Render unto Caesar… It’s a phrase that Jesus uttered two-thousand years ago into a religious and political context that no longer exists. Perhaps the Roman Empire has an analogy in the modern world, but the incompatibility of church and state that Jews experienced under Roman rule is hard to imagine. Nonetheless, we still hang on to Jesus’ words and use them relatively frequently to assign conflicting concepts into their appropriate spheres.
What is the relationship between church and state? How should we handle disputes between science and religion? What do we do when our conscience and the laws of the land come into conflict? To what extent is our nation’s prosperity linked to our religious identity? Should our president be religious? Should he or she be a Christian?
Yesterday, I heard someone on CNN quote Jesus’ famous phrase. During an interview that immediately followed an interview with Bishop Henry Parsley of the Diocese of Alabama, this commentator was arguing that Alabama’s new immigration law is a good one. I found it amusing that the words would be used by the person opposed to the bishop’s lawsuit. You can watch the whole clip here: http://am.blogs.cnn.com/2011/08/16/bishops-filing-suit-claiming-alabamas-immigration-law-violates-freedom-of-religion/.
Sometimes we use the Caesar quotation to distance ourselves and our faith from politics. “Let the state do what it does. Caesar is Caesar. God is God. Issues of faith and government shouldn’t mix.” Other times we use the famous phrase to demonstrate how the two can successfully be mixed. For example, the Creation story in Genesis tells a quite different tale than a well-informed biology text. Can we have both? Of course—render unto Caesar…
The bottom line is that the church is in the world. Those who came to Jesus to test him were hoping to catch him in a trap. Had he simply said, “Yes, pay the temple tax,” Jesus would have given his opponents an excuse to portray him as a Roman sympathizer and Jewish lawbreaker. Had he responded, “No, the tax is ungodly,” they could have labeled him as a zealot and Roman lawbreaker. Either way, Jesus would have been in trouble. So, of course, he splits the issue right in half, insisting that he and we live in both worlds.
Often it feels good to retreat into one of two spheres, attempting to leave the other behind completely. The specific, unbiased, unquenchable quest for knowledge that is science holds great appeal, and it’s easier to avoid bringing it into dialogue with our faith. Likewise, it’s easier to read the bible as it is written and not worry about its implications for the modern intellectual. But we can’t do that. Our faith is completely immersed in the world around us, and that includes things like science and politics and immigration and all the other messy stuff we deal with on a daily basis.
That doesn’t mean that there are easy answers for how to deal with them. That’s not the point behind Jesus’ quotation. As Christians, we are “both-and” people not “either-or” people. We need to talk about how those two worlds intersect.