So give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give God the things that are God’s
As I read the Gospels, I am struck again and again by how many of Jesus’s sayings can be taken in more than one way; and as I look at the Christian church now and over the centuries, it sometimes seems as though we have taken full advantage of this. When you get right down to it, it is simply not possible to take everything literally. We cannot both love our enemies Matthew 5:44) and hate father and mother (Luke 14:26). Should we “take no thought for tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34) or should we “first sit down and count the cost” (Luke 14:28)? What do we take literally, and what do we take as metaphor or even as hyperbole?
Churches have tended to gather and to divide according to people’s agreements and disagreements in such issues. In some eras—for centuries, in fact—this process took the form of open theological warfare, and issues of orthodoxy and heresy were matters of life and death. The tendency throughout the present century has been toward mutual conversation and reconciliation, but there is still the often subtle attraction of like minds and hearts that draws us into distinct communities of faith.
There is a story about a man whose job had just moved him to a different part of the country. He started making the rounds of the local churches, looking to find out what they had to offer. One Sunday morning he arrived a little late at one he had not visited before, just as the minister was praying, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” “That sounds like my kind of people.”
One of the fundamental issues over which churches tend to gather and divide is the issue presented in our text. “Give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give God the things that are God’s.” This can be read as a warrant for the total separation of church and state, as a declaration that religion and politics don’t mix. Kindly remove from your hymnals “O beautiful for spacious skies” and “My country, ‘tis of thee,” and for heaven’s sake don’t let Memorial Day intrude into the spiritual realm of Sunday morning worship.
The effects of this kind of compartmentalization are disastrous. The church becomes increasingly irrelevant, and politics increasingly unethical. Caesar is the materialist and God is the “spiritualist,” and soul and body have nothing to do with each other.
Now, matter is sluggish stuff in a way, but it does respond to spirit. If we live in constant fear or constant suppressed rage or constant anxiety, eventually our physical health is affected. A few years ago I attended a conference on the rebirth of Russian spirituality at which Harvey Cox spoke appreciatively of the strong Russian sense of community, contrasting it with our own emphasis on individualism. A Russian priest responded with thanks, but than asked why it was that our apparent egotism had created such a free and prosperous society, while the Russian sense of community had devastated the ecology of a tenth of the planet. This devastation, I would argue, is the product not of a sense of community but of a radical materialism. Sorry, but the profit motive does not guarantee a world worth living in.
In this connection, I have become increasingly fond of our Old Testament reading. For years, it had struck me as one of the more useless passages in Scripture. How can you tell a true prophet from a false one? Simple—just wait and see whose prophecies come true. Now I hear that warning me against letting my theories blind me to actualities—letting dogma run over karma. Look at the deep-seated attitudes. Look at what they promise. Then look at what they lead to, at what actually happens.
Look at the elderly. See which ones are at peace with themselves and their world. See which ones are trying to live in the past, which ones are living with regrets. Notice which ones you enjoy being with. Ask what values have governed their lives. In her book, The Fountain of Age, Betty Friedan tells of two women who had disastrous first marriages and successful second ones. Both said much the same thing: “The second time, I married someone I wouldn’t have looked at twice when I was younger.” What do our youthful ambitions and desires promise? What do they actually deliver?
This works on the national scale as well. Marxism flourished on its promises of a workers’ paradise. It did not deliver, but not necessarily because the economic theory was wrong. The contrast between the present state of our country and that of Russia should bring home to us that the health of our economy depends on something we tend to take for granted, namely a sense of individual accountability. Without that, the “free market” turns utterly vicious and destructive. “The Protestant work ethic” has taken some flak in recent decades, but remember that ordinary can of soup and the image of the number of people who had to do their jobs in order for it to have made it to church this morning. Honesty, diligence, and integrity are absolutely essential to national prosperity, and in fact to national security.
There is a simple way of saying it, a little epilogue to our text. “Give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, give God the things that are God’s, and do both at the same time.” The two great commandments, love of God and love of the neighbor, are mutually inseparable, not mutually exclusive. The first letter of John tells us in no uncertain terms that if we claim to love God but hate each other, we are lying. If we cannot love the people we see, how can we love a God we cannot see?
I do indeed believe that Jesus wanted to transform human society, that his intent was not to lead us to some beatific vision of the Divine that would take them out of the world, but to heal our relationships with each other. I do indeed believe that the Christian religion could transform our own beloved country. Jesus spoke of “the kingdom of heaven,” and a “kingdom” is a public entity, not a private concern. He wanted social justice, but he addressed the individual human heart because he knew that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, promiscuity, theft, false witness and blasphemy” (Matthew 15:19). No legal or political system can make a just society out of unjust individuals, and no government can make people just.
Jesus was also acutely aware, though, that even the best of intentions are not enough. He enjoined us not only to be as harmless as doves, but also as wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16). This, I would suggest, is where we need to listen to Caesar. The saloon culture of our urban centers at the turn of the last century was totally out of control. Teen-age alcohol abuse was not all that different from the drug problem of our own times. The motives of the prohibitionists may have been beyond reproach. Thirteen years after the passage of the eighteenth amendment, it was repealed. It had not kept its promises. Deuteronomy eighteen had spoken.
High ideals simply are not enough. Every generation has its full supply of young people who see the folly of war, the ugliness of racism, the cruelty of economic injustice. Every generation discovers that there is a long road from the dream to its realization. We have to find out what actually works and what does not. I’m fond of an old saying: “He’s a man who lives for others. You can tell the ‘others’ by their hunted look.”
Suppose there are two doctors in town, an elderly, saintly one with a great store of wisdom and an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease, and a brash young one who is openly out to take over the older one’s practice. Suppose your child has a splinter right next to her eye. Which one do you turn to? The wise elderly doctor will send you straight to his rival and probably take you to task for risking your child’s sight by not going there first.
There is a real danger of getting so caught up in the vision that we lose the patience we need to achieve it. To paraphrase Ram Dass, anger at injustice may be the only thing that will start the engine, but don’t let it get hold of the steering wheel. Churches in particular need to be watchful in this regard. The need for action can be blinding. In another direction, there can be such a pressure to be tolerant and forgiving that we fail to recognize the values and the beauties of excellence and become havens for mediocrity. Honesty alone does not make a competent church treasurer. It does require some familiarity with accounting, and nowadays some computer literacy.
Paying due attention to Caesar and to God at the same time, then, is no light matter. The world we live in is complex. There is a tremendous amount to learn. The gospels tell us that the roots of our problems are deep in the human heart. This means that they are not just “out there” in the bad guys, the other country or political party or social class. They are in my heart and yours. The words of John the Baptist speak to this: “Now the axe is being laid to the root of the tree.” Jesus is not dealing simply with the social symptoms of evil, but with its roots.
How can we bear to face this “axe” if we are cowering, consciously or unconsciously, under a sense of the wrath of God? The message of the Gospels is that this supposed wrath is nothing more than the projection of our own fears. “God so loved the world . . . .” When we turn to the Divine to confess our sins, it is not to have our hands slapped but for healing of the harm we have done ourselves and health to remedy the harm we have done to others. We are forgiven, we are understood, we are loved.
The message of our text is reflected in the most familiar of our prayers. “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a prayer for a just society, a prayer than can express our love of our country. It reminds us that the only way to achieve that just society is to bring heaven and earth together, to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and give God what is God’s—that in fact, we cannot do either if we do not do the other.