Render therefore unto Caesar

Asimov's Guide to the BibleOn Sunday mornings, we do Bible stories with Benjamin. Afterwards, my wife and I spend some time with the loyal opposition — usually Asimov’s Guide to the Bible or something by Bart Ehrman (whom I mentioned in "gimme that old time religion"). Last week, Benjamin read us his children’s-Bible version of the Render-unto-Caesar story, after which the grown-ups retired to the other room to see what Isaac Asimov had to say on the subject. I found his points about the Jewish-religious context of Jesus’s reply and its Zealot-political consequences fascinating:

The Herodians

It grew increasingly clear to the Temple authorities that Jesus’ claims would not easily be quashed. Galilean backwoodsman or not, he had a quick wit and a fund of ready quotations. Yet he had to be stopped just the same before the Messianic fervor produced dangerous unrest all across the city. If Jesus’ doctrinal views could not be used against him, what about his political views?

If Jesus could be forced to say something politically subversive, instead of merely doctrinally heretical, the Romans could be called in. Roman soldiers could act at once without having to stop to exchange Old Testament quotations:

Matthew 22:16. And they [the Pharisees] sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true … neither carest thou for any man …

By this flattery, they hoped they would trick him into making some uncompromising statement regardless of whom it would offend. And just in case he did, they had the Herodians with them. These were civil officials who supported the Herodian dynasty. Presumably they worked constantly with the Romans, had entry to the Roman governor, and could report to him quickly of any subversive remark made by Jesus.

It seemed certain to those now questioning Jesus that anyone claiming to be the Messiah would have to hold out hopes for the overthrow of the Roman Empire and for the establishment of the ideal Jewish state. It was exactly this that the populace expected of a Messiah. A question that was bound, it seemed, to force Jesus either to advocate rebellion or to give up all Messianic pretenses was now fired at him.

Matthew 22:17. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?

("Caesar," of course, was the title given to the Roman Emperor. It harked back to Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated in 44 B.C., but whose grandnephew became Rome’s first Emperor, fifteen years later.)

If, now, Jesus refused to answer, surely he would be despised as a coward by those in the audience who advocated resistance to Rome, and they must have represented the majority of those who eagerly acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. If he advocated payment of tribute, that would be even worse. If, on the other hand, he advocated nonpayment of tribute, that would give the Romans instant reason to intervene.

Jesus sought a way out. The coins used in paying tribute had the figure of Caesar on them. That made those coins unfit to be handled by Jews anyway, strictly speaking. The first of the Ten Commandments forbade the making of any representations of any living thing and Jewish monarchs, such as the various Herods, were usually careful to avoid stirring up the orthodox by putting their own portraits upon their coins. The idolatrous coin, which it was sinful for Jews to handle, might just as well be given to the man whose portrait was there. Jesus said:

Matthew 22:21. … Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Jesus had thus found a safe path between the horns of what had seemed an insoluble dilemma. He had advocated tribute payment, which kept the Romans from interfering; but had done so for a thoroughly religious reason which was consistent with his role as Messiah.

And yet Jesus’ enemies may have won a point here, too. One can easily picture the Zealots among Jesus’ audience as waiting impatiently for his answer. They were fiercely anti-Roman and they wanted a Messiah who would lead them with divine force against the hated Romans.

Here, then, was the question. Shall we pay tribute?

The proper Messianic answer, in the Zealot view, was a thunderous "No!"

That would begin the rebellion at once; just as at one time, the refusal of Mattathias to participate in a heathen sacrifice had begun the rebellion of the Maccabees.

And instead, Jesus found refuge in an evasion. If the crowd in general applauded Jesus’ clever retort, might it not be that some of the more extreme Zealots now fell away in contempt. This was not their man. This was not the Messiah they were waiting for.

And how must Judas Iscariot have felt? If it were indeed true that he was an extreme Zealot he may well have been filled with a wild anger at the failure of this man he had believed to be the Messiah. If this is so, it explains what was to follow.

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One Response to Render therefore unto Caesar

  1. henrymoore says:

    Very interesting. My former pastor, or perhaps a temporary stand-in, more than a year ago, gave a sermon on this passage. I think that the interpretation he gave was along the lines of:

    All is God’s. But give Caesar his pittance. Something about the original Aramaic that was almost taunting (to Caesar as it relates to him on the coin, and to the Pharisees as it relates to their asking the question) in tone, but not explicit enough in it’s defiance to warrant intervention.

    I believe that the sermon is somewhere on our church website.

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