What about Separation of Church and State?
The words of Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar gets to the heart of the matter about the relationship of religion and government. It raises the question: Do believers obey God or the government? This is a story about taxation and authority. It gets to the heart of the matter about the relationship of religion and government.
The money teachings of Jesus are always mixed up with political power. Of all the sayings of Jesus, the words, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” (Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20: 19-26) demonstrate clearly that money is always more than a matter of personal morality.
This episode shows that Jesus was a watched man. Throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus had several groups of people from the ruling class who followed him around, listening and looking carefully for anything they could use to turn him over to the Roman authorities. The focus of the trap concerns paying taxes to the emperor.
From the time of the Roman conquest of Palestine in 6 C.E., Rome demanded and collected direct taxes from the people. Government officials collected land taxes, a “poll” on each person, taxes on personal property, and taxes on the transport of goods. The question to Jesus concerns the payment of the poll tax.
Hating to Pay Taxes
The occupied people of Palestine hated paying taxes to their Roman occupiers. The people correctly considered themselves as oppressed people under military occupation. From time to time, various messianic and revolutionary groups formed in opposition to the Roman occupiers and the Jewish collaborators. Occasionally, an open rebellion broke out and was quickly crushed by the ruling powers.
These revolutionary groups regarded any collaboration with the hated Roman occupiers as treason to God. Refusal to pay the Roman taxes was an act of defiance against the oppressors and an act of allegiance to God.
When these various collaborators with Rome ask Jesus about paying the temple tax, they are looking for evidence that he is one of the revolutionaries, so that they can hand him over to the authority of Pontius Pilate, the chief Roman authority.
Avoiding the Trap with a Denarius
During the time of Jesus, several types of coins were commonly used. The Romans minted their own silver coins in Rome and other imperial mints. One of these Roman coins was the denarius, which was the accepted daily wage for a common laborer. The Roman coins had an image of the emperor on the front side of the coin. The coin handed to Jesus was probably the silver denarius bearing the image of Caesar Augustus.
By asking whose image and inscription are on the coin, Jesus successfully avoids the trap. When his questioners identify Caesar, Jesus says, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” He is not openly advocating civil disobedience against the Roman authorities on the matter of taxation--a stance which would have given the Romans immediate cause to arrest him.
Separation of Church and State
Although Jesus avoided the trap in the story, Christian history has used these words to draw a line between church and state. The most notable is Martin Luther’s theology of the two kingdoms. The church would administer the spiritual realm, while worldly governments would rule the secular realm. Although Luther’s theology was more complicated than this, it led to the idea that believers owed allegiance and obedience to the worldly ruler on matters concerning government.
In a situation with many similarities to the Jewish Revolt against Rome, which began in 66 C.E., the German peasants rebelled in the Peasants’ War, 1524-26. They thought that Luther’s stance supported their cause. However, in one of the most controversial decisions of his life, Luther invoked the “Two Kingdoms theology” to condemn the revolt, based on the idea that the political leadership was ordained by God to rule on Earth. The revolt failed. The failure reinforced the long-standing belief that human beings owe allegiance on Earth to their human rulers.
During the Nazi era, most Christian churches in Germany maintained this separation between church and state. The church ruled on spiritual matters. The government ruled on secular matters. Only a few churches, known as the Confessing Church, defied Hitler’s claim to power, with predictable results. Many died for opposing the power of the government.
How Jesus Got Off the Hook Leaves the Rest of Us Hanging
The words of Jesus managed to get him off the hook in the story. However, the legacy of these words, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” leads to complex and difficult questions about the power of governments and the allegiance of believers. What the Bible says about money is never simply a matter of quoting the teachings of Jesus without understanding the larger political context of the story.