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Render Unto Caesar

daily-verses-background-wide

What is God’s view of government in the Bible? It’s a pretty simple question which can be illustrated with four figures in the Old Testament, yet many botch up the answer terribly. That’s propaganda for you.

Nimrod

The first mention of government in the Bible is Genesis 10. We don’t know a lot about Nimrod from the text itself, but tradition holds that he was a king who attempted to build a tower into the heavens to find God or escape judgment. God was displeased and confounded man’s language, destroying Nimrod’s attempt at world government in direct opposition to God.

Samuel\Saul

Politically conservative Christians will compare America to the nation of Israel in many ways, but you rarely see this passage brought up. Some highlights:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.

Samuel went on to negatively describe government, including taxation and conscription. He anointed Saul king of Israel, and Saul was an unmitigated disaster. When God commanded him to destroy the Amalekites without spoiling them, Saul presumptuously overrode God’s command, leading to his rejection as king.

David

The story of David is a perfect example of how power corrupts. David was like a superman: brave, wise, merciful, intelligent, thoughtful, and talented\attractive. He was a man after God’s own heart; yet he shirked his duties, committed adultery, murdered someone to cover it up and ended up splitting the kingdom. Politicians tend to do that kind of thing.

Nebuchadnezzar

Nebuchadnezzar was described as a pretty arrogant guy until God caused him to lose his mind and live like a wild animal for seven years “In order that the living may know That the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, Gives it to whomever He will, And sets over it the lowest of men.’” At this point, many Christians would hasten to point out that according to this, God appoints world leaders, so we should at least respect and obey them (which is fine as far as it goes). The Bible says we should respect and obey everyone. More often than not, the idea of respecting authority isn’t tempered with another Biblical concept: dust on the scales. In other words, nations don’t really exist or matter much to God.

Render Unto Caesar

This brings me to an incident in Matthew 22:15-22 which is highly misinterpreted:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

The interpretation given for this is basically “pay your taxes,” or “submit to authority.” On the surface, this is pretty weak and obviously wrong. The Pharisees were trying to ensnare him with an impossible to answer question. They did this all the time, and Jesus was cagey and subtle in his answers to the point that his opponents always walked away scratching their heads. This is no exception. If they asked Jesus if they should pay their taxes and he simply said “yes,” then why did they walk away marveling? They wanted him to say either yes or no because both were the wrong answer. The Jews were looking for a Messiah that would smash their Roman oppressors. Paying taxes to Rome was highly anathema to the traditions and laws of Judaism.

Whose Image and Inscription is This?

This question gets overlooked. Why did Jesus ask it and what did the inscription say? At the time of Christ, Tiberius was emperor and the coin would have borne his image or the image of his predecessor Augustus. The inscription on the coin bearing Augustus would have read:

CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE

Being interpreted: “Caesar Augustus, Son of God, Father of His Country.” Were the Jews to pay tribute to a man who presumed to call himself God? That’s why this was a trick question. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, so how could he say yes? At the same time, Jesus was an influential figure and if he said no, it could have incited violence. Both outcomes would have given the Pharisees justification to call for His execution. We tend to view this passage through American eyes, seeing the coin as a meaningless token. We think Christ asked to see the coin merely to point out that God has appointed rulers and allowed them to levy taxes. We fail to understand that Rome was not a secular state, but a pagan one with a ritualistic religion and mythology. Their rulers claimed to be descended from the gods and used this as justification for their atrocities.

The Real Answer

Much like when they brought Him the adulterous woman, Jesus turned this question around to indict the Pharisees. The Pharisees got cozy with Roman officials so they could enjoy a position of power. That’s WHY he called them hypocrites! The ordinary man on the street was forced to pay the tax at the threat of violence (taxes are always collected with the threat of violence). He may have paid protection money to stay out of jail, but he didn’t like it. The Pharisees collaborated with Rome, worshiped at the altar of power and paid tribute out of their hearts. They rendered unto Caesar. In contrast, we should seek to render unto God:

Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats:
For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he:
Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.
The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up, and lose thy sweet words.

Christ’s words clearly have a spiritual application, but what’s the political application today? There isn’t one. People definitely still worship power, but our leaders don’t claim to be God anymore. I find it peculiar that this passage is used to justify submission when it’s actually an acknowledgment in black and white from God Himself that worldly government is an affront to Him. Should you pay taxes and obey government edicts and bureaucrats? The answer is yes, but the reason is not because God commands us to do it in this passage or anywhere else. The reason is because if you don’t, you’ll likely end up shot or beaten up and in jail. Let’s not sugar coat that fact by attempting to put a veneer of spirituality over it.

I think we’ve done this because for some time, Christians in this country have lived under the misapprehension that government can or should support their values, as long as it’s structured correctly. Additionally, Americans have this strange, self-hating slogan in their minds that “we are the government”, just because we have elections. The Soviet Union had elections, North Korea has elections. I struggled with this myself. How could I in good conscience pay my taxes when I knew the money was going to many things which I find morally reprehensible? Was it justifiable to continue to submit just to selfishly maintain my freedom? The answer is yes because I have a gun to my head if I don’t submit. It’s called duress. This country is run by big corporations, not We the People. Taxes are through the roof. Military spending is ludicrous and makes us less safe. Our leaders are narcissistic sycophants who lie with impunity and create terrorists. It’s not “us” doing this. None of “us” voted for it, and Jesus certainly didn’t command us to mindlessly submit to it. Christ told us that to “render unto Caesar,” means to sacrifice your beliefs at the altar of power. Let’s stop telling people to do that.

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