Render Unto Caesar …

Pat Barker
Trinity Church, Searcy
Oct. 16, 2011
18th Sunday After Pentecost

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” is one of Jesus’ sayings that has crept into popular culture. More often than not, however, we forget the incident that this saying comes from, and so, what Jesus originally meant by it.

Jesus’ answer was originally a clever ploy to avoid the trap that his politico-religious opponents had set for him. They had crafted their question so that however he answered, he would lose the support of either of the two groups they represented.

On one side, the Pharisee party believed that Rome/Caesar was unjustly taxing God’s people, and so they shouldn’t pay. On the other side were the members of puppet king Herod’s party, who advocated paying tribute to their Roman overlords. Together they set Jesus up to make enemies either way he answered: either of the common people bent under Caesar’s yoke or of the politically powerful elite of Jerusalem.

Jesus answered by simply pointing out that since Caesar’s picture was on the coin, it was his. There was nothing wrong with giving to Caesar what was Caesar’s.

As I said, Jesus was simply avoiding a political trap. But over time, the Christian tradition has made it into a dominical saying about the relation of church and state in general.

This extended application of Jesus’ words begins in the apostolic period. For example, St. Paul writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authority; for there is no authority except that from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” He continues for a full paragraph in this vein and concludes, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, honor to whom honor is due,”… and so on. Tucked within his instructions Paul includes an ironic warning: “Caesar does not bear the sword in vain.”

The warning is ironic because it was Caesar’s sword that cut Paul’s head off…because of, it is fair to assume, political subversion. So, either Paul didn’t mean what he said about being subject to Caesar’s authority, or there was an unspoken proviso to it that made all the difference in how he meant it.

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Since its beginning Christianity has been a socially and politically conservative movement. The critical question, however, is why.

Christianity’s socio-political conservatism is rooted, in part, in its theological radicalism. Its theological vision is that in Jesus God has changed everything, from top to bottom. A new creation, a different principle of ordering things has come to be in Jesus and through his death and resurrection. It is only a question of time before this new principle of life in Christ governs everything.

Apostolic Christianity could, then, live with the status quo of Roman rule because it claimed with all the seriousness it had that everything about the socio-political structure of its day, or of any day, was temporary. The perfected rule of God was near at hand, it said, and so political reform or protest was wasted effort. The church’s task was not to change society so much as to prepare the world for the radical change that God had initiated in Jesus and was poised to complete soon and in the twinkling of an eye.

While the church was keen to make conditions better for individuals who were suffering within society—how else could it fulfill its mandate to love the neighbor—the apostolic church’s primary mission was not a more just reordering of social systems. The coming rule of God would take care of that.

And so, apostolic Christianity was willing to go along socio-politically in order to get along with its mission of proclaiming this gospel. Christians could get along with Caesar as long as Caesar would let them get along with this mission.

The early church’s conformity to the political structures of the day, then, was not a sign of approval, but of convenience and, indeed to some extent, indifference. The church conformed itself to these structures simply to carry out its mission of proclamation and preparation.

Certainly Caesar assisted the church’s evangelism by keeping chaos at bay, and so was an instrument of God. But Caesar was also an impediment to the gospel and an enemy of God, insisting as Caesar is everywhere wont to do, on his own divinity.

Thus, the ever-present and variously voiced critique of Caesar in the church’s message: God is God and Caesar is not. Because the apostolic church would not abandon this fundamental distinction—indeed, insisted upon it—and resisted Caesar’s claims to divinity and demands for ultimate allegiance, Paul and others were seen to be enemies of the state and were martyred.

However, in what must surely be counted as among the most remarkable turnarounds in history, thanks to Emperor Constantine’s alleged conversion, the post-apostolic church eventually found itself in bed with Caesar.

Within this cozy embrace, and as time went on, the church’s implicit critique of Caesar in its explicit promise of the coming rule of God got hazy; the church lost sight of its reason for conforming to Caesar’s rule. It forgot why it was doing it. The church no longer saw itself as conforming to Caesar in order to proclaim its radical message of a new order in Christ. Rather, it conformed simply because conforming was now seen to be the Christian thing to do. The social conservatism of Christians no longer served the more fundamental radicalism of its faith. Social conservatism was the Christian faith. A good citizen was ipso facto a good Christian, an equation that surely made the demons giddy.

The church had lost its nerve. In Jesus’ words, it had put its light under the basket of socio-political conformity; it had become salt-less salt.

The church’s critical voice against the divine pretensions of Caesar grew quiet. The church came to think of itself as the spiritual guarantor of the political status quo, obsessed with keeping social order. The Caesars of history have been all too glad to let it think that way. Hitler’s German Christians are perhaps history’s most focused picture of this deadly dance of denial and pseudo-spirituality.

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The Anglican Church became a church of the Reformation late, and no doubt due to Henry’s desire for a male heir. When Henry cut the church’s ties with the pope, he made the bishops in England name him the supreme head of the church in England. But the bishops at the time had enough courage of their convictions to add to this title as head of the church the question begging phrase, “in so far as the law of Christ allows.”

It is question begging because that is the question: how far does the rule of Christ allow the rule of Caesar to go? This is a question that the church must answer again and again as a community. It is also a question that you and I must answer again and again as individual Christians.

Finally, idolatry is in our blood. We are genetically programmed for survival, which means our default allegiance is to the ones who provide food, clothing, and shelter. That begins with the family; and what is a nation but the family writ large. Caesar is but the name of the one who provides for us, pater familias, Godfather.

“My country right or wrong” was a chant from a day that some of us are old enough to remember…from the Vietnam days. While it could be taken otherwise, on the face of it, it is the war cry of idolatry par excellence. When our allegiance and obedience to country trumps all else, particularly our moral sense of right and wrong, we are in the throes of idolatry.

I need to add in passing here that the day of country as the idol of choice is perhaps waning, at least for the elite. I suspect that multi-national corporations will soon, if they are not in fact doing so now, pull the strings of the nations and so manipulate the affections of the common folk like us.

Be any of this as it may, however, the explicit message of Paul and the apostles as they interpret Jesus is that we should give to each order of society its due … but no more than its due. All things, including families, communities—including churches—and countries are given for our good; each is and has a good to offer, and each should be respected and honored as such, prayed for and given thanks for. And each is apt to exaggerate its own importance. The apostolic and dominical warning is simply: Don’t believe these exaggerations; and by all means, don’t promote them. Although each may be good, none is God. So, render to them the honor and allegiance they deserve and to God the honor and allegiance that God deserves. It’s as simple and complex, gracious and demanding as that.