There are some phrases in the Bible which can lose their sense of gravitas in more modern translations. One from this morning’s Gospel is a case in point. ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…..’ is all very well, but it rather lacks the ring of ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’
‘Render to Caesar – render to God’. These are powerful words to convey a powerful message – yet one which is possibly one of the hardest of Jesus’ sayings to apply in practice.
Jesus was speaking these words to the Pharisees, and the writer of Matthew’s Gospel is clear that it was their intention to trap him. ‘Is it lawful,’ they ask, ‘to pay taxes to Caesar—to the occupying Roman authority?’ If Jesus had answered ‘no’ they would have been able to accuse him of disloyalty to Rome. If, on the other hand, he had answered ‘yes’, then he would have been seen as disloyal to his own people. He was being set up to fail, whichever answer he gave. So instead of giving the Pharisees a direct answer to their binary question, he delivered the master-stroke of putting the ball back into their court:
‘Give to the emperor (render unto Caesar) what is Cesar’s – and to God what is God’s.’
Because Jesus refused to give the Pharisees a direct answer, and the reply he gave, it means that his questioners had to go away and work it out for themselves. And there’s an important principle here. The Bible—and in particular, the teaching of Jesus within it—is not an instruction manual, with a ready answer or proof text for every moral problem we might face—but instead a collection of writings which serves to reveal the character of God. And from our understanding of God’s character flow principles by which we must then work out the specifics for ourselves.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are moral and ethical absolutes in the Bible. The instructions not to kill, or to steal, within the Ten Commandments, are specifics which have a vital part to play within the moral framework of a compassionate and civilised society.
But when Jesus summarised the law, he did so by pointing not to a range of commandments or regulations, but to the need to love the Lord our God, and to love our neighbour as ourself. From this, it’s then up to us to determine—in the light of what we know of the character of God, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit—how we should behave across a whole range of situations.
So what about ‘render to Caesar’ and ‘render to God?’ How we order our lives as Christians in civil society is a difficult issue, and it’s one which faithful people have struggled with over many centuries.
Many of us will remember the famous line ‘We don’t do God,’ when Alastair Campbell ticked off the then Prime Minister Tony Blair for mentioning the God-word in the course of his daily work. So if politicians don’t do God, maybe Christians should not do Caesar! At first glance, it might seem that Jesus is saying that we need to ‘carve up life neatly into two bits: the God-bit on the one hand and the world-bit on the other’ (render to God, and render to Caesar) – keep them well apart and we’ll be fine. It’s a tempting thought, but it sets up a dualism which isn’t only unhealthy, but which also strikes at the very root of the Christian Gospel: that God so loved the world, that he took human flesh and became one of us. I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying, nor do I believe that this is ever an option for us. Because of the incarnation, God and Caesar are mixed up, whether we like it or not.
As English Anglicans, as part of an established Church, we are forever coming into contact with those who order our national and local life and institutions: politicians, lawyers, councillors, the armed forces, education and commerce...... Over this part fortnight, we have had a range of services here at which we have welcomed civic leaders, representatives of the criminal justice system, community groups and the University. A major part of the work of any cathedral consists in forging links with those in what might be called ‘secular’ authority – but for what purpose? I believe that, as Christians, one of our tasks is constantly to try and bring the values of God’s rule—what the Gospel writers call the ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’—to bear upon the society we inhabit, without neglecting our duty to our nation, nor our duty to God.
At a basic level, all Christians are to be responsible citizens. We are to pay our taxes and through that, to support a way of maintaining our common life: through provision of healthcare, defence, education and so on. We are to use our privileges with wisdom and discernment. We have a vote and we are able to exercise it as we see fit. Within this congregation there will inevitably be a variety of political stances, as one might expect from a group of this size and mix. One person will vote differently from another, but hopefully if both are Christians, they will vote having first prayerfully considered how that vote should be cast. If we are serious in believing that God is able to influence things for good through those in leadership, then we must be praying that he will do so and, where possible, do so through us. St Paul wrote to Timothy:
‘I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.’ (1 Timothy 2.1-2)
But what about when things go seriously wrong – when a government abandons its moral compass? What then? How, as Christians, do we respond? If we find that we disagree—and at least in this nation we have the right to disagree—how far should our disagreement lead to direct action? Should we write to our MP? Should we go on a protest march? What about civil disobedience? It all gets very difficult, and there are of course no simple answers. Many Christians are quite clear that we have a duty to confront injustice and that there are times when we must oppose the perpetrators of that injustice. The stance of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany during the Second World War was a case in point, with key figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer being prepared to oppose the evil regime and face death as a result. They felt they could do none other. But their refusal to render to the particular Caesar of that time and place came from a conviction that they were rendering to God that which was God’s.
The two sayings of Jesus have a sense of balance about them: ‘render to Caesar: render to God’. It could be said that if we are genuinely rendering to God all that is due to God, then our duty towards Caesar becomes clearer. The Pharisees had a very blinkered view of what was due to God; for them, faith consisted in the observance of a set of religious rules (albeit for good reasons), whereas Jesus points to faith being about love of God and love of neighbour. If the Pharisees had seen that, they might have understood that a proper regard for the things of Caesar would flow from the nature of their relationship with God.
It’s never easy, but it does matter. It’s also worth setting this issue alongside St Paul’s reminder to the Philippians that our ultimate citizenship is a citizenship of heaven (Philippians 3.20).
This cuts two ways. First it reminds is that as citizens (in our ‘rendering to Caesar’) we must always to have in mind the values of God’s kingdom. We must commit to justice, to mercy and to support the vulnerable in our world. But also, to say that ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ is to say that this world is not all that there is. Earthly systems of government and leadership are inevitably flawed: they are the work of human beings who, at the end of the day, are like any of us – with the tendency to look out for number one in preference to caring for a neighbour. But the Christian hope is not for this world alone, but is a hope of the new creation.
Our citizenship of heaven means that we are always to look forward – not to a dream of some earthly Utopia – but to the time when God’s purposes for the created order will be complete; when all that we see as signs of a fallen world will be absent. We pray continually for this and, as Christians, we hope for this, and meanwhile we continue to work it out amidst the ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world’. For the time being we must rely on the wisdom of Jesus:
‘render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s’
Grant us, O God, your protection;
and in your protection, strength;
and in strength, understanding;
and in understanding, knowledge;
and in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
and in the knowledge of justice, the love of justice;
and in that love, the love of God and neighbour,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.