God and Government 3: God’s and Caesar’s

Jay: Father Jack Mahoney wrote an interesting article on this topic.

Can we define what is Caesar’s? The denarius had Caesar’s name and likeliness on it, so it was clearly his. What else is his? Can we define what is God’s? Do the two ever conflict?

Don: To use a motive metaphor: In theory, if everybody stayed in the “proper lane”—God’s or Caesar’s, as appropriate—then there would not be a problem. But Man’s desire for rulers with God-like knowledge and qualities (a desire we’ve had since the beginning of time) seems to render us incapable of separating the two lanes. Perhaps it’s because rulers employ fear and intimidation or religious belief as means to control people.

Donald: The denarius was minted by Caesar, so it was his. Our hearts, our minds, our souls were minted by God, so they are His. But God also expects us to use money to support His work. How does this square with separation of church and state? To whom do we owe allegiance, when “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3-5)?

Jay: Are tithes an example of God asking us for money?

K.B.: This is where the two lanes sometimes collide. We struggle with our desire to keep all our money for ourselves or to give it to God or Caesar.

Mikiko: Jesus said:

“Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.” And they were amazed at him. (Mark 12:17)

In prayer to God, Jesus said of his disciples:

“I have given your word to them, but the world has hated them, because they are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:14)

So we do not take part in politics, but we respect the authority of the governments under which we live. This is in harmony with the Bible’s command:

“Let every person be in subjection to the superior authorities.” (Romans 13:1)

We obey the law, pay taxes, and cooperate with efforts of the government to provide for the welfare of its citizens. Rather than participate in any attempt to subvert the government, we follow the Bible’s counsel to pray for “kings and all those who are in positions of authority,” especially when they are making decisions that could affect freedom of worship.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made concerning all sorts of men, concerning kings and all those who are in high positions, so that we may go on leading a calm and quiet life with complete godly devotion and seriousness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

David: We’ve been looking at the “Render” statement as one of the rare declarative statements that Jesus made in response to questions. But it seems to me, on reflection, that Jesus was tricking us! His answer contains no substance, but it serves as something far more valuable: A stimulant to seek the answer for ourselves. By forcing us to address the question “What is God’s and what is Caesar’s?” as we are doing in this very class, He is leading us to a higher level of enlightenment. Whether groupthink can produce the answers is somewhat doubtful, but that doesn’t matter. What really matters to us individually is the process of asking and reflecting upon the questions, and (it seems to me) this is what Jesus was trying to get us to do. And He has succeeded—this class q.e.d.!

It is a very Daoist and Zen-like approach. The “statement” about God and Caesar is like the Zen master’s question: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There is no answer (at least, none that we are capable of discovering and understanding), but it makes one think—and that’s what really matters.

Dr. Singh: Jesus gave us a very good example. He asked us to preach His gospel to the whole world—which of course includes government and also other religions. His statement helps us to do that.

Jay: The statement is premised upon a question concerning tax. But Jesus typically does not answer questions directly. He uses our questions to point us towards principles higher than the mundane ones on which our questions are based. So in this case, the response of Jesus had nothing to do with taxes; He was trying to deliver a much bigger lesson—which makes the statement much more intriguing. It’s easy to move beyond the issue of tax   simply by dividing the statement up into the two lanes or spheres or magisteria of God and Caesar—sacred and mundane, civil and spiritual. But is there something beyond this simplistic division?

Don: The problem is that we can’t stay in lane! When the Nazis come knocking and ask: “Are there any Jews here?” do you tell the truth and admit that they are hiding under your bed? Or do you lie and say no? Or a gay couple walks into your cake shop and asks you to bake their wedding cake: You take the lane to Caesar (the Supreme Court) who decides that you don’t have to bake it, but was that the right lane to take? On some thoroughfares, lanes can be difficult to discern!

David: As all religions do, Mikiko took us down the Scriptural lane to answer the question. It seems to me Jesus is pointing us down another lane entirely: An internal lane. When the Nazis knock, which lane will you take? The Bible lane takes you to the unequivocal conclusion that “lying is a sin” (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 12:22). But what conclusion does the “inside” lane, which leads to the inner light, result in?

I still think the idea of two lanes/realms/spheres/magisteria is helpful, albeit simplistic; but rather than mixing them up I think Jesus was pointing us toward separating them such that they are mutually irrelevant. To me, the only way to separate them is to recognize that one is outside, and one is inside. The one on the inside is the only way to decide matters of the spirit. The one on the outside leads to Caesar and his laws and to religion and its Scriptures, but neither have any relevance when the Nazis come knocking or the gays come shopping.

Jay: It seems as if Jesus is also saying, even with a touch of impatience, “Look! Just give Caesar what’s his and God what’s His! Duh!” Well, that’s fine in theory, but in practice, we just can’t seem to help mixing them up. Is there a way to define what’s his and what’s His so we can overcome this problem? Note that the statement presents the possessive case: God and Caesar already own what’s theirs, respectively. Does that help?

Mikiko: The Bible is God’s word:

In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid.
What can man do to me? (Psalms 56:11)

Donald: Are we talking about behavior or attitude? Or both?

Don: Jesus seemed to be talking about behavior more than about attitude. But it is hard to separate the two.

Donald: Jesus was talking in the context of taxes. Donna said in class a couple of weeks ago that religion is the government of Christianity. Is my tithe a tax paid to my church to protect me spiritually, as government taxes are used to protect us physically?

Jay: He began by talking about taxes, but is that what He was talking about at the end of the passage? Is there a greater meaning?

Chris: The first Venn diagram was created in the garden of Eden when two separate worlds that were never meant to collide did so, creating a new world, a gray area, in the central space where the two overlap. God very clearly said that His kingdom is not of this world. We cannot understand what is not of this world. No matter how much we want the two worlds to interface nicely, so there is no conflict and we can be comfortable, that gray area was never meant to be, and cannot be made to be what it was never intended to be.

Don: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is central to that story, of course, and in the gray area it reveals a good freedom fighter and an evil terrorist, a good reformer and an evil heretic—in the same body! We want people to get into their proper lanes, but which lane is proper? God’s or Caesar’s?

Donald: Our compasses are not aligned. I say north is this direction, you say it is that direction. Where we put our time and money are indicators of where our heart lies.

Don: Are the five daily Moslem prayers owed to God? If my hand is cut off for stealing in a Moslem country, whose debt is being serviced—God’s or Caesar’s?

David: Chris’s Venn diagram is intriguing. Before the Fall, there were two worlds—divine and non-divine—and they touched but did not overlap. After the Fall, Mr. and Mrs. Venn found themselves partially in divine territory with their new knowledge and no Caesar to govern them, so God initially spent a lot of time with him to guide them. The gray area of overlap in their diagram was still a very light gray, because it still had so much of God in it. But over time, God withdrew (or was driven out), to be replaced by Caesar, and the overlap area has darkened considerably.

Dr. Singh: God asks for tithes. They serve a different purpose from government taxes: Teaching. But the method—tithe (vs. tax)—is the same.

Jay: We don’t seem to have made much progress in class today in terms of defining what is God’s and what is Caesar’s.

David: If we added tithing to the gray area in the Venn diagram, does it darken or lighten? That would reveal whether tithes are Caesar’s or God’s. I think that tithing is a human invention and therefore would darken the gray.

Donald: I think it boils down to allegiance to God or to Caesar; or perhaps to church/state.

Don: A modern democratic government is more concerned to receive your taxes and your vehicle registration fee than your allegiance. It is different in a totalitarian country, which demands total allegiance. Jesus would like our allegiance, which was damaged by the Fall; but grace compensates for our lack of it. It is the very opposite of the totalitarian state.

Donald: In a democratic country, we can protest various aspects of Caesar without fear. Can we do that in church? What would we be protesting—aspects of Caesar or aspects of God?

Jay: In other words, is church, as an organized religion, Caesar or God?

Don: What does Caesar expect? What does God expect?

Jay: Caesar expects that we obey his rules.

Don: Is that God’s expectation?


Leave a Reply