You’re a first century inhabitant of Palestine. Jesus’s bold messages, interspersed with amazing miracles, are challenging everyone to forsake all for the unique opportunity of eternal reconciliation with God. He issues subtle and blatant warnings against the conceit of those who presume themselves to be the rightful custodians of Jewish moral life.
After his transfiguration before Peter, John and James on a mountain, Jesus descends to enter Jerusalem. His actions can hardly be construed as acceptance of mob adulation, but the crowds do proclaim Him as the rightful Messiah of the Jews. Yet, his entry on the ‘foal of an ass’ poses no military threat to imperial Rome. He prophetically cleanses the temple of the traders who, by imposing tariffs on converting foreign currency to legal tender for temple taxes, subvert its intended purpose as a ‘house of prayer’ for God-fearers of all nations.
In spite of their mortal enmity towards Him, the chief priests and teachers of the law are forced to work around His exceptional grass-roots popularity (‘the people hung on His words’), wary of offending the mob and inciting an open revolt by imprisoning Him. Yet, his verbal onslaught on them through the parallel stories and overt condemnation continues unabated.
It is within this context, that a cunning, disingenuous question is contrived to discredit Him. Those posing the question want to make a case against Him of open sedition against Rome. If Christ has undermined the system of currency conversion for temple tribute, how far will He go in establishing divine authority on earth, the kingdom of God? This is the added subtext of the question: ‘Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?’ We might well ask the same today of any institution in which the civil and religious duties are considered to overlap. For instance, is marriage a civil or divine institution? When does religion or secular authority have the greater claim on Christians?
Imagine presenting Christ with the same dilemma today, but in relation to marriage. If He says marriage should be a purely divine institution free from State impositions and requirements, he risks the accusation of undermining the legitimate protection afforded by State authority. If He says marriage is a secular institution, His own demand for submission to God is undermined by capitulating to State power. He cannot have it both ways. As He Himself said, ‘No man can serve two masters’.
There are two key aspects of His response to note:
1. Tough, impartial-sounding questions can often be posed by opponents with prejudices. Christ’s personal evidentiary demand and counter-question exposed human biases.
Christ’s demand exposed the prejudices of His interrogators by asking them to produce a Roman coin in the Temple Courts where He taught. Those sent to trip Him up had no problem producing coins inscribed with the blasphemous title and image of Caesar. Their ownership of a coin bearing the inscription: ‘Tiberias, son of the god, Augustus’ revealed their capitulation to imperial authority.
Of course, the mineral wealth of the world belongs to God. However, part of that wealth was converted into special denarius coinage, struck in Gaul and issued for very specific Roman transactions by order of the Emperor. These coins desecrated the sacred temple in flagrant contravention of the first commandment: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’. Clearly, the opponents were completely in thrall to Rome. Ownership of such coinage proved that they were biased and insincere. It exposed the unworthy motives behind the question that they posed.
Today, Christ might have demanded that church leaders, contending over the right of the State or church to define marriage, show Him a marriage certificate. He might even challenge them to describe ‘the image and superscription’ that the document bears. As with the denarius, marriage certificates are issued by secular government. In England, they bear the stamp: General Register Office.
On that basis, the established church should accept that, while it has a significant voice in society and may, in its canons, define Holy Matrimony, the implied acceptance of the civil dictates of marriage registration involves an abandonment of the right to monopolise the definition of marriage. This is not stated to assert an Erastian insistence on submission to the State in all things. Yet, if the church claims that the true nature of marriage is grounded in scripture, the dual role of priests as licensed marriage registrars belies a compromise with the State.
2. When we are serious about our responsibility towards God, Christ’s demand sets the condition for discovering the divinely imposed extent of civic duty.
We must first surrender the denarius and its modern day equivalents to Caesar: Christians must abandon the instruments of worldly privilege and promotion accorded by the State: ‘Return to Caesar the things of Caesar’. This seditious secession might ultimately result in disestablishment. Nevertheless, once we have done this, we can lose our worldly bias. We can then rightly begin to ‘render to God, the things of God.’