January 5, 2009 by J. Madson
I am always disappointed how this phrase along with Paul’s injunction to let the powers that be reign supreme is used by many Christians to justify unchristian behavior. Among LDS we often use the 12th article of faith to justify our actions as referenced in this post.
Much of this scriptural abuse I believe comes from a very poor analytical approach to the scriptures. Paul’s injunction is very different if we read it in light of the previous chapter, in other words, if we read it in context. I often worry that scripture mastery as done in LDS Seminary does more harm than good as we learn to rip scriptures out of their context often leading to incomplete or worse incorrect readings. I also believe historical context matters.
So what does this have to do with Rendering Unto Caesar. I believe that context radically changes the reading and challenges the assumptions we bring into the text.
We generally read this scripture as an endorsement of political systems. That Jesus meant we should pay taxes, render military service, even support our government, etc. Again, this is a very poor reading when we take into account context. This matters because bad theology leads to bad morality. The Pharisees were seeking to trap Jesus and show that he was either a revolutionary guilty of treason or he was a Roman sympathizer or idolater. Either way they sought to diminish his position and authority. Historically we know that there were two types of currencies in Israel at this time. One bore the image of the Roman Emperor and the inscription, Caesar Son of God. The use of this money was considered blasphemous since it not only had a graven image but also proclaimed Caesar as divine and the Son of God. The other coinage used in Israel had no image. This is why of course there were money changers. Coins with graven images could not be used in the temple. It is also clear from historical records that faithful Jews would not have in their possession Roman coins. Within this context we can see that a contextual reading of this passage both historical and scriptural lends itself to another, I would argue, better reading. When Jesus asked them to produce the coin, he had already won the discussion. The fact that they carried idolatrous coins let everyone know where they stood and their allegiance. They were sell outs, pious frauds. Their allegiance was to the kingdom of Rome and not the kingdom of God. The scripture read in context does not mean we have a duty to support our government or we owe our government allegiance regardless of its actions but rather Jesus illustrating the Jewish leaders complicity with Rome and the powers that be. His response is to give the forbidden coin back. Whose image is on this coin? Caesars. Well then give it back to him.