Is 'Render unto Caesar' really about taxes?

"Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." It's a lasting phrase that has touched off church-and-state and tax debates. This riposte to the religious authorities transcends mere matters of money, and agitates the hearts of believers: What ultimately belongs to God, and how does that question resonate in a secular age?

What we render unto God is how we conduct ourselves and how we treat each other,' says theologian

It is believed that when Christ was shown a coin, he said: 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.' (Caesar's Coin by Peter Paul Rubens/Wikimedia Commons )

"Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (Mark 12:14)

The question was a sham. 

The Pharisees and Herodians, political and religious leaders of Jerusalem, were just about fed up with Jesus. Shortly after arriving in the city, he cleansed the Temple of unsavoury business practices; he told parables that embarrassed them. And he had crowds of people following him everywhere. They decided he needed to be arrested, and, preferably, killed. But that seemed to be easier said than done.

Putting this question to him was a gambit designed to butter him up and trip him up. If he'd said yes, he'd be accused of advocating cosiness with Rome. And if he'd said no — if he advocated the denial of tribute to the emperor — he might bring real danger upon his followers. 

But in classic Jesus style, he found a third way to deal with the question, one that reverberates today. He asked for a denarius, a Roman coin.

And they brought one. Then he said to them:

"Whose head is this, and whose title?" 

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They answered, "The emperor's." 

Jesus said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." 
And they were utterly amazed at him.

(Mark 12:16-17)

The idea of empire

But the story isn't really about taxes. 

Or rather, if it's about taxes, it's also about empire.

"Jesus is not unaware of the game that they [the Pharisees and Herodians] are playing," says Warren Carter, of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla.

Circa 1950: Roman copper coins from the reigns of 1) Augustus, 1st Emperor of Rome 2) Constantine 3) Octavius 4) Julius Caesar. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

"And the hypocrisy, of course, is that they are going to produce the coin, which Jesus doesn't have, and they're producing the coin signals that they have already made their peace with Roman rule, and are happy to carry the coin. So their hypocrisy is exposed."

"I think all of us are impacted by empire, but they are openly, willingly in collusion," says Mitzi J. Smith, of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.

"They also fear the authority that he has with the people. [Jesus] has his own authority, but in a different way, because he has been meeting the needs of the people; the real needs, the spiritual, the physical needs of the people."

This brief Gospel story provides many ways to examine the idea of empire. We might imagine Jesus is anti-empire; he certainly seems to be anti-this-Roman-empire.

But, as Warren Carter points out, Jesus uses the very same language. 

"Jesus conducts a ministry that I think offers an alternative to Roman rule. … centred on the Empire or the Kingdom of God. But we can't just style that as an antithesis, because even talking about the Empire of God is language of imitation or mimicry, taking over that notion of empire, talking about it," Carter explains.

"And of course envisioning, eventually, his return as this triumphant Son of Man who is going to establish God's rule in all its fullness, which is going to mean the end of Roman rule. And it's going to mean a glorious triumph for God. It makes God into the most powerful ruler, who out-Caesars Caesar, so to speak, in the end."

Questioning slave parables

Jesus also uses other concepts connected to empire. Slavery, for one. In the Gospel of Matthew, he tells numerous stories, or parables, that take slaves as their subjects, and play out ideas of the Kingdom or Empire of God. 

'Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? 

Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 

But if that wicked slave says to himself, "My master is delayed", and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. 

He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

(Matthew 24:45-51)

Mitzi Smith has studied and written about these slave parables.

"They are placed in the mouth of Jesus, who in Matthew is understood as God's anointed one, the one who's supposed to bring about justice. And yet to use slave parables uncritically, as a paradigm for what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God, is problematic," Smith says.

"Just because they're parables does not mitigate the evil of that relationship; that we shouldn't question the evil of the relationship or what is being asked of those human beings."

Smith chalks up the number of slave parables used in the Gospel of Matthew not to the historical figure of Jesus, but to the author of the Gospel itself.

"I'd like to think that the historical Jesus did not use slave parables as a pedagogical tool to teach about the kingdom, participation in the kingdom." 

She says that noticing and discussing these problematic aspects of scripture is key. 

"We are taught to look over them, to gloss over them. And it was probably only five or six years ago that I stopped, as an African American, and said there's a problem here. This should be a problem here."

Owed loyalty

There is the story as we find it in the Bible, and then there is the story behind the story. In contemporary biblical scholarship, the 'making of' is just as important as the tale itself. 

A few years ago, when Warren Carter was covering Mark's "Render unto Caesar" passage in Greek translation class, he noticed that the famous saying was formulated in a manner atypical of the language and style normally used by the author of Mark.

He eventually theorized that the saying: "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's," existed before the Gospel of Mark (thought to be the earliest of the Gospels), and that the story of the Pharisees questioning Jesus was written afterward.

"I think the saying was useful for guiding Jesus followers in the decades of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s," says Carter.

"It's sort of a permissive saying; it's okay to participate in the Roman world, as long as you remember you have loyalty to God. But after the year 70, when I think this scene is created...the paying of the tax question, calling for the coin, drawing attention to the image on the's a scene that sharpens the divide between the emperor — paying to Caesar and the Empire on one hand — and loyalty to God on the other. These two are not equally valid entities."

The painting, The Pharisees Question Jesus, by artist James Tissot. (James Tissot/Wikimedia Commons)

The Gospel of Mark was written shortly after Roman armies had laid siege to Jerusalem, and destroyed the city and the Temple, the very centre of Jewish life and religion. One can only imagine the trauma associated with such an act, both for the Jewish people and for early Jesus followers. 

"So here's the question for Jesus folks post-70: What sort of loyalty do we owe the empire in these very difficult circumstances? Do we owe it any? Or do we owe it some? Do we owe it a lot? How do we make our way now in this world in which Roman power is freshly asserted?" asks Carter. Ostensibly, the Gospel of Mark, written in the wake of this catastrophe, is meant to aid with discernment on this question.

And what insight does the story, and the saying, lend us in 2020? Carter and Smith are both teaching and living on American soil at the height of Covid-19 and in an extraordinary election year. How does their experience reverberate in this story? 

For Mitzi Smith, the recognition of community and connection is key. 

"What we render unto God is how we conduct ourselves and how we treat each other. It's not about money, it's about relationships. And unfortunately, even as Christians, some of us can't even agree on the fact that children should not be separated from their parents unjustly; that it's okay to separate them because their parents crossed the border. As Christians!" 

At the same time, empire occasionally co-opts Christian symbolism. The spraying and clearing of protesters at the White House in June 2020 for a Donald Trump photo-op in front of a damaged church, Bible in hand, appears to be a contemporary example.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St. John's Episcopal church in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The next day, the U.S. President and First Lady visited a shrine dedicated to Pope John Paul II.

"There's a long tradition of co-opting supposed Christian loyalties to a political agenda or to a state's agenda," says Warren Carter.

"But I think that's where the tension or the ambivalence in the saying is so important, because the tension provides a space in which Jesus followers live. 

"When the things of Caesar and the things of God are understood to be aligning very readily and quickly, that's the time to push the pause button. It's time to do the discernment rather than just sort of blindly charge ahead."

Guests in this episode:

Mitzi J Smith is Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Ga., and the author of Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation (Cascade 2018), Insights from African-American Interpretation (Fortress Press, 2017), and the co-author of Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction (Cascade 2018).

Warren Carter is Professor of New Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla. and the author of The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), Matthew and the Margins: A Religious and Socio-Political Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), and Wisdom Commentary: Mark, a gender-focused reading of Mark's Gospel.

*This episode was produced by Sean Foley.

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