Let’s think together about Jesus’s words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). They raise the issue of church and state, of the Christian’s relationship to the state in connection to his relationship to God.
The Pharisees are aiming to entangle Jesus in a trap. They intend to hang him on the horns of a dilemma. So they come and they say, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (Matthew 22:16). We know you speak the way of God with faithfulness, and that you are not impressed by anybody’s faith and don’t cow to anybody’s opinion. This is called buttering up. Jesus is going to call it malicious, because they really don’t give a rip what Jesus thinks. They mean to entangle him, to trap him. How? “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17).
The Pharisees and Herodians are there, which makes it a politically super-charged situation. Pharisees have a high-powered allegiance to the Old Testament and to the people of Israel. The Herodians are, by name, Herod supporters. Herod is a lackey governor of the Roman Empire, the occupiers of Israel — not popular people among the Jews. And so their question to Jesus is a kind of set up.
The question will hang Jesus either way, because if he says, “Yes, pay them,” then he is a traitor to the Jewish cause. He would be answering in favor of the Roman overlords, which would infuriate the Jews. They hate being occupied by a foreign government. Therefore, supporting these taxes would be betraying his own people. On the other hand, if he says, “No, don’t pay,” then he becomes a revolutionary against Roman rule. He’s in trouble either way, and that is what they wanted. They wanted to ruin this man’s reputation one way or another.
Give to God What Is God’s
What will Jesus do? Jesus says, “Show me the coin for the tax” (Matthew 22:19). So they give him a coin. He says, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (22:20). They say, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s . . . ” (22:21). Now, if he had stopped right there, that would have communicated: Pay. And he would have been out of sorts with the Jews. So they were excited that he had hung himself on one of the horns of this dilemma. And then he opens his mouth and says, “And render to God the things that are God’s” (22:21). Matthew says they were amazed and walked away.
What just happened? A lot of people might say: Well, he just cleverly dodged the question. It was a politically shrewd thing to do to just escape from the dilemma. Is that what that was? I don’t think so. It is true that Jesus didn’t give us the answer about the relationship between Caesar and God on a platter, like, “Here are three steps for how to relate to the state.” He did not define the scope of things that belong to Caesar. He didn’t define the scope of things that belong to God. He left it open. He didn’t define the relationship. He only says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesars and give to God the things that are God’s.”
What Belongs to God?
Jesus is looking us right in the eye and saying: Think about what I am saying. Am I really dodging the issue here? Aren’t I really giving you the answer that you need? Let’s think for a moment about his answer. What belongs to God? “Render the things to God that belong to God.” Everything belongs to God. Caesar belongs to God. All the things that belong to Caesar belong to God. All the rights that Caesar has belong to God. I think Jesus wanted us to linger here over the implications of everything belongs to God and Caesar is part of everything.
The first implication is that everything Caesar has and all the authority that he rightfully claims is derivative from what God has and what God claims. Remember Pilate and Jesus. Jesus is on trial for his life. He looks at Pilate, not saying anything, and Pilate says to him, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (John 19:10). Do you remember what Jesus said? “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Caesar and all of his lackeys — the entire state of every nation on the planet — has the authority it has only under the sovereignty of God, which means whatever they can claim they claim derivatively.
Submission Here on Earth Has Limits
The second implication is that Caesar’s sphere of authority is limited. In Acts 5:28, the apostles are being told to quit teaching in Jerusalem about the resurrection of Jesus. They say: Look, you may think it is right to obey man rather than God. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We don’t care what authority you have. Our God has superior authority. Yours is limited. We will follow God. There is a limitation put on human authority and state authority because if any human authority tells us to do anything that contradicts what God tells us to do, we say no. There’s a limitation.
The last implication is that all of our submission to Caesar is shaped by the fact that God owns everything. We still do render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Romans 13 is all about submitting to government. But our submission to any government is shaped by the fact that God owns everything. We submit for the Lord’s sake. That little phrase, “for the Lord’s sake,” is a banner flying over all submission to human authority.
We Christians should be a humble, submissive people. We should keep the speed limit. If we are children, we should obey our parents. If we are church members, we should submit to our leaders. If we are wives, we should submit to our husbands. If we are employees, we should get in on time, and leave on time, and not fudge on what the employer expects of us. We are a people who submit.
But we do not submit because any human authority claims us. They don’t. We do it for the Lord’s sake. Therefore, if I render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and he asks: “Why are you doing this?” I will never say, “Because you have final authority in my life.” I will never say, “Because you are God.” I will always say, “I am rendering allegiance to you, because I have an authority over you.” Paradoxically, our submission to Caesar is seditious as soon as Caesar claims to be God. We don’t ever go beyond the rightful claims of Caesar under God.
Christians are law-abiding people. We pay our taxes. We drive the speed limit. (Do we?) We keep our grass cut. If I get a ticket from Hennepin County, and they say, “You have too much debris in your backyard,” I don’t say, “Who are you to tell me how much debris I can have?” No, I just go and clean it up. That is what I do, and I should have done it sooner. My disposition is to comply.
But we never render to any authority under God absolute allegiance. We never give unlimited, unconditional obedience. We never say, “I submit to you because you are my final authority.” We always do it for Christ’s sake, which turns our obedience to human authorities into worship to God.