19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. (Luke 20:19–26 ESV)
“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Upon which hangs much of the political theology of Christendom, and of the church.
I’ve always found it a troubling theology, because it presumes there are things which belong to Caesar — things beyond this coin which bears his image. That we owe love, loyalty, obedience to Caesar.
And I’ve never been entirely sure we owe these things to Caesar, Paul’s words in Romans 13 notwithstanding. This answer of Jesus’ is another really good non-answer. The coin bears the likeness, the image of Caesar, and an inscription proclaiming him the king and savior of the world. It’s a created thing and it clearly belongs to its creator, the one who stamped and claimed it.
It brings to mind the words of God in the creation account in Genesis 1:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:26-27 ESV)
We bear the image of God. And it is to God we truly belong. Not Caesar. We owe nothing to Caesar. We do not belong to him. Nothing we have, nothing we are, belongs to him.
Missed, however, in building an entire edifice of political theology on this quote, is the accusation that comes at the beginning of Luke 23, when Jesus is brought before Pilate to answer the charges of the council and the mob.
“We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” (Luke 23:2 ESV)
So this clever answer, upon which the whole notion of two kingdoms — the right hand kingdom of God and the left hand kingdom of the world somehow reflecting the good order of God’s creation — is part of the indictment, a justification for treason because Jesus did not, in fact, answer affirmatively, “Yes, you must pay taxes.”
Because we have no king but Caesar!
He paid taxes, from the fat of the land, from coins found in fish. And he told his disciples (us) to do the same. However, Jesus surrendered to the order of the world without calling it good — a mistake I think Paul far too readily makes — because God’s kingdom is bigger than the order of the world, because God’s kingdom doesn’t need the order of the world to reflect its goodness, its grace, and its mercy. Because the order of the world is just as rooted in the fall of man as it is the good creation of God. (And possibly moreso.) Because taxes are a small thing, no reflection on the goodness of God, and we trust in God to provide. Not Caesar.
Because we do not belong to Caesar. We are not made in the image of Caesar. We depend on Caesar for nothing of real and lasting value. The grace we receive, the good news we preach, the kingdom we proclaim, is not Caesar’s. It is Christ’s.