Rendering unto Caesar

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (Matt 12:15-22)

Few passages of scripture have been as interpretively elastic as Jesus’s clever answer to a disingenuous question about taxation. The story appears, with only minor variations, in all three synoptic gospels (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26), and it has been exported as a proof text in arguments about the separation of church and state, the morality of paying taxes to support war, the right of tax resistance, and the permissibility of civil disobedience. I strongly doubt the ability of the text, in its original context, to support this much interpretive weight. But it does mean something, so let’s dive in and take a look.

I suspect that the most important lesson we can draw from the Render unto Caesar passage is something like, “don’t be drawn into unnecessary conflicts by people who are trying to get you killed,” which is really good advice, even without the “trying to get you killed part.

All three versions are clear that this is not a sincere question, but a trap. The questioners want to force Jesus to take a position on the most controversial issue of the day. If he says that people should pay taxes, he risks being branded a traitor and a Roman collaborator in a population that is already on a collision course with Roman power. This could destroy his credibility with the people and even endanger his life. If he says that people should not pay taxes, he will be committing treason against Rome, in front of many witnesses, and his accusers will have the evidence they need to bring capital charges against him before a Roman tribunal.

Both Matthew and Mark indicate that the questioners include both Pharisees and Herodians—a strange alliance between religious and secularist factions that both saw Jesus as an obstacle to their objectives. They are trying to draw him into the overwhelming political and cultural conflict of the time because they know that, once he enters the conflict, one side or the other will destroy him.

Here is the most important thing to keep in mind while reading this passage: Jesus doesn’t need to be part of this fight. His message doesn’t require a position on the payment of taxes to Rome. His message, in fact, rejects the entire social and organizational logic upon which “taxes” and “Rome” are based. So he does what any politician does when faced with a similar dilemma: he gives an answer that will make nobody happy but which will also make nobody any more likely to try to kill him. He refuses to have the fight that his interlocutors want him to have.

This does not mean, however, that the answer is mumbo-jumbo. The overall question—how do we balance religious commitments with civic duties?—comes up in every society that has religious commitments and civic duties. But it seems to me that the core of Jesus’s teaching is more pragmatic than idealistic: if at all possible, balance them in a way that doesn’t get you killed. This remains exceptionally good advice.

If we insist on situating ourselves within the metaphorical framework of Christ and Caesar, however, it is important to figure out who is who. Anybody living in the United States in the first quarter of the 21st century is closer to Caesar than to any colonized Galilean in early imperial Rome. Not only is America the military and economic equivalent of the Roman Empire. It is a participatory democracy in which the imperium is ultimately held collectively, by the people, and not by Tiberios Kaisar Sebastos or anybody else.

This means that the sharp distinction that Jesus drew between God and Caesar—or between the Kingdom of God and the Roman Empire—does not work for us in quite the same way that it worked for the subjugated population that Jesus was addressing in Jerusalem. We have the power—diluted but not non-existent—to change our own society. And, as a military and economic power comparable to Rome, we exercise an outsized influence on other societies as well. And that simply places us in a different category than a subjugated population whose only choices were to conform to imperial rule, to be crushed by overwhelming military force, or to wait around for an eschatological apocalypse.

In the symbolic logic of the New Testament, 21st-century Americans are best represented by the Romans, rather than the Samaritans, Judeans, or primitive Christians. Instead of deciding whether or not we should be rendering unto Caesar, we need to accept that we ARE Caesar—and that we have some choice in what to do with everything that has been rendered unto us. That is not a flattering portrait, but it can be an empowering one. It means that we have the kinds of choices that Jesus’s original audience could not have imagined. We can choose to make our society more (or less) just, more (or less) compassionate, and more (or less) like the Kingdom of God. It is up to us what kind of Caesar we are going to be.


  1. Rasmussen David L says:

    So we must be gentiles

  2. christiankimball says:

    As a now-retired U.S./Illinois lawyer who practiced and taught in the tax area for forty years, I have reams of criticisms and dislikes for our tax system. But I do accept that we made the system. I take “we made the system” as equivalent to “we are the Romans.”

    With respect to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members (if you acknowledge a distinction) we have spent more than a century making ourselves not a persecuted minority. Practicing my double negatives, I have no patience for the argument that we haven’t succeeded. Speaking to the narrow point of taxes, I believe that as a group we are net beneficiaries of the system as it is.

  3. My guess is that if you tried to build a kind of world that approached Zion, whatever your interpretation of that is, both the spiritual and political Powers-that-Be would very quickly let you know that you are, in fact, very much not at all like Caesar and much more like a subject who will be reminded of this fact, by force if necessary.

    Mormons need only look to their own history and confused efforts at building Zion to recognize that if those in power don’t want you to build in a certain way, you will conform or be crushed. Many people (groups and individuals) since have found the same thing to be true.

    I would say that all political parties, as well as all religions, have no real interest in allowing anything like Zion to become reality. It would destroy their own priestcraft, and they, and the demons who influence them, will fight against it. They all have forms of godliness, but deny its power. Zion will be established with power, and thus it will be resisted, denied, and fought against when that power is shown, I think. This was Enoch’s experience when Zion was first established, and according to Nephi’s vision, at least, it will be the experience of those who armed with the power of God in some future day to bring about its return.

    Today, there are no holy places as of yet for any of person to stand, and I believe the rulers and true Caesars of this world are pretty set on keeping that the status quo if they can help it.

  4. @Rasmussen David L: Yes, we are Gentiles. At least according to the Book of Mormon.

  5. I have taken this to mean — much like D&C 134 — that secular government has its place and legitimacy (which we should respect) and that God’s polity (The Church) also has its place and legitimacy (which we should respect). It’s not a dichotomous situation.

    Your interpretation reminds me of God’s answer to Job in the Book of Job: he doesn’t really directly answer the question as expected.

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