In an iconic passage in the Gospels (Matthew 22:19-21), Jesus responded to His religious critics by asking them to hold up a Roman coin. He then asked them about the image on the coin. To the Pharisees and Herodians (defenders of the Roman status quo), He said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Most of us read that passage as confirmation that faithful Christians should, despite misgivings, pay taxes to a civil government. Jesus was indeed instructing people to obey the tax, however oppressive. And later in Romans 13, Paul offers a similar command. But Jesus is also saying so much more.
To the people of His day, especially those who participated in the Roman religious rituals, Caesar was more than just a public official in a seat of power in the world’s superpower, he was a god. And when rulers are considered gods, there is no limit to what a ruler can ask from his subjects. So, when Jesus says to His critics that there are certain things that belong to Caesar and certain things that belong to God, He was speaking a subversive message against the all-encompassing power of the state.
His essential message was that, yes, Caesar’s image is on the coin and, yes, you are required to pay taxes as a Roman citizen, but remember that Caesar’s power is limited and there are things, such as your conscience and your identity, that only belong to God. The state has no power over your heart and mind—those belong to the One who fashioned you in His image.
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Daniel Darling is the vice president for communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.