"Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, no matter what name it is called." ~ John Stuart Mill
We Owe Caesar Nothing
Exclusive to STR
November 8, 2006
We can find it in Biblical Scripture at Mark 12: 13-17, at Matthew 22: 15-22, and again at Luke 20: 20-26 -- different accounts all, but essentially records of Jesus' response to the Pharisees who had been sent to entrap him for the "crime" of counseling his followers to refuse paying taxes to the Roman emperor who had conquered Judea. To their astonishment, Jesus reputedly replied: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." This, after having asked of the Pharisees whose visage was indeed engraved upon the coin of the realm.
I am, as I professed in an earlier Strike The Root essay, no Christian. Rather, I am agnostic and thus not precisely qualified to comment upon the God portion of Jesus' statement. I will, however, attempt to elucidate upon the earthly portion therein. For I find it, if taken out of any Biblical context, oddly apropos.
Why must we extract this response from Biblical precept? Romans 13: 1 is our answer. I proceed hereon at the risk of perhaps invoking some Christians' ire, but this Biblical section states that the will of God is served by submitting unquestioningly to earthly governments. The logic being that since earthly rulers are chosen to occupy such positions by God, that to bid them defiance -- however egregious or sinful their actions -- is to ultimately defy the will of God. Thus, by this rationale, only the meekest and most humble acquiescence to even the most bloodthirsty, murderous devil of a tyrant is acceptable in the eyes of the Lord.
Call it brash and sacrilegious if you must, but for me, this is utter poppycock. If there is any God who imposes such warped conditions upon human beings, then count me out. Literally. I'll risk taking what lumps I may on the other side come Judgment Day.
Having dispensed with Romans 13: 1 at whatever level of possible peril, let's again look at what we can otherwise ascertain of Jesus' aforementioned statement. Having identified the emperor on a Roman coin, Jesus counseled -- though only by implication -- that these coins (in the form of taxes) be forfeited to the emperor and his various offices. But what value did Jesus place on currency, or politics at all, for that matter? None, from anything I can gather in any Scripture. His concerns were wholly consistent of "the things that are God's." Thus, might we not make the argument that Jesus was in essence stating to the Pharisees: "If this emperor places such importance both on himself and these coins as to order that they bear his visage, let him have them. That is of no matter. For they are, in the end, nothing." In turn, Jesus' contention was then that the spiritual comprises everything worth anything, and thus should be the only true concern of anyone.
Let's carry this just a little further. Jesus was, we must presume, being deliberately oblique with the Pharisees. They were there, after all, to ensnare him in the utterance of a crime -- one presumably punishable by death under Roman law. Jesus, of course, allegedly the Son of Man, was wise to their ploy likely before it was ever even hatched. Thus, he gave answers in such a way so as to appear to suggest: "Oh yes, pay taxes by all means." Yet, we may also interpret his statement on a deeper level as: "Since Caesar and his coins and his taxes -- especially when compared to God the Father -- mean nothing, we are merely returning him nothing, which is his only due. We, as creatures of God, do not and cannot owe Caesar anything."
I am no theologian (though I have perhaps here made a modest contribution to that field of study), nor was I -- to the best of my recollection -- present on that day in Judea nearly 2,000 years ago. However, I think it likely that if we accept that there once lived a man named Jesus Christ on this earth, and if He in turn did state what Mark, Matthew and Luke have imparted in the Scripture -- and under the set of circumstances described therein, I think it far more likely that his words were intended as a more sublime indictment of the arrogance of some human beings who try to position themselves above others, than any literal reiteration of the absurdities -- indeed, even un-Jesuslike behaviors -- advocated in Romans 13: 1.