What Gives? by Peter J. Leithart


What Gives?

Peter J. Leithart on Properly Rendering Things to Caesar & to God

These days, Jesus' aphorism, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and render to God the things that are God's," is taken as an endorsement of secular politics.

Jesus, it is thought, sets up two spheres of life, sealed off from one another, with no overlap. There's the realm of Caesar, which is the realm of submission to brute earthly power; and there's the realm of worship, the spiritual realm, the realm of the things of God, in which we give God his due.

Jesus and Thomas Jefferson, two peas in a pod, both building up a wall to separate church and state.

What Jesus actually says is far more complicated, but to see how, we need to look at Matthew's account of the incident that produced this aphorism.

During the final week of his earthly life, Jesus spent the bulk of his time in the temple, disputing with different Jewish opponents. The chief priests and scribes tried to trap Jesus with questions about his authority, and found themselves trapped (21:23–32).

Next, the Pharisees and Sadducees step into the ring. They fare no better (22:15–40). The Pharisees first attempt to trap Jesus politically by asking a question about taxation.

The Trap & Its Evasion

Taxation had been a huge concern in Israel for a generation. Judas the Galilean, whom Gamaliel mentions in Acts 5:37, was a tax rebel who convinced many Jews to resist the tax by refusing to pay, and eventually he started a revolt. The Romans put it down bloodily.

Taxation had both political and religious dimensions. It was political because the tribute tax imposed by the Romans was an assertion of their authority and of Israel's subordination. It was a religious issue because many Jews regarded the Romans as intruders on the holy land. Taxation was a constant reminder of their polluting presence. Paying taxes implied support for their occupation.

Coins themselves had religious significance. The coin that Jesus handled may have been the denarius issued by Tiberius, which on one side asserted that Tiberius himself was a son of God, and on the reverse side depicted his mother as the goddess Victory. Even handling the denarius was an offense to some Jews.

The Pharisees therefore think they have Jesus in a corner. Either Jesus will endorse a tax revolt, which will get him into trouble with the Romans, or he will endorse compliance with Rome, which will get him into trouble with other Jews (22:16–17). He will have to offend someone, and the Pharisees will exploit his answer to undermine his popularity.

As always, however, Jesus eludes his enemies. His cryptic words leave his hearers mystified about his politics. "Render to Caesar" could mean "Give Caesar what he deserves," or it could mean "Pay your taxes." Jesus seems to sidestep the trap by saying something that both sides, and neither, will be happy with.

But in avoiding the trap, Jesus is not avoiding the question. He answers the question, but in a way that splits the difference between competing Jewish parties. He is not a tax rebel; he is not a Zealot, and in fact Zealotry is one of the things he most opposes. But neither does he urge political compromise.

The Call to Give Back

But there's more going on in Jesus' words. Jesus doesn't use the verb "give," but a word that means "give back." (Here I am following Frederick Dale Bruner's Matthew, A Commentary, Volume 2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13–28 [Eerdmans, 2007], 396–402.) It refers to a return gift of something already given. "Give back to Caesar" assumes that Caesar has already given something to the Jews.

Clearly, Caesar has given the Jews the coin, which they produce. Caesar has also, more generally, provided the order within which the Jews operate. The Roman Empire makes trade across the Mediterranean safe; the Romans protect Judea from its traditional enemies to the East; the Romans provide a form of stability and safety.

That logic holds for the second statement, too: "Render to God what is God's." Again, the verb is "give back." Jesus doesn't merely tell them to "give" what belongs to God, but to "give back" what the Lord had first given.

Again, the basis for this claim has to do with an "image." Because we bear the divine image, we are to give back to God what he has given us, which is ourselves. "Give back" is used in the Septuagint in liturgical contexts. Yahweh gave Israel the land, and they were to "give back" from what he gave them in worship.

A Complex Politics

If Jesus tells his disciples to give back to Caesar what Caesar gives, then he's setting limits to our submission to Caesar. Since we use Caesar's money to buy our cars, pay our mortgages, give out loans, and so forth, and since we receive Caesar's money in our paychecks, we should gladly pay taxes, giving back what is his due.

God, though, has given us everything. Even what Caesar gives—those roads and trade routes and the Pax -Romana—comes from God. God's realm is not separate from Caesar's, is not set off in a neatly bounded spiritual realm. God's realm encompasses Caesar's, envelops it completely. We are called to give back to God in Caesar's realm as well as everywhere else.

With regard to taxes, Jesus says that giving to God what is God's means giving to Caesar what is Caesar's. But Caesar's demands are not always compatible with God's, and there are times when giving back to God what is God's means we cannot give back to Caesar what is Caesar's.

Jesus is not being apolitical. He leaves his disciples a complex politics to follow, a politics that combines submission and resistance, a politics that recognizes that Caesar has given, and that it is right to give back to Caesar, but only what God allows. It is a politics of revolutionary subordination, submission to the powers that be as a means of overturning the powers that be.

It is the politics of Jesus himself, who submits himself to a Roman cross in order to remake Rome, and all kingdoms of this world, into the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ. 

Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at www.leithart.com. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.