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Render Unto Caesar

Posted on: October 13, 2019

Category: Theology

Render Unto Caesar

Quest Thoughts: Render Unto Caesar

The headline on the Twitter feed read, “'Prominent Christian activist' says that Evangelicals have a 'moral obligation' to vote for Trump." Christian activists used to be people like Tommy Douglas or Martin Luther King, Jr., and their activism concerned social justice. The “activist” in the Tweet is Ralph Reed, someone who I don’t think deserves such a compliment. His “moral obligation” idea comes from, it appears, the verse in Mark 12: 17, “Render unto Caesar/Trump the things that belong to Caesar/Trump, and to God what belongs to God.” Reed believes that one of the things that belongs to both Trump and God is your vote.

The reference to "render unto Caesar" raises a lot of questions, and, for critical thinkers, there are three in particular. Did Jesus really say, “render unto Caesar”? Was this saying meant to support Caesar? And does the saying imply that “Christians” today (there being no Christians in Jesus’ lifetime) have a moral obligation to support a politician?

Did Jesus really say this? Most biblical scholars think yes. The saying is aphoristic in style; it is deliberately ambiguous. Like an authentic parable of Jesus, it is hard to know exactly what it means. Plus, the saying is found in the Gospel of Thomas (a non-canonical gospel), which attests to its earlier circulation in oral tradition. The aphorism relates Caesar and God, but ambiguously raises the question about what each of these two deserves.

Traditionally translated as “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and unto God what belongs to God,” there is no specific Greek word for "belong" in the saying. The saying can be translated as render to Caesar what is "deserved" or what is "right" or even what is "of" Caesar and to God what is deserved, right, or of God. So, the saying implies that we, the hearer, have something for Caesar and we have something for God. Are these the same or different things? If we are religious and think of God as a supernatural reality, and if we are sympathetic to Reed, then we might answer the question this way: give our votes to Caesar and prayers to God. Equally, we might think that votes and prayers are the same thing: what you pray for is also what you vote for. Still, despite Reed's heroic effort to make Republican votes and Christian prayers go together, the ambiguity of the original saying remains. It’s not clear if God and Caesar are pals.

Rather, the saying makes or should make us ask this: what does Caesar really deserve (what is really Caesar's due) and what does God really deserve? If the saying is a Jesus saying, it is spoken to peasants in ancient Galilee. That someone in the crowd had a spare coin to offer Jesus is already outrageous. Among the poorest of the poor, no one had spare change to use so casually for show and tell. This part of the story is probably the gospel writer Mark's construction. Still, aside from the uncertain historical setting, the questions remain. What does Caesar really deserve and what does God really deserve?

I am quite certain the answer is that Caesar deserves a revolution, which is exactly what Caesar got in the year 70 CE and again in the year 132 CE. The Jewish people did indeed revolt against Rome after the lifetime of Jesus. If Caesar deserves a revolution, what about God? What does God deserve? If people like Ralph Reed read the Bible, they would know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. did, that God deserves justice. According to Amos 5:21-23, God is not interested in worship and prayers. God even hates worship and prayers. God deserves justice. That does not tell any Christian, or anyone of another religion, who to vote for. That's not the role of religion. But it should make us think about where to cast our vote. Religion does not tell us how to think, but at its best, it should make us think.

Christian activism, if it were true to the Gospels and to the memory of the prophets, would advocate non-violent resistance against perpetrators of injustice and cooperation with agencies of justice. These would be acts that render unto Caesar what Caesar deserves and, biblically speaking, unto God what God deserves.

©By David Galston

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