Common Cause Makes for Strange Bedfellows

The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.” Mt 22:15-21
Who would have thought. Herodians and Pharisees making common cause. But Jesus posed such a threat to each, that for different reasons they set aside their very real theological differences in order to put a stop to one man and his message.

They come to Christ and they ask what appears to be a rather simple question, clothed in flattery. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If he says no, the Herodians will report to Rome that he indeed is a rebel and can be suppressed as a revolutionary element. If he says yes, the Pharisees will condemn him as a hypocrite, and not the reformer he is becoming noted for.

Jesus, being wiser than them all, sees the ploy and deftly steps aside. Innocently, he asks to see the coin of which they speak. By producing it of course, they condemn themselves. The denarius (the coin of Rome) is not legal tender among Jews, nor is it acceptable payment at the temple. Jews coin their own money for trade between themselves. The denarius, which reflects the Emperor as “God” is blasphemous. No pious Jew should be in possession of it.

This passage is well known to the average Christian, and for that reason, people don’t think deeply about it I suspect. I surely didn’t, I know. Everyone knows the refrain, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God, that which is God’s”. True enough. Yet we seldom examine that phrase.

Some of our Christian community uses the statement as a means of arguing to others, that we are to obey lawful authority in their “realm”, but somehow divide that from our allegiance to God and that “realm”.

Yet, this is faulty and not what Jesus said.

For what is “that which is God’s?” Is it not everything? What is not the province of God?

Is Jesus pointing out to us that Caesar (the State) represents merely “things”, all of which, like the denarius, are worthless in the realm of God. They are meaningless, and should be handed over without thought or concern.

God, controls all that is of value. And we owe God literally everything.

While his opponents place great value on money and power and who is owed what, Jesus, unbeknownst to them, laughs at their concerns and points out that they, like Martha, worry about many things.

Do we rightly discern what belongs to Caesar today?



8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Oct 16, 2011 @ 15:45:15

    Sherry, once again it seems we were in each other’s heads! How reassuring for me. But I marvel all the more at what you’ve given us here, because it also turns out you and my pastor were also in each other’s heads!

    Your question about all things being God’s synchs perfectly with an unforgettable and winsome metaphor she used this morning. She said we try to keep everything compartmentalized–our faith life in one drawer, social life in another, and political leanings in another. But we forget all our drawers belong to the same desk. “I’ve never compared God to a desk before. But sometimes these things come to me,” she said with a chuckle.

    What both of you say so beautifully in different ways takes this oft-told story to a very profound place. Only what belongs to Caesar is Caesar’s. But in the end what belongs to Caesar ultimately belongs to God. Wow.

    Thank you, thank you. I’ll never forget your words here, either. How blessed I am to be surrounded by so many spiritually astute friends!

    Blessings always,


    • Sherry
      Oct 17, 2011 @ 11:40:45

      Tim, it seems more usual than not that we do. Caesar has but a fleeting possession and I suspect that when you really talk to most of the rich, you find some very serious dissatisfaction with all the stuff. I think of Steve Jobs, who seemed like a basically decent person who was a genius of sorts in what he did, yet all his millions made no difference at all when he was struck by disease. That should give us all pause to remember who is in charge, and what is important. I so enjoy waiting for your posts each week. Blessings, Sherry


  2. reimagineimago
    Oct 16, 2011 @ 20:52:59

    Thanks for the mention, I’m looking forward to checking out your posts when I have a little more time, I’m going to book mark you and come back later this week.


  3. Criado de Verdade
    Oct 16, 2011 @ 21:28:03

    Thanks for reading my post, i was inspired to write about it because of the current situation in our country with proposed bills promoting the culture of death, disguising as “reproductive health” and politicians chanting about separation of Church and State. I did not even know it was the gospel that week, only came to know when i attended Holy Mass. Please Pray for my beloved country. May the Triune God abundantly bless you!


    • Sherry
      Oct 17, 2011 @ 11:38:13

      I do not believe we live in a “culture of death”. I believe that we are doing the best we can to care for all people, and to be sensitive to the beliefs of others. Reproductive health is a serious concern to women. If you believe otherwise, then I am sorry for that. We do, and have always had a clear separation of church and state in the country, and to argue that it not be so, is to refuse to see the lessons of history throughout the world where such a marriage has led to horrors untold. I too pray for the country and for the world that we learn to live with our differences with respect and love, realizing that God in infinite wisdom speaks to all humanity in the manner that is best suited to reach them. God bless you as well.


      • Tim
        Oct 17, 2011 @ 17:28:01

        Sherry, I join you in all you say. The compulsion to weaken or remove hard and fast boundaries between church and state is a perilous proposition. While I admire the purity of heart and fervor of many who advocate crossing that line as a means of guarding against moral decay in our nation and communities, I tremble at the enormous risks and ruin we invite–as Americans and Christians.

        Once we board that toboggan, we’re on a slippery slope that arrives at one of two destinations–neither of which is conducive to religious freedom and civil equality that define a democratic society. Either our faiths and houses of worship will be subjected to suffocating government scrutiny and ruling parties’ agendas. Or our government of, by, and for the people–all people–will become a full-on theocracy that silences anyone who doesn’t adhere to the state-sanctioned creed.

        What would that look like in today’s world? The People’s Republic of China on one extreme, and Iran and Saudi Arabia on the other. And it’s futile to argue the melding of church and state can be managed in such a way to prevent extremism of either kind. What it does is endow one entity or the other with absolute power; and absolute power is the breeding ground for immoral abuses and oppression.

        That’s the fallacy in conjecture that legislating Christ’s teachings will bring a nation into conformity with Christ’s kingdom principles. As you point out, it’s been tried over and over, yet never achieved. On the contrary, it’s always produced the very evils that Jesus came to defeat and deliver us from. He was very clear about this when He stressed, “The kingdom of God is within you.” By it’s very nature, faith is an intensely personal thing that demands personal choices and courage to withstand human proclivity for moral, social, and political corruption. It must be found, nurtured, and acted upon individually. It cannot be levied by human authority, nor enforced by any legal means. It just can’t, because it was never God’s intention that it could, since it gives lie to Christ’s entire mission–drawing each of us into right relationship with God.

        It baffles me why so many don’t get this. As you’ve already explained, first-century Jews most certainly got it. Palestine was the only Roman colony to insist on and maintain separation of religion and state. The dangers of losing their faith to Rome’s cultural steamroller were very real to them. And to a one, they were ready to die to keep the high wall dividing faith and government standing before they’d allow Caesar to dictate their beliefs. We should be willing to do the same–and just because we belong to the religious majority in America doesn’t endow us with any more right to dictate the beliefs and values of those who don’t, either. God never gave Israel that right, even when it was a self-ruling theocracy. Repeatedly God charged them with not welcoming the foreigners in their midst, oppressing them with their religious laws and customs. If we think God thinks any differently about us mandating Christian compliance for non-Christians among us, we need to think again.

        Sorry for the tirade. It springs from deep-set concern that the constant rabble of misguided Christian zealotry will lead our nation further from God than it already is.


      • Sherry
        Oct 18, 2011 @ 12:40:07

        Oh Tim, by all means. I thank you for what you said. I try to provide a couple of links to other points of view, and one never is quite sure how zealous an advocate one will find. I very much applaud the love of God that produces such passion, but I too worry deeply that in our determination to bring the kingdom forth, we rely on our faulty human understanding of exactly what that is. Jesus reminds us in his parable about the Samaritan and his general treatment of several Romans, that people of different faith traditions or sects, were not outside the province of being “good” from God’s point of view. We are in error I think when we start defining who is and who is not “doing God’s work.”

        When government and church marry, an unholy alliance is formed. One or the other is co-opted to do the bidding of the other, and both are the worse for it. Peace to you my friend. Sherry

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