Whenever I am with a group of Americans studying today’s Gospel passage, we always—ALWAYS—come around to the question of “the separation of church and state.” And it always makes me laugh, because the concept would have been so completely incomprehensible to the people gathered around Jesus. From the earliest days of kings in Israel, religion and politics were bound up together. They believed they existed as a nation as a fulfillment of a covenant made with God. When there was a king, there was also a prophet—someone who would confront the king when he lost sight of the covenant with God that was the basis of their existence.
In Jesus’ day, things were a little more complicated. Israel was a Roman-occupied country. The so-called king, Herod, was a Roman appointee and had very little actual power. He was only nominally Jewish, and his main job was to fill the seat. It was to his benefit to keep things calm in Jerusalem; any uprising would include getting rid of him. In place of the traditional role of ‘prophet,’ the one who would confront the king with his misdeed, there arose religious factions, with differing ideas about how the Jewish people should respond to Roman occupation. The Herodians, mentioned in today’s reading, were Jews who accept Herod as king and were content with the status quo. The Pharisees were a group of lay leaders (not Temple authorities) who believed that they could keep Israel faithful by strict adherence to religious law. They would probably have been the first to grasp the concept of ‘separation of church and state’ although they might not have seen it as something positive, but a difficult realty of living under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
It’s a sign of just how desperately they want to discredit Jesus that these two polar opposite factions, the Herodians and the Pharisees, join forces to confront him.
Together they develop a question about taxes to trap Jesus. This particular tax, the kensos, was a Roman “head tax”. It was salt in the wound of those oppressed by Rome. The Roman Empire would defeat a nation, occupy them, then charge a head tax on every person to pay for “privilege” of Roman “protection.” And even worse, it had to be paid using a Roman coin—one with the blasphemous graven image of Caesar, with the claim he was divine on the other side. You would never expect to find a Jew just carrying this coin around, and certainly would not bring it into the Temple. That would be like bringing pornography to church.
So they spring their trap by asking Jesus this question: is it lawful to pay this tax to Caesar? It’s really a way of saying to Jesus, “Which authority are you going to acknowledge, the Jewish religious legal system, or the Roman legal system? You can’t have both, so someone is going to be displeased with you.”
They are so tickled with themselves for coming up with this foolproof question to trap Jesus, they don’t even notice that Jesus traps them.
“Show me the coin,” he says. And they produce one. That coin with the image of Caesar and those blasphemous words on the back. Someone has one. IN THE TEMPLE.
Jesus has won the argument before he even says a word, because he has revealed their own hypocrisy. He has shown which side they have chosen—they have the coin, they have chosen the Roman legal system, even if they give lip service to the Jewish system.
What he says next is just icing on the cake, really. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” You may know it better as “Render unto Caesar…”
And give to God the things that are God.
Out of interest to how this is perceived, I asked the Wednesday group how they would draw this as a Venn diagram. (You know what a Venn diagram is even if you’ve never heard the term. It uses intersecting circles to show how something might be part of two or more different groups or sets.) Did they think that Jesus was saying, “Over here in this circle are the things that belong to Caesar, and over here in this completely distinct circle that does not overlap at all are the things that belong to God”?
That’s the American, “separation of church and state” interpretation of this passage. And I think it’s pretty unrealistic. I don’t for a minute believe God expects us to leave our faith at the door when we participate in the political process.
So should our Venn diagram be two intersecting circles, and the segments that overlap are the only places where what we believe about God should influence the decisions we make about the society in which we live?
How do we navigate the difficult places in this world where the values of our faith conflict with the values of society—and which side of that conflict do we land on? Which kind of a system do we really want to be part of? And how do we disentangle ourselves from systems we don’t want to be part of?
But what if the real point Jesus is trying to make requires a different Venn diagram altogether? One in which the little circle marked “Caesar” is completely encompassed by a larger circle marked “God”?
What if Jesus is challenging us to see that everything we have and everything we are is ultimately God’s?
Jesus is challenging us to think about where we place our trust, our allegiance. Our faith. Faith is not so much about what we believe as what—or who—we trust. Where you put your faith determines whose image is on your currency. I’m not sure we are called to completely separate ourselves from the systems of this world. In fact, I think the only way we can begin to spread the currency of the kingdom is by living and interacting with those for whom that is the only system they know. But we have to remember that the things that belong to Caesar are a subset of the things that belong to God. Then, when the things of Caesar fail—as they always do, in the end—we will remember that ultimately everything belongs to God, in whose image we are truly made.
So what is this image of God in which we are created? How do we recognize it in ourselves and others?
We have a pretty good place to start, in Jesus. If we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate—God in the flesh—we can look to him for insight. What did Jesus value? Reconciliation and relationship over conflict and division. In Jesus, we are allowed to see more than just the back side of God. We are entrusted with the true currency of the kingdom, the image and presence of God in Christ Jesus. The more we learn to carry that image as our currency, the more we are able to respond to those who have lost hope in all the other currencies of this world. We will spread the currency of the kingdom—justice, mercy, love.
It may take a long, long time for the currency of the kingdom to become the currency of the world, to squeeze that “Caesar circle” right out of the picture. But part of our call in this world, as followers of the Jesus Movement, is to continue to hold up the hope that that day will come, and commit ourselves to using the currency of the kingdom, even when it seems like it’s not accepted there or the exchange rate seems especially high.
That is when we will discover that the currency of God’s kingdom has the most peculiar characteristic of never running out. God’s kingdom will never go bankrupt, because the more we seek justice, the more we show mercy, the more we love each other—the more justice, mercy and love multiply. Amen.