar, which Caesar levied on everyone, did he also think about how his mother Mary, and Joseph, had brought him to the temple when he was only 8 days old, to pay the redemption price for the first-born child? According to Hebrew law, that was paid with the sacrifice of a lamb if you were wealthy, or two doves if you were poor. And you only paid it once. But Caesar demanded the redemption price of every slave, citizen or Senator, every year, the same amount, rich or poor, just for the privilege of being Caesar’s subjects. So the controversy was not over paying taxes in general, but over paying this particular head tax.
And when Jesus, the Son of God, looked at the profile of the self-styled Son of God Tiberius, did he think about the character and the conduct of the man himself, which was surely common knowledge throughout the empire? In the man’s defense, we should note that Tiberius started out as an able administrator, a capable care-taker CEO type of emperor. But by the time of Jesus’ ministry, Tiberius had become legendary for his debauchery, corruption and cruelty. He had spies and paid informants all over Rome and beyond, looking and listening for the least hint of disloyalty. If they couldn’t find it, they might invent it, and then collect a bounty if their accusations stuck. Tiberius put toadies and unqualified opportunists in office, simply because of their loyalty to him, officially designated “Friends of Caesar,” like Pontius Pilate. He even required, by law, that he be named as co-heir in the wills of all knights and nobility. Sometimes he invalidated those wills so that he got everything when they died. Whoever he would destroy, Tiberius might first honor and promote, like a cat toying with a mouse. The longer he lived, the greater the terror and insecurity he inflicted on citizens, subjects and slaves. That too would make a mockery of his title, “Divine.”
And finally, when Jesus contemplated that coin, and the image and inscription on it, did he consider the difference between the kingdom that this coin proclaimed, and the one that he did? The kingdom of Tiberius was a pyramid, like those of Babel, Egypt or Mexico, on which human god-kings sit at the very pinnacle of power, with power, wealth and honor flowing from one level up to the next, from the many, to the few, to the one.
But Jesus inverts the power pyramid. Christ came to bring the infinite riches, wealth, love and power of heaven down to us, to unite us and empower us. While Tiberius made himself everybody’s joint heir, Jesus makes each of us the joint-heirs of his throne, his titles and his treasures.
If those were some of the thoughts and questions going through the mind of Jesus as he contemplated on that coin the image of the self-styled Son of the Gods, then his words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” are not the simple call to a conscientious Christian citizenship that we often make them out to be. As though Caesar and God sat down one day at a table, dealt out cards and said, “Roads for you, and cathedrals for me, soldiers for you and pastors for me,” or “Eeny-meeny-miny-moe…government to you shall go.”
Sorry, God. You just get the church.
No. Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” are powerful, penetrating and challenging words. He’s saying, If you’re so concerned and conflicted about this imperial head tax, and the idolatrous coin with which you pay it, then give it back to Caesar, from whom you got it. For if, with Caesar you play, then to Caesar you must pay.
As for what belongs to God, to a devout Hebrew like Jesus, the operative word would be Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lords, the world and all they who dwell within it.” That makes everyone renters, sharecroppers of a generous landlord, whether they are kings or commoners, slaves, subjects, citizens or Caesar himself. God may lend us land, power, wealth and titles, for a while. But never the title you would see on that coin, not the word, “Divine.”
Still, when Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he was not calling for armed revolt. That would only substitute one Caesar for another. I’m thinking he was less concerned about the Caesar in Rome, than with the Caesar in our heads.
Here’s what I mean: Tiberius has been dead for twenty-one centuries. But Caesar has remained alive and well as a principle, if not a person. We may find him the Caesar principle in government, though not among many of the conscientious and caring civil servants of either party or no party whom I have come to know and admire over the years. Knowing what we know about Tiberius and his debauchery and idolatry, should we call all city council members, county commissioners, school teachers or sanitation workers “Caesar?” They work for government, but most of them out of the goodness of their hearts. I thank God for them.
No, wherever we find idolatry and hero worship, whenever we encounter exploitation, abuse of power and of people, wherever leaders lead by encouraging fear and greed in us and exploiting them to divide us rather than unite us, to win power over people rather than to empower them, to score points rather than to discern truth, wherever the love of power overcomes the power of love, there you find Caesar, at least as a principle.
I’ve also run across Caesar’s tracks in business, like when I asked the owner of a bookstore why it was that blatant pornography was visible and available right in the front row of the magazine stand. She told me it was because of the contract she had to sign with the magazine distributor. If she didn’t display those magazines clearly, they’d pull everything else off the magazine shelf, from Sports Afield to Better Homes and Gardens. Her store would be black-listed, and her business would go down the tubes.
I’ve even run across Caesar in church. Not this one, I hope. But how many people have I spoken with, who tell me that they are unbelievers not because God is so unbelievable, but because the church is? The church in which they experienced or saw sexual abuse and misconduct by some clergy? Or in which pastors or other leaders ruled over people and effectively told them, “Its my way or the highway,” about even some of the most picayune, non-essential stuff?
That’s what I mean about the Caesar in people’s heads. And if you wonder how Caesar got there, its because Caesar tells stories. Tiberius had a story going around, about the human body. The empire was like a humman body, he said. Slaves were like the feet, soldiers the arms, Senators the neck, and Caesar the head. For the head to lead, everyone, from slave to Senator, must keep the wealth, worship, honor and power flowing up to the top.
But Jesus said, “Whoever would be first among us must be the servant of all.” In the spirit of this upside-down pyramid, Paul a;sp compared the church to a human body and told the Corinthian Christians, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are un-presentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (I Cor. 12: 21-26).
And that’s all the guidance I’m going to give two days before the election. Unlike some of my fellow pastors I’m not going to tell people how to vote or even if to vote this Tuesday. Instead, I will simply repeat what Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And if we wonder what goes to whom, give God the benefit of the doubt, for “The earth is the Lord’s and all who dwell within it.”
After all the angsty, angry, divisive, fear-mongering paid political advertising we’ve been subjected to this year, I’m not as concerned with who wins on Tuesday as I am about Wednesday morning, and whether or not people can still love each other and work together, especially in the church of Jesus Christ. I’m not as concerned with who goes to Washington or St. Paul, for we will face opportunities and challenges either way, whoever wins. I’m more concerned about who is foremost in our heads and hearts, Christ or Caesar. Come Wednesday, the world will be looking to see if there are people who can love each other, who can work together, who are more interested in discerning truth than in scoring points, whatever their colors, whatever their party, whatever their position. Come Wednesday, the world has the chance to see such people, such a kingdom, in the upside-down pyramid of power and love that flows from heaven to the world through the church of Jesus Christ. A people who love and respect everybody equally, but whose only king, reigning in their hearts, is God Almighty.