Martin Jenkins reflects on an often quoted Bible saying
Jesus said: ‘…render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22:21)
This saying is often quoted – more often by the partisans of Caesar than by those of God – but is not well understood. Even Henry Thoreau missed the point. He wrote that Jesus left his questioners ‘no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know’.
On the second point Thoreau was right: they did not wish to know; but Jesus left them in no doubt about what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.
Jesus was addressing Jews, educated Jews, Pharisees and people who knew their scripture. They asked him a trick question; he gave them a trick answer. They could not have heard the second part of his reply without thinking of the opening verse of Psalm 24: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.’
In other words, give God what belongs to him: that is, everything. Caesar is welcome to the nothing that is left over. No wonder they went away amazed.
What this means for us is simple but terrifying. We are called to obey God absolutely. The only question in any situation is: what does God require of us? Whatever the answer, it may be consistent with Caesar’s expectations, indifferent to them, or opposed to them. The fact is that Caesar’s demands are, in the face of the only question, irrelevant.
Jesus answered the question subtly. He had (if I may use the phrase) a wicked sense of humour; but his subtlety has allowed people over the years to misrepresent what he said.
Fortunately, the hopelessly unsubtle Peter expressed the same idea more directly: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).
You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.