Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Render to Caesar

Luis E. Lugo


April 13, 2012

By Luis E. Lugo

In honor of tax day, we are republishing the following edited excerpts, originally published  in the Public Justice Report in 1995, from Dr. Luis Lugo's paper, "Caesar's Coin and the Politics of the Kingdom," published as Caesar's Coin Revisited: Christians and the Limits of Government, Edited by Michael Cromartie, Eerdmans/Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1996.

We know from the context in which Jesus said "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17, RSV) that he used a visual aid. Jesus held up a royal denarius and drew attention to the image and inscription on the coin. […]

It is also clear that those who posed the question about whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar were trying to trap Jesus. If he answered their question in the negative, … he would be charged with sedition or treason, both capital offenses; if he answered in the positive, the Pharisees would immediately denounce him as a sell-out to an occupying power and would thus discredit him before the Jewish people. […]

First, … Jesus undercuts the absolutist claims of Rome. By the simple act of pointing to the silver coin's portrait and legend, and distinguishing between the things that are Caesar's and the things that are God's, Jesus transforms the debate about the payment of the tax into the deeper concern about where ultimate authority resides. While Jesus clearly intends to affirm his followers' obligations to the state, even a pagan state, the main thrust of his statement is to underscore the fact that these obligations are not rooted in the presumed ultimacy or autonomy of human political institutions, but are grounded instead in the absolute sovereignty of God the creator and sustainer of all things.

One obvious implication here is that Christians must reject every form of totalitarian ideology, whether of the far left or the far right. States that demand ultimate allegiance from their citizens and that seek to govern the internal life of other social institutions blatantly transgress their limited competence and arrogantly intrude upon the sovereign prerogative which is God's alone. The mandate for government to do justice extends to all people and institutions within its territory, but government may never seek to take over the internal life of other human institutions. The state by its very nature must recognize and uphold institutional pluralism.

The second purpose behind Jesus' pronouncement is to undermine the Zealots' argument against rendering obedience to the Roman authorities. … [T]he Zealot[s]… were guided by false expectations about the coming of God's kingdom. As a consequence, they were intent on initiating holy war in order to establish that kingdom as an earthly kingdom, which quite literally would take the place of the Roman Empire.

Jesus, on the other hand, underscores the point that in the new order of things, inaugurated by the Messiah, the community of faith will no longer be tied to any particular political arrangement nor contained within specific territorial boundaries. In contrast to the Old Testament theocracy, the church is to be truly catholic and as such transcend all political jurisdictions, and its internal government should reflect this reality. This means that the disciples must recognize that some things do belong to Caesar, and the tax in question symbolized this fact.

The question of what constitutes the basis of political community—the earthly city—then becomes very crucial. Since Caesar's sphere cannot claim the kind of ultimacy that belongs only to God, and since it is no longer possible to identify any particular political arrangement with the temporal expression of God's kingdom, it follows that political community must be established on a non-sacral foundation. The political community is a place where people must learn to live together with their deepest differences. And if this is true, is it too farfetched to suggest that herein we find in seminal form the idea of confessional pluralism as a guiding norm for political community?

To summarize, the politics of the kingdom, which issue from the account of Caesar's coin, require at the very least that we refrain from giving to Caesar what does not belong to him. Since totalitarian ideologies as well as nationalism ask precisely that, we should reject them without hesitation. Beyond that, we can see how Jesus affirms a proper sphere for Caesar (not apart from, but under God), and how this reflects God's goodness toward all creation. We have argued further that the normative requirements of this order include most centrally the principles of confessional and institutional pluralism as the essential prerequisites for the realization of the common good.

—Luis E. Lugo is the Director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”