March 2015 Feature Article
Whenever there is a discussion on the obligations of Christians towards the state, a key saying of Jesus is invariably cited. The most well-known rendition of it is found in the King James’ Version of the Bible: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.
A common interpretation of this saying is that Christians owe different sets of obligations to God and to the state. It is depicted in the diagram below:
So, as this interpretation of Jesus’ saying goes, there are obligations we owe to the state alone (perhaps things like paying taxes, respecting public order). These we should “render unto Caesar”. Then there is a completely separate set of obligations we owe to God (perhaps the obligation to tithe or to pray). These we should “render unto God”. Jesus’ saying, therefore, has repeatedly been used through the ages to urge Christians to be good and law-abiding citizens; to discharge well our unique obligations to “Caesar”.
The problem with this interpretation of Jesus’ saying is quickly apparent. It invites us to divide our lives into two portions, one governed by God, and the other by the state, with no interaction between the two. God’s reign over us is therefore restricted to so-called “religious” matters, while Caesar has the final say on how we should behave with regard to our lives in the public square. This interpretation of Jesus’ saying is, in other words, totally in line with the secularising agenda of many contemporary societies. The secular ideal is that one’s public life should be free of religious considerations. There can be a carefully circumscribed role for religion in one’s private devotion and morals, but that is as far as it should go.
Could this understanding of Jesus’ saying be correct? Could Jesus have been a man before his time, advocating a secular agenda more than a millennium and a half before these ideas took root in Western societies? Might Jesus actually approve of the marginalisation of religion we see in so many contemporary societies? Surely, something is amiss. It behoves us to examine carefully the passage in which this saying is contained to see if its context sheds any light on how it should be interpreted. We will focus on the description of this episode in the Gospel of Mark (12:13-17).
This immediate context of our passage is a trap set by the Jewish religious authorities. As v.13 puts it, “they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words”. These emissaries began with flattery. They praised Jesus’ integrity and said they admired the way he taught the way of God truly without being swayed by the fear of man (v.14). Having cunningly set up an expectation for Jesus to speak the truth fearlessly, they sprung the trap: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (v.14-15). This question was designed to put Jesus in a deadly bind. Whether he answers “yes” or “no”, he would get into deep trouble.
If Jesus were to answer, “No, it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar”, it would have given a basis for the Jewish religious authorities to persuade the Roman rulers to arrest Jesus. The Romans were very sensitive about their system of taxation, and any potential disruption to it was likely to draw a swift and firm response. This is where the Herodians come in. They were a political faction of Jews seen as loyal to Rome. They would be best placed to report any subversive behaviour to the Romans.
If, on the other hand, Jesus were to affirm the correctness of paying taxes to Caesar, many of his followers would have abandoned him in deep disappointment. Many Jews had an intense hatred of the Roman tax. They had even started a series of riots over the payment of taxes not too long before Jesus’ time. How do you think these Jews would have felt if Jesus were to encourage meek submission to the oppressive Roman tax system? Most conveniently, the Pharisees were on hand to fan any angry responses. They were respected among the Jews for their anti-Roman sentiments, and were best placed to incite the crowd should Jesus affirm the correctness of paying taxes to Rome.
How did Jesus emerge from this bind unscathed? He did the rather unexpected thing of requesting for a denarius (v.15). He then asked, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The denarius was a Roman coin, and had the portrait of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar on its front side, with words proclaiming his title and name. It was therefore a simple thing for the Pharisees and the Herodians to answer “Caesar’s” (v.16). Jesus then spoke the final words recorded for this episode, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. This reply totally floored the Pharisees and the Herodians. They thought they were cruising to victory in this boxing match. But Jesus’ reply was the knockout punch they did not see coming. V.17 tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at him. The account in the Gospel of Luke describes them being so astonished that they fell silent (Lk 20:26). Matthew adds that they left Jesus and went away (Matt 22:22)—probably in shame that their mission had failed.
This is where the common interpretation of Jesus’ answer does not make sense. What would be so utterly amazing about Jesus teaching that we owe different sets of obligations towards God and the state? Such a reply would also not have successfully evaded the trap, since it is in essence a “yes” answer; it suggests we ought to pay taxes because we owe obligations to the state.
The key to understanding Jesus’ last sentence lies in his earlier question, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The original Greek word for “portrait” is εἰκών (eikon). This is the word from which the English “icon” is derived, and can also be translated as “image”. To the Jew, one of the first things which come to mind when the term “image” is mentioned is the teaching in Genesis that human beings are created in the image of God. εἰκών has also been used in other parts of the New Testament to denote this image of God present in human beings (e.g. 1 Cor 11:7). The English word “inscription” is translated from ἐπιγραφή (epigraphe). A form of this word is used in passages like Isa 44:5 of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, which reads:
“One will say, ‘I belong to the LORD’;
Another will call himself by the name of Jacob;
Still another will write (epigraphein) on his hand, ‘The LORD’s’
And will take the name Israel”
So how would Jesus’ Jewish audience have understood his reply? Just as the denarius had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar’s name on it, human beings are made in the image of God and all those who belong to God have his name written on their hands. Therefore, when Jesus speaks about giving to God what is in God’s image and what has God’s inscription, he is calling for the giving of the whole of ourselves to God. He is reminding the Jews that their one loyalty is to God alone. So, if we do pay our taxes to Caesar, it should be as an aspect of our sole obligation to God; it should be as an act of worship to God. The converse is also implied: If the state should overstep her boundaries and impose obligations which conflict with our fundamental obligation to God, “we must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). The one guiding principle for all of life is our obligation towards the one who has made us in his image and inscribed his name on our hands. Thus Jesus, in his answer, does not advocate uncritical submission to the state and its laws. Yet he also does not advocate rebellion for its own sake. Everything has to be evaluated according to one’s sole duty to God. He therefore manages to avoid the unequivocal “yes” or “no” his enemies were expecting.
The pervasive influence of secularism in modern societies has caused Christians to live fragmented lives. The phenomenon of a “privatised” Christianity is evident amongst many Christians. We have carefully shepherded our Christian faith into a small and comfortable corner of our lives. When it comes to “religious” activities, like attending church, or going for small group meetings, we are happy to say and do all the right “Christian” things. Outside of these times, however, we often refuse to allow the reality of our Christian faith to guide and impact the other aspects of our lives (e.g. when we are in the office, when we discuss national politics, when we evaluate the economic direction of our society). It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, for many of us, Christianity has effectively been reduced to a kind of drug for our psychological well-being. We take it once a week on a Sunday to feel a sense of comfort and joy, but refuse to let it interfere with the business of living in the real world.
The privatised Christianity of our secular age needs to hear afresh the words of Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. This, far from being an affirmation of the secular tendency to divide our lives into different spheres which are hermetically sealed from one another, is a powerful call for us to re-assemble the fragmented pieces and live our entire life in obedience to God. If we do discharge our obligations to others (e.g. the government, our families, employers, friends), it is as an aspect of our service to God. The key obligation which holds everything together is our loyalty to God, and our key task is to learn and reflect upon what this one loyalty entails for the various facets of our lives, both “religious” and “secular”. May these words of Jesus help bring wholeness and focus to Christians today, as we live in wholehearted gratitude and service to the God who has graciously created us in his image and inscribed his name on our hands.
Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.