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Render Unto Caesar

October 20, 2002

Glynn Cardy

Ordinary Sunday 29     Matthew 22:15-22


"Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" [Matt 22:21].


It begs the question: 'What is Caesar's?' and 'Who decides?' Invariably Caesars have lots of ideas about what is theirs. Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile, or rather they'll take over the whole measuring system.


I find it interesting how the further up the power chain politicians go, the more inclined they are to succumb to the belief in their own infallible egos. The Major-Currie affair in England reveals something of this. Of course church leaders too are not immune.


What is Caesar's? Even a cursory examination of Christian history will reveal the chess game that Caesars and Church have engaged in. There has been almost a perpetual struggle over territory - physical, spiritual, and moral - both interested in the hearts and minds and wallets of the populace.


When a politician declares that the Church shall stay out of the politics, we should hear it for what it is, namely one over-used move in a long territorial game. It has always been difficult to discover the demarcation line between the two sides. In Anglicanism our English roots include the involvement of Parliament and Monarch in decision-making, albeit rather circumscribed today. In New Zealand, Anglicanism does not have that formal political involvement, yet it does not mean that Church and State have not tried to influence each other's claimed territory.


If, for example, as some believe, the Church should restrict itself to 'spiritual' matters should we remain silent about the filming of a birth for pornographic purposes or any matter concerning the future welfare of a human being? What about land issues? Is there not spirituality involved with land? What about tax, especially when it is perceived as unjust?


Jesus was asked about tax, and he didn't dodge it. He didn't say, "No comment, this is not a spiritual matter." It was very much a spirited matter.


A little background on 1st century Palestinian taxes, that coin, and that question: Taxes, while always a pain, especially when your country is being milked by a foreign power, were particularly onerous in the Roman period. Rome wanted bulk milk; the local governor [Pilate] expected some cream off the top; as did the managers of the tax districts [whom the gospels call 'Publicans']; and, of course, as did the tax collectors. There were tax quotas to meet - which meant if someone in the community effectively evaded paying others had to make up the difference! It's estimated that some 60-70% of a person's income was taken in tax!!


There were multiple types of taxes, some considered much worse than others. Probably paramount among those was the poll tax,(1) calculated on the census in which every resident was registered along with complete information regarding occupation and assets.(2) The penalty for failing to comply was death. The poll tax was loathed by the religious leadership on three grounds: it was excessive; it caused people to worry and be constantly distracted from religious and ethical obligations; and, above all, it was interpreted theologically as a form of idolatry.


Which leads on to the coin. Coins are icons of authority. They carry the implicit, but potent, recognition of a government's authority over those who use the coins. The use of the coins implies the user's consent and submission to that authority. Most of us don't think about it. However, Judaism, based on Big C no. 2 [thou shalt not commit idolatry], objected to images, especially when the word divus [read 'divine'] was attached. The coin was a denarius - one side revealing the head of Emperor Tiberius Caesar and the other the words divus et pontifex maximus.


The problem, in short, was that paying the tax meant committing idolatry. Not paying the tax meant choosing not to live. As the Torah was explicit about idolatry, so it was implicit about encouraging life, not death or martyrdom. The question asked of Jesus therefore was: "Are we permitted by our religious laws and understandings to pay the poll tax given that it implies that we have chosen the way of Caesar over against the way of God?"


Jesus' answer, 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's', was a polite, covert, way of saying 'Give Caesar not one darn thing!' For all Jews knew that everything was God's, and therefore nothing was Caesar's. Indeed to try and divide the universe into a sacred God realm and a secular Caesar realm was to make Caesar a god and therefore to commit idolatry.


"Yet," Jesus says in effect, "play along with Caesar's illusion, giving him what he thinks is his, for the way of God is the way of life and not death. Oppressive government has no authority over us, but it is oppressive! Publicly appear to be obedient, in order to remain free to serve the true source of power and authority: God."


In the long politico-religious chess game this story sides with religion not the regime. What did you expect? God doesn't play second fiddle to any government. Religion will always encourage its followers to hold fast to a higher allegiance while in oppressive contexts often encourage its followers to survive by saying one thing publicly and quite another privately. Or as Rabbi Shemaiah once said, "Love work… hate authority, and do not make yourself conspicuous to the government."(3)


In the 1st century Palestinian context instead of choosing to align himself with the repressive regime or to align himself with those choosing revolt and therefore martyrdom, Jesus chose a strategy of non-alignment.


Another way of understanding Jesus' response is to ask 'Who owns the coin?' One answer says God, because everything is God's. Another answer says Caesar, because the coins bear his idolatrous imprint. But another answer is your self. True power is not in the coin, but in the hands of those holding the coin. You decide where to align. We do not live in an oppressive context like Jesus', but we do need to consider where we are aligned.


A story:


Once upon a time there was an old woman who used to meditate early every morning under a large tree on the west bank of the Ganges River. One morning, after having finished her prayer, the old woman saw a scorpion floating helplessly by, caught in the strong current of the river. As the scorpion was swept closer to the tree, it caught hold of one of the long tree-roots that branched far out into the river. The scorpion struggled to free itself, but it got more and more entangled in the complex network of tree roots.


When the old woman saw this, she immediately stretched herself out on the extended roots, and reached out her hand to rescue the drowning scorpion. But, as soon as she touched it, the animal jerked aside and stung her with its long lashing tail. Instinctively, the woman drew back her hand, but then, recovering her balance, she once more stretched out to lift the scorpion from the water. But every time the woman touched it, the frantic scorpion lashed out to sting her with its poisonous tail… so that the woman's hand became swollen and bloody and her face contorted with pain.


A passer-by who had watched what was happening yelled out: "Hey! Stupid old woman! What's wrong with you? Only a fool risks her life for the sake of a vicious, useless creature. Don't you realize that you are risking your life to save that miserable, ungrateful thing?"


Slowly the old woman turned her head and looked calmly into the stranger's eyes: "Friend, because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my nature, which is to save?"


We are being stung by terror. Bali is very close to us. It is a holiday destination for many in our community. Today, scattered about New Zealand people will be coming to church feeling shocked, grief stricken, and fearful.


The scorpion story asks of us why should we, while exercising through appropriate authorities due vigilance, allow the tactics of terror to compromise our Christian nature, which values tolerance, human and minority rights, and transparent, fair, and just processes - as our New Zealand courts, police, and government usually exemplify.


I suspect in the months ahead as incidents of terror strike, and we continue to feel the pain-filled sting, we will have to choose where to be aligned: with those who want to strike back, regardless of a strike's precision or legal justification; or with those who want to preserve their true nature, which knows the long-term futility of revenge.


The debate will be in Caesar's realm [or in what Caesar considers his realm]. God though may well have other ideas.


Glynn Cardy, Vicar, St Andrew's Anglican Church, Epsom




1. The other contender for the 'most hated tax' award was the estate tax.


2. The census was taken approximately every six years. Every resident between ages 14 and 61 were expected to comply.


3. Culbertson, P. A Word Fitly Spoken: Context, Transmission, And Adoption Of The Parables Of Jesus, New York: State University Of New York Press, 1995, p.157

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