There are few aspects of our culture that are more contested than the relationship between religion and the state. Whether it be questions concerning the meaning and limits of religious freedom, as we saw recently in the controversy over the contraception mandate or the city of Houston’s over-reaching subpoenas of pastors’ sermons, or whether governmental meetings can begin with prayer, it seems that almost every week, there’s a new battleground over the free exercise of religion. That’s the case even though a recent poll suggested that most Americans would like more religion in politics, not less.
One of the great difficulties we have when trying to understand the appropriate relationship or role of religion in our society is that our sacred texts do not share the same understanding of “the separation of church and state.” We are heirs of a long tradition of trying to extricate the two, and as difficult as that has proved to be over the course of American history, it has succeeded in leading us all to conclude that religion and politics are two different things.
More importantly, in the process, and as a result of secularization, the area of life in which religion has free reign has become smaller and smaller. For most Americans, most of the time, the demands made on us by our religious commitments occur in a very narrow range of or lives—whether we attend church on Sunday, for example, or whether, or how, we pray.
The first century knew no such distinction. Religion and the state were intertwined. For citizens of the Roman empire, one’s civic duty was in part fulfilled by offering the appropriate sacrifices to the Roman gods. On top of that of course, the Roman Emperor made claims about his divine nature. Imperial coinage included on it, in addition to the emperor’s image, language like, “son of God.”
So when Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” we may hear that as a relatively simple statement. In the first century it was anything but simple.
It is important to put this saying in its context. Some Pharisees and Herodians pose the question to Jesus. That in itself is a striking detail. The two groups are mentioned together only one other time in the gospels—in a passage from Mark, but when Matthew reproduces the same passage early in his gospel, he removes the reference to the Herodians. In this case, he keeps them together, clearly for some larger purpose. They were groups that were antagonistic to one another, if not downright enemies. The Herodians backed the policies of the ruling family of Herod, who came to power by building alliances with the Romans. In fact, their power was totally dependent on Rome, and for that reason, many Jews hated them. The Pharisees on the other hand were opposed to Roman rule, but their opposition did not usually run over into outright military resistance.
So when these two groups ask Jesus a question about paying taxes to Rome, they think they are putting Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. Whether he says yes or no, his answer will anger one of them. But, as is usually the case in these dialogues between Jesus and his opponents or questioners, Jesus turns the question back on them. First he asked them for a coin. Then he asked them a question, Whose image and title is on the coin? Caesar’s was their reply.
Already, there’s a great deal of interesting stuff in this story. Jesus asks for a coin, and out comes from someone’s pockets, a denarius. In the Roman Empire, coins were minted with the image of the emperor. Because of the commandment against images, however, most Jews considered Roman coinage, with the emperor’s image and an inscription alluding to his divinity idolatrous. In fact, special coinage without an image of the empire was minted and used in the Jewish temple precincts, where this conversation took place. It would have been embarrassing, to say the least, for one of Jesus’ interrogators to come out with such a coin.
In the context of that interchange, Jesus’ words “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s” are delightfully ambiguous. What is God’s? What is Caesar’s? Or, to make the parallel with Jesus’ question more clear—if a coin bears the emperor’s image, what, or who, bears the image of God? Of course, it’s us—human beings, created in God’s image. Taken in that sense, Jesus’ words are a challenge not only to his opponents, but more dramatically, to us.
We believe we are created in God’s image, but the reality is we are shaped and molded by our society and culture to become a very different sort of person. I’m struck every time I go to the grocery store by the mini shopping carts that are offered for little children. Sure, they’re cute, completely innocuous. They are also a powerful reminder that we are being formed as consumers at a very early age. Corporate culture has seduced us into becoming image-bearers of their logos and consumers of their products. And we are complicit in that effort. Language of consumption pervades all aspects of our lives and shapes aspects of them far removed from the shopping mall. I’ve heard college administrators refer to students as consumers, and we speak of our search for a church home as “church-shopping.”
On one level, Jesus’ words, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, confront us with the very real and important question of the competing demands the world makes on us, and the demands God makes of us. Jesus’ words challenge us to reflect on how we’ve drawn the line between those two areas of our lives in the past and present, and whether where we’ve drawn that line is adequately faithful to the claims God has on our allegiance and commitments.
On a deeper level, Jesus’ words remind us in whose image and likeness we have been created, whose image and likeness we bear. We are not consumers; we are children of God. Claiming our identity as God’s children is a claim to dignity and value that far transcends our net financial worth. It is to claim our nature as created and loved by God, created to love others as God has loved us. Even more, claiming our identity as God’s beloved children reminds us that we are God’s, and all that we have ultimately comes from, and belongs to God.