I've always liked the KJV language for that verse. It has a ring to it that more recent translations seem to lack.
Now then, Donald Miller says that Jesus kept his spirituality and his politics separate. He may derive that conclusion from far more than this verse taken out of context here. But see the story about Don's newest book: http://www.oregonlive.com/living/index.ssf/2009/12/portland_author_donald_miller.html
Donald Miller carries quite a bit of weight these days (less of that physically than in the past--he looks great). Donald Miller has sold over a million books. I've been published twice in another author's books but haven't sold a single one myself. Maybe I should keep quiet. I think I disagree with Don, however.
For one thing, Matthew sets the whole dialog containing the citation above smack dab in the middle of Jerusalem. The question about the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar (that may be a far better term to use than "taxes" as in modern translations) comes from people in the religious community whose way of life is very much tied up with the occupation and taxation by Rome.
And yet, Jesus doesn't give them a laundry list of two columns: these things are Caesar's, those are God's. Essentially Jesus says to them, "You're big boys. Go figure it out."
Really, I think it comes down to this unspoken message from Jesus: You're going to have to figure out what you worship. Who is your god or God? Having been born during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Jesus could not possibly be oblivious of the divinity claims of Caesar and the Roman occupiers. It was written on public monuments and read in public announcements everywhere in the empire. Caesar was known as "Son of God," "lord of the whole world," and "god from god." Sounds somewhat like the Nicene Creed.
Then there was the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God. It's the first thing Mark's gospel tells us Jesus did after his baptism, temptation and John's arrest. The kingdom of God was the gold standard hallmark of Jesus' teaching and preaching. It's a spiritual concept for sure; but it's certainly not apolitical. By proclaiming the nearness and presence of the kingdom of God, Jesus throws down a direct challenge to both Herod and Caesar every time he says it: the story of life centers on God, not on your fiefdom (Herod) or your empire (Caesar). It's not coincidental that the people who want Jesus executed proclaim, "We have no king but Caesar."
I don't think the "render unto Caesar" verse separates religion and politics at all. I think it puts them on some sort of collision course. If not that, I think it sets them in dynamic and creative tension. And I think Jesus knew what he was talking about in so doing. That's where they need to be: in tension, not in separate worlds that never touch each other.
I understand Donald Miller's current position. He, like many Evangelicals, sort of got burned by the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition politics of the late 70's, 80's and 90's. This movement sought quite openly to use government to legislate Christian values and moral standards for the entire country. The rub came when those values and standards became synonymous with only their view of things. Trouble was, they were shown to have an imperfect view of morality and had some very public moral failures. That's a whole other discussion.
For now, leaving the other viewpoints of pagans, atheists and agnostics completely out of the picture, Marcus Borg in his book Jesus points out that:
1. Many followers of Jesus oppose evolution and defend the literal-factual truth of the Bible's stories of creation. Yet followers of Jesus were the first to reconcile evolution with the Bible by understanding the Genesis stories symbolically and not literally.
2. Followers of Jesus are among the strongest supporters of our nation's invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq. Followers of Jesus are among its strongest critics.
3. Followers of Jesus are among the strongest opponents of gay marriage. Followers of Jesus are among its strongest advocates.
4. Followers of Jesus are among the strongest supporters of an economic and tax policy that benefits especially the wealthy and powerful. Followers of Jesus are among it most vocal critics on the biblical grounds that such a policy betrays God's passion for economic justice for the poor.
What does it mean for us to take Jesus seriously? Marcus Borg rightly, I think, observes that "our culture wars are to a considerable extent Jesus wars."
Our country was founded (as a result of disastrous experience in Europe and the Middle East) on some very sound principles. A key one is that government shall establish no state religion. But that principle does not imply the inverse: That government shall ensure that no religion is established or allowed.
Christ followers might do well to consider a similar reflection: religion shall establish no government. But that does not demand the inverse, that religion shall ensure that no government is established.
While doing my seminary studies, a course in Church History required the reading of Justo Gonzalez' exceptionally well researched and written two volume texts, The Story of Christianity. Many parts of this work by a deeply committed Christian man who did not engage in hyperbole at all, were extremely distressing to read and contemplate. Ours is an extraordinarliy bloody history. Consider only one brief chapter, the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648. Protestant and Catholic armies making war on one another and ravaging the civilian population beneath their feet. Over 8 million dead. Ungodly, simply ungodly.
My struggle through this material came precisely at a time when our attention was so focused on Islamic terrorists and homicide bombers (they really want to commit murder, not suicide), and considering what was done by my own people, the Germans, to God's own people, the Jews, I arrived at Roger's Rule:
Whenever religion uses government as a religious tool, blood flows.
Whenever government uses religion as a government tool, blood flows.
And yet, government is a tool to be used for order, justice and purposeful action for the common good. So here's how I think it comes down.
1. If someone's house burns down or floods, it's my call as a follower of Christ to come to their aid with food, clothing and shelter.
2. If government has burned down or flooded that person's house, it's not sufficient for me to simply come by with the food box and the clothes. It's my job to reform government so that the burning and the flooding by government cease.
3. If someone's house burns down or floods and Christians come by with the food box and the clothes but are unable to build or help build the house--but government could--then it's for sure my job to ensure that government does it and does it timely and well. It's also my job to ensure that I don't attmept to use that government help as a way to turn those being helped into converts to my religion or clones of myself.
Life is not a neat set of shelves with fully separated categories. The categories leak, often profusely. They sometimes exist in conflict, but our calling as Christ followers is to make that conflict creative, not destructive. There will be tension, but it can and must be creative. We can do that because of who God is: Creator and Lord of all.
It's in tension right there on that penny with the cross cut into it. "In God We Trust" is still there. But the cross has replaced Lincoln.
"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation..." 2 Cor. 5.17a
Happy creating! Enjoy the tension!