“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”
By Jeffery Hency
I, along with many others, have wrestled with the meaning behind Jesus’ response in Mark 12:17 to the religious leaders of his day. If Jesus was utilizing pilpal (a rabbinic teaching method of answering a question with a question), then rabbinic tradition would allow multiple interpretations. That is little help to those of us seeking definitive guidance about how to integrate our faith in Christ as we make political decisions in our day.
Perhaps Jesus’ statement does indeed reflect the Jewish tradition that allowed multiple responses to the role God’s people chose to take in the world’s political history. As one scours the Scriptures, it becomes quite apparent that God’s people used differing methods when forced to choose between God and the “caesar” of their day.
Early in Hebrew history we find that Abraham, who may have been a respected, wealthy landowner and prince in the Middle East, dealt with governments and differing cultures through what might be labeled detached capitalism (Gen 23:6). He traveled from place to place bartering for land and property; staking claims; declaring ownership and, perhaps, tribute as a means to increase his wealth, acquire respect, and obtain power. He primarily interacted peacefully with opposing cultures, using his prosperity as a means of maintaining peace. Isaac and Jacob continued the trend. The patriarchal way might be described as walk softly and carry a big purse.
Joseph bar Jacob, through a series of events, handled the opposing government differently from his ancestors. His philosophy was to become intimately involved in the governing process and actually conform to the culture. He described it as God’s way (Gen 45:8).
Moses, too, followed Joseph’s philosophy and then, after witnessing an act of oppression, reacted violently to the governing culture. Fearful and guilty, he fled to a different culture, where he was introduced to a nonviolent way of opposing governmental authority. Moses introduced God’s people to a judicial diplomacy that established ethical values, discouraged rebellion, and encouraged people who cannot come to agreement to be willing to part ways (Ex 2; 3:16–21; 18).
Joshua led the people of God into the Promised Land. He adopted a militant approach to the opposing cultures and governments (Josh 1:14).
David organized a centralized government for the purpose of protecting God’s people and their interests (2 Sam 5:12; 8:15). His son Solomon attempted to build connections and coexist with opposing governments through foreign covenants, spiritual compromise, and religious tolerance (1 Kings 11).
Elijah and other prophets directly advised and rebuked governments, including their own (2 Kings 1; Amos). Jeremiah advised God’s people to pray for the welfare and prosperity of opposing governments so that God’s people might reap the benefits (Jeremiah 29:4–7).
Daniel practiced his faith in secret and kept the traditions of his people while serving an opposing government, but he understood the consequences of doing so (Daniel 6). Esther submitted to a foreign king, took on the ways of the culture, and used her position to establish domestic policies and social reform (Esther 7-9).
The religious leaders at the time of Jesus created a subculture that attempted to maintain religious traditions within a polytheistic and immoral culture. Jesus, however, adopted an incarnational approach toward the opposing culture that resulted in a grassroots reformation of spiritual and social values.
Paul demonstrated that even opposing governments provide a general welfare to people that people of faith can use to their advantage (Acts 22-–3). Peter, too, saw government as tool of God for general welfare, but he also recognized the danger God’s people could face if they did not submit to governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13).
As one can see, scripture is full of examples, some seemingly contradictory, of how people of faith can respond to political ideologies. Perhaps the most interesting contradiction is found in the story of King Ahab, Elijah, and Obadiah (1 Kings 18). Elijah and Obadiah were friends and fellow prophets, but their roles were quite different. Elijah rebuked, challenged, and confronted Ahab regarding his governing policies, whereas Obadiah worked inside Ahab’s administration as a close assistant to the king. Interestingly, Elijah’s confrontational approach often put Obadiah at risk.
As followers of Christ approach the upcoming election, the statement of Jesus to “render to Caesar…render to God” takes on greater significance as we attempt to discern between personal preference and divine will. For you see, in a government that is ruled of the people, by the people, and for the people, “Caesar” is us! The dilemma for followers of Christ in election choices is in making sure our personal preferences (rendering to Caesar) are tempered and guided by our steadfast belief that Christ is Lord.
Your candidate may or may not win this election. Either way, our responsibility to be the people of Christ remains the same. Some of us will be called to confront and challenge presidential decisions. Some of us will be called to work within an administration with opposing ideologies. Some of us will focus our energy on issues ignored by the governing administration. Some of us will become involved in revising the judicial system and unrighteous laws. Some of us will join the military as a means of protecting and defending the oppressed and the powerless. Some of us will call and work for the cessation of violence through peaceful diplomacy. Some of us will pray without ceasing for those in crucial decision-making roles. Many of us will choose to live quiet lives, minding our own business.
Perhaps there is a great deal of freedom in Jesus’ words—freedom to be his image in a variety of ways and a variety of contexts. However, let it also be clear: the two-sided coin bearing the divine image of Caesar held by Jesus in front of the religious leaders’ faces was indeed a political statement. Graven images and self-proclaimed divinity do not a god make. The body of Christ has to be very careful in the political process to make sure the image of God is clearly reflected before, during, and after the election. While others look, think, and act like Caesar through critical and negative campaigning, we are called to look, think, and act like Christ in our attitudes and responses. We represent the gospel message of faith, hope, and love this Election Day. Let us pray that God will indeed approve this message.
Jeffery Hency is an ordained minister with the Church of God having pastored in Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois and Indiana. Most recently he has been an administrative faculty member at Anderson University. Jeff resides in Anderson, Indiana, with his wife Roz.