Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
It isn’t possible to erect a whole theology based on one little incident in Jesus’ life. So that’s not what I want even faintly to suggest. But there are few passages of scripture that are quite so timely as the story ending in Jesus’ pronouncement, “Render to Caesar (give to the emperor) the things that are Caesar’s (the emperor’s) and to God the things that are God’s.”
It is pretty clear from the context in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all of whom tell pretty much the same story, that the purpose it serves is to illustrate how the forces of power were out to trap Jesus, whom they had already decided had to go. And it illustrates as well how they were no match for his intelligence, wisdom, and cunning.
In a way the context itself illustrates the pronouncement well. For it is a showdown between the forces of this world’s power and the values of God. Since most religion is run by people who are allied in one degree or another with power and privilege, it almost goes without saying that the default understanding of many folks through the ages has been that if the religious establishment says it, it must be the correct religious position. Of course, there are exceptions. The entire Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against the religious establishment. And long before the Reformation, there were lay movements, groups, and sects that did not gee-haw with the hierarchy. Nowadays stock in organized religion has plummeted in many parts of the world, though not in all. People are less inclined to accept docilely anything just because religious authorities say it.
But a point not to miss is that Jesus seriously questioned and ultimately threatened the forces of power, mainly those dressed in religious garb. That is in line with the tradition itself that God is always on the side of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the slaves, and any others who are not in power. It is a matter of justice. The psalms are full of references to this preferential treatment on the part of the divine. “For he comes to judge the earth and with righteousness to judge the world and the peoples with his truth,” says Psalm 95. Judgment in the Bible is deeply connected to justice. And justice is part and parcel with equity. And righteousness, far from meaning moral perfection, actually means being in line with the right order of things, an order which is characterized by right relationships, not relationships out of whack because of an imbalance of power.
Recent history in the United States shows that a great many people have not only forgotten that, but have in fact inverted it so that political power is assumed to be the medium in which they suppose that God is interested. Bad mistake. It is not that political power is wrong. Of course not. But it is true that power can’t be assumed to be serving the divine purposes just because it is power. As flawed as they are and can be, democratic institutions have emerged as instruments for making societies more just, more equitable, more responsive to human need. We are seeing before our very eyes the rise of widespread undermining of such institutions. I never thought I’d live to see the day that some of the worst nightmares of the twentieth century, like fascism and Nazism, would rear their horrifying heads again. I never imagined a day to return when nationalism turned into nativism and once more white supremacy paraded through the streets to the toleration and downright approval of some in power. And what is, if not surprising, the most egregious development of all is that a huge swath of religious leaders are cheerleaders for those who are undermining human dignity. How do you square that with the teachings of Jesus?
In a word, there is massive confusion about the cause of Caesar and the cause of God. This is not a matter that you can dismiss as simple political difference, even political warfare. It is a profound and deepening spiritual crisis that owes its strength to a pack of lies as to who God is and what God wills. I certainly don’t believe that you can sign up with any political party and imagine that that party has some corner on the market of doing God’s will. But it is transparently true that there are some folks, notably the so-called “religious right,” whose politics are way out of line with the biblical understanding of justice and righteousness. The forces of power and privilege, ever out to protect their status and amass more power and privilege, are still trying to trick Jesus with a classic set-up. The forces of power are forever dropping broad hints that neither Jesus nor anyone else had better cross Caesar, or else.
|Tintoretto, "The Temptation of Christ," 1579-81|
Do you remember that story about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? It is a key story making a profound point. All of those temptations were about using spiritual power to serve the forces of evil that corrupt and destroy the world by claiming to do the opposite. Controlling the food supply (turning stones into bread), dazzling people with displays of invincibility (jumping off the pinnacle of the temple), and controlling the empires of the world were then and are now and always have been the proven ways of clutching and expanding power.
Of course the religious people who are busy kowtowing to economic and political power have a different story to tell. They’ll tell you that God is all worked up about sexual improprieties. They’ll explain that what they are doing is actually manipulating the courts and legislatures because they want to enact God’s will on a massive scale. They’ll quickly tell you that God is in a hurry because the world doesn’t have long to go before God comes and gives the world a solid thrashing that is a prelude to wiping it out entirely. They’ll argue that somehow God is unconcerned with the trashing of the planet and the wholesale killing of species but is disgusted with people who are different because of their color, sexual orientation, country of origin. They imagine that God is a card-carrying Christian with no time for Muslims or others because they’re wrong, of course. And so on. Evil never lacks a narrative to explain itself.
|Alonzo Cano, "Cristo Crucificado," 1646|
But be aware that it is not powerlessness that adequately describes the difference between God and Caesar. It is rather that all power is not the same. The power of God and the power of Caesar are quite different. And how do we know? The power of God that we see in Jesus is indeed a power that can stand toe to toe with the forces of wickedness and prevail. Yet it is a power that is made perfect in weakness, as St. Paul once put it [2 Corinthians 12:9]. The irony is that the divine power that we see in Jesus ultimately empties itself and becomes nothing, going the way of suffering and death, confident that it is not amassing power or parading it to domineer that is the means of life. Rather, the way to life is to be vulnerable, to let go, and to be willing to die. What we never seem to get is that even as the Creator of all, God voluntarily limits God’s self by choosing to have a world in the first place. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. That is the lesson of the cross.
This leaves us with an important question: what are we to do?
First, there is no way to understand the difference between divine power and worldly power short of being intimately familiar with the biblical story. And we can’t pick and choose the parts that support our already fixed positions. We have to look at the whole thing. Otherwise we’ll be sunk with a bunch of internal contradictions.
Second, the theme of scripture really lies in the word “covenant.” From beginning to end, the sacred story is God’s saying, “I will be their God and they shall be my people, and I myself shall be with them.” Never forget that.
Third, when in doubt, look at the teachings of and the story of Jesus. His life and death reveal it all. It is not self-explanatory for sure. But rather than trying to figure it out and make it make logical sense (because it won’t), just keep in relationship with Jesus. Read him, talk with him, and understand that he is not remote but is nearer to you than the air in your lungs and just that much a part of you yourself.
Fourth, divesting ourselves of our alliances with worldly power starts with having a practice of self-examination and repentance. Otherwise we get trapped in arrogance and begin to believe in our own self-importance. But repentance doesn’t mean just being sorry for the stuff you think you should not have done. It means living differently. And ironically one of the things that we need to repent of is letting ourselves be trampled on without standing up for our own dignity. I know. It sounds counter to all I’ve said about vulnerability. But there is an ironic twist in all this. Claiming our worth is not the same thing as amassing power nor being enchanted with the power of others. It is precisely in knowing that we are sufficient just as we are that allows us not to be abused by the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy.
Finally, be as concerned about the powerless, the vulnerable, the outsider as you are about yourself. Maybe even more so. When worldly power serves those who are weakest and in biggest need—and it sometimes does—then worldly power indeed does become an instrument of repairing the world itself. Start that process, or continue it, by using your own power for good. That is rendering unto God the things that are God’s, one of which is that power to do good with which he has lavishly endowed the children of humanity, including you.
A sermon based on Matthew 22:15-22.
A sermon based on Matthew 22:15-22.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017