Rendering Caesar

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At first glance, it will appear to the reader that my title omits the word “unto.” The omission was intentional. There’s no “unto,” because my view of the familiar gospel story (Matthew 22:15–22) is unconventional. For most of my life, I read it in the way everybody else does. But although my religious convictions have changed little since early adulthood, I now see that story in an entirely different light, because of the change my politics have undergone.

The meaning I see: was it there all along? Purists may claim that I made it up, but I wonder. The feeling usually derived from the story is that Jesus was a crafty guy, because he really punked those Pharisees. I have a hunch that Jesus was even craftier than we realize.

For the scripturally uninitiated, some self-righteous types came to Jesus asking whether it was indeed lawful to pay taxes to Rome. They were always trying to trap him, and this time they really thought they had him in the bag. As the people of Palestine were subjects of the empire, they were forced to pay taxes to it. But the Jewish people regarded their overlords as tyrants, and cherished the dream of one day overthrowing them. As a rabbi, if Jesus were to say that these taxes were the empire’s due, he would stir up a hornet’s nest of resentment.

Government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source.

“Show me a coin,” Jesus tells his inquisitors. When they produce one, he asks them whose picture is on it. Of course they say it is Caesar’s. To which he responds, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” They went away disappointed, and perhaps a bit awed. Jesus had really gotten out of that one!

My purpose in retelling this story is not to force religion on anybody. My point isn’t particularly religious, but in my retelling of this story, it does have a moral, just not the one usually supplied.

From the time the gospels began to be circulated to the present day, the moral that has been understood is that there are some things that belong to us, and others that belong to the government. But it is precisely this moral that I wish to challenge. As a matter of fact, I challenge the very notion that government rightfully owns anything.

In truth, government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source. Everything it gets its hands on, it has taken from us. Or from whatever other nation it has plundered, or from which it has demanded tribute.

How, then, can government legitimately be said to “own” anything? It doesn’t earn; it simply takes. From others. Whether they want to give it or not. And for all that it takes, it gives astonishingly little in return.

Because I’m both a Christian and a libertarian, I’m sometimes accused of hypocrisy. How can I believe that taxation is theft, when — for crying out loud — Jesus himself told us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”? Whenever people remind me of this, they give me a smug smile, certain that they’ve punked me.

I used to get frustrated by this. But not so fast. Having now deeply considered the matter, I see the other side of the coin.

Jesus didn’t specify exactly what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God. Technically, he never really answered the Pharisees’ question. That aspect of the story almost always goes unnoticed. Actually he left us considerable leeway in deciding that for ourselves.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs.

Do we owe that coin to Caesar? Or do we “owe” Caesar anything at all? Those who call themselves “progressives” love to tell us that “we are the government.” If that is true — and I think that when they say it, understanding government as they do, it is the hollowest of lies — then where did “Caesar” get it in the first place? He neither made it, created it, nor earned it; he simply pulled out a sword and took it.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs. They didn’t want his picture on their money; he told them they would use that money or die for treason. Then he forced them to give up a crushingly sizable portion of the money they had earned — by the sweat of their brows — and give it to him. No part of how Caesar came about that coin was sanctioned by the law of the God they worshiped.

“I came not to destroy the Law,” said Jesus elsewhere in Scripture, “but to fulfill it.” Again, not to force religion on anybody, but even those who have no religion have a conscience that says what belongs to one may not be forcibly taken by another. Caesar owns nothing at all, beyond, perhaps, the image on “his” coin.

Were many, many more of us to recognize that fact, we could render Caesar powerless to demand anything from us at the point of a sword. We’d tell him what we wanted, and he would do it — because he’d serve us instead of the other way around. Every shekel and widow’s mite in this country belongs to us — the people who created it, worked for it, and rightfully earned it. It’s time for a reassessment of who owns what. And of who owes what unto whom.




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Comments

Clint Harris

This insight regarding the conventional interpretation of Jesus' response to a gotcha question is an important one. Jesus was not just making a clever statement. He was actually asking the Pharisees, and the rest of us, to think...to examine who and what we worship. His question, to utilize the language of a credit card commercial, could then be rephrased as, "What's in your soul?"

Fred Mora

We don't have it as good as these Jews from the turn of the 1st century. Their money was precious metal, which has at least some objective value. We are paid in fiat money that is worth a small fraction of a huge con game.

Jon Kalb

I think most modern readers are missing the point of the story. The coin was engraved (well, stamped) with the image of Caesar. Caesar had declared himself to be a god. Jesus was reminding the Pharisees that a devout Jew would see every Roman coin as a graven image of a false god and should want nothing to do with them.

Every coin, even one not of a self-proclaimed god, is a graven image. No one that takes the ten commandments seriously would have anything to do with any coin. Unless, you know, they can find some way of rationalizing it. Religious people usually can.

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