Earlier this week I was reading a lecture by the English bishop and scholar N.T. Wright. In it, he argues that the Enlightenment shaped our modern worldview in two primary ways. First, he said, it separated church and state which led to a mindset of a removed God who is concerned about heavenly things while we deal with earthly matters. And second, it divided people into one of two camps: those for revolution verses those who seek to preserve the present order; the roots of liberalism and conservatism. So here we are, several centuries removed from the Enlightenment and religion has become largely a private matter because God is relegated to “up there” and banned from the public square. The liberal/conservative polarization means that every idea must be pushed in one direction or the other and then fought over rather than be evaluated on its own merits.
These assumptions of the way things are and work were not the worldview held by our biblical ancestors. In the first reading we see Moses in dialogue with the Living God pleading for the Holy One to be present with the people and to rest in their midst. The gospel reading gives us insight into the politics of Jesus’ day. There were no liberals or conservatives, just a dominant foreign ruling power - the Romans. Among the Jews, there were capitulators (like the Herodians) and there were faithful purists. The purists were divided between nationalists, zealots, separatists, and others.
When Jesus says “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” we today interpret this through our post-Enlightenment worldview. We hear it as a directive for each person to determine what he or she will give to God and we evaluate what the state does with its take based on our liberal or conservative ideology.
Jesus’ listeners would have heard something very different. His words cut right to the heart of the political and theological debate of the time. Caesar demanded that every person under Rome’s control worship him as a deity. For a faithful Jews who serve only the true and living God, this is not possible. And Caesar’s profile inscribed on a coin is for them a graven image and a tangible, concrete symbol of this issue. Faithful Jews avoided the currency at all costs. It is a small but striking detail that the Herodian capitulators had to produce a coin for Jesus. He, like all other faithful Jews, would not be carrying one and certainly not in the Temple.
For Jesus, this teaching was not what it is for us. It was not a message about stewardship and paying taxes. First and foremost, it was a clever way to extricate himself from a trap that, if not handled well, could have resulted in charges of insurrection. Beyond this, Jesus’ true intention is up for debate. Was he calling on people to do what they had to do in order to get along? Was he calling for people to resist, knowing that all things belong to God? Was he doing something else altogether?
If you like to read the bible, Peter Enns has written a helpful book titled The Bible Tells Me So: why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. In it he sets out what he calls the 10 Commandments for reading the bible. Let me share of few of them with you:
1. The Bible doesn’t answer all — or even most — of our questions. Many of our questions, even some of the more pressing questions we face daily, aren’t answered in the Bible. The Christian Bible isn’t an answer book but a story of how Jesus answers for us the biggest question of all: what God is like.
5. The Bible is open to multiple interpretations, not just one meaning. The Bible is ancient and obscure, and its stories are “gapped” and flexible, which allows — even demands — readers to interpret the Bible legitimately in various ways. This is exactly what has been happening among Jews and Christians for over 2,000 years.
6. The Bible invites debate. In fact, it can’t avoid it, given how open it is to multiple interpretations. Winning Bible feuds with others, getting to the right answer, isn’t the end goal. The back-and-forth with the Bible, and with God, is where deeper faith is found.
8. The Bible was written by Jews (and at least one Gentile in the New Testament) in ancient times. This may sound too obvious to say, but it’s not. The biblical writers were ancient writers expressing their faith in God using the vocabulary and concepts of their ancient cultures. When we transpose our language and concepts onto biblical writers, even if we are trying to understand the Bible, we will actually distort it.
Keeping all of this in mind, let me say that debates about civic duty as well as reflection on the nature of Christian stewardship are both important endeavors for every baptized person. These are our issues and concerns and, to use Enns’ language, we have transposed them onto Jesus’ words “Render unto Caesar…”, thus making it speak to something very different than it did in its original context.
I wonder if we Christians would be better served by adopting the worldview of our biblical ancestors. By doing so, we would hold to God’s intimate presence in all aspects of our life and we would set ourselves apart from capitulation to the dominate Caesar of our day – the modern secular culture that lifts up pleasure, possessions, and personal freedom as the keys to happiness. We live in opposition to this as we live faithfully into our baptismal promises. The tension between modern culture and our baptismal covenant is every bit as deep and as layered as the tension between Rome and Jerusalem was in Jesus’ day. Can we live with a foot firmly entrenched in both kingdoms or do we need to make a decisive choice for one over the other? Now there is a question that invites debate and is open to multiple interpretations. How might render unto Caesar and render unto God contribute to our conversation around this question?
I keep a folder for every specific Sunday in the three-year lectionary cycle. In each folder I keep printed copies of my old sermons, commentaries and snippets on those passages, and an occasional note or two. Earlier in the week I looked through today’s folder and found a note I had written to myself 3, 6, 9, or 12 years ago, I don’t remember. I have a vague memory of a thought that came to me sometime during a service when I preached on this text. I thought it might be worthy of further exploration in a future sermon and I didn’t want to forget it. The note says only this, “Whose image is inscribed on you?”
Whose image is inscribed on you? What values and beliefs does your life reflect? What witness is made by the way you live your life? Are you a product of the culture or a person baptized into the Christian faith and life? Whose image is inscribed on you?
The other day I saw a picture of a man who got a tattoo so that his bald head looked like a New England Patriot’s football helmet. That speaks loud and clear about something that is central and dear to him, doesn’t it. You and I bear a tattoo on our foreheads where the oil of chrism at baptism marked us as Christ’s own forever. It is, of course, an invisible inscription that we make visible through our lives and actions. Is that the image you want people to see inscribed on you?