The place is Jerusalem. The time is a few days after Jesus' triumphal entry into the city. There is a deadly serious attempt to force Jesus into a trap from which he can leave only if he is discredited or if he is dead. The question is posed by the Pharisees accompanied by the Herodians. This is an odd pairing of groups. The only thing the two groups would have in common is that they both felt threatened by the message of this itinerant preacher from Galilee who is attracting such enthusiastic crowds with his proclamation that the reign of God is at hand. The Herodians were collaborators, supporters of the political status quo and therefore were supporters of the census tax. The Pharisees would normally have kept their distance from the pagan occupiers, and so presumably would have opposed the tax, as would the majority of the ordinary people who were attracted to Jesus and his message. By joining forces and "ganging up" on Jesus, the two groups hoped to maneuver him into a no-win situation. If he opposed Caesar’s tax, he would likely be arrested. But if he supported the tax, he would undermine his standing with those who had been following him. The Herodians and Pharisees thought they finally had Jesus right where they wanted him. They thought they had him boxed in and the only exits were booby-trapped. You can just imagine the smirks on their faces!
The response of Jesus to this dilemma is brilliant. He doesn't get out of the trap so much as he demonstrates that the trap is an illusion. First he turns the tables on his questioners by demanding that they show him the coin used to pay the tax. It is clear that he's addressing the Pharisees rather than the Herodians. When they hand him the Roman coin, they in fact undermine their own legitimacy and claims of moral superiority. The very fact that they possess Roman money reveals that in a sense they have already "paid tribute" to Caesar by carrying his image around with them even in the temple. Rather than entrapping Jesus, they have betrayed themselves. You see, Jesus' command to "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar" is not an endorsement of oppressive rule but an exposure and indictment of the self-righteous Pharisees. They have bought into the system that they claim to be removed from. They are more truly allies of the Herodians than they are willing to admit.
Jesus continues… "And give to God what belongs to God." He is not proposing a division of profits between two equivalent parties. He has changed the context. It is not a simple matter of deciding what is Caesar's and what is God's. The truth is that ultimately everything, all that we are, all that we have and all that we do belongs to God.
Of course this pronouncement of Jesus “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's,” has for centuries been cited as the basis for the Separation of Church and State. New Testament professor Daniel Harrington warns that this statement should not be pressed into a metaphysical or a political philosophy. The policy of Church-State separation was officially enacted to protect religious freedom and to prevent the encroachment of one realm upon the other. But the resulting dichotomy continues to cause controversy.
The church by its very nature is called to inspire, to transform, to heal, to serve and to challenge the world in which it lives. This mandate cannot be met from behind a barrier of separation. Indeed, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are filled with indications that it is in the very essence of the church not to be separate but to be thoroughly and actively involved with the world in order to help bring it to redemption. Secular versus sacred, profane versus holy; these are distinctions that would keep the leaven away from the dough and the lamp hidden under the bed.
From the beginning, God's dealings with humankind and with the world have been characterized by involvement. The conceptual god of the deists was thought to have created the world and then left it to its own devices in the way a clockmaker makes a watch, winds it, and has nothing further to do with it. In contrast, the God of our Judaeo-Christian tradition is relational, interactive, and fully invested in the world. Our Hebrew ancestors readily interpreted the signs of their times and their ever evolving circumstances as the hand of God at work in their midst.
Without a doubt, the most significant act of divine involvement with the world is the incarnation of God in the person and mission of Jesus. During his earthly life in flesh and blood, in time and space, Jesus did not remain aloof from the world; he immersed himself in it. He did not choose to associate only with the holy and the wholesome; instead he traveled the back alleys and byroads of society to bring the message of salvation to the marginalized and the despised. Jesus’ contemporaries upheld a strict policy of separation from sinners so that they would not become defiled by proximity. But Jesus chose radical association with sinners in order to heal them and make them holy.
Upon his departure from this life, Jesus commissioned his followers to a similar incarnational involvement: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” However, through the ages the church has vacillated between periods of separation from the world and periods of active, redemptive involvement with the world.
There is something very healthy and even necessary about identifying what is Caesar's and what is God's. It is important that the line between church and state doesn't get too fuzzy. The line gets fuzzy when we expect children to be evangelized by school prayer. The truth is we, the church, are called to be the teachers of faith and religion. The line gets fuzzy when we seek to legislate morality. Instead we are called to influence ethics by helping transform hearts and minds. The line between church and state gets fuzzy when we operate our churches by the standards and attitudes of government or business. It is imperative that we operate the church with justice, compassion and reconciliation.
Giving to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar is a legitimate obligation but it is a relative obligation. On the contrary, giving to God the things that belong to God is an absolute obligation. In other words, our duty to God includes but exceeds all other duties. Our ultimate loyalty must always be to God above all other people and all other things.
Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica speaks to the early church’s incarnational involvement in the world. Paul notes that the Thessalonians were living their faith with consistency and integrity in such a way that speaking of it was not necessary. They were LIVING reflections of God’s power and love.
Caesar's image was stamped on the denarius, but God's image and likeness is stamped on each and every human being. We belong to God. And we are called to be the body of Christ, to be God’s very presence in our world. Amen.