With growing evidence that the Caesars of our era are corrupting the world—Jesus’ sentiment about *Caesar-rendering doesn’t sit comfortably in my soul. A quick look at the matter follows….
I understand the setting for Jesus’ answer to his detractors’ tricky question. (See Matthew 22:15-22. )And I know that Paul’s announcement—“The powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1ff)—is part of Christian theology. In both cases, the directives seem clear: Obey civil authorities—even though these rulers may be cruel, self-serving demagogues.
More-nuanced interpretations also seem possible.
The Paying Tribute story is set in the context of an oppressive and corrupt economic system—one Jesus warned about and opposed. Jesus himself never paid taxes—more accurately: “tribute paid to oppressive Roman overlords.” This made his answer to the Herod-lovers quite pointed. (“YOU pay the taxes!”)
Paul was familiar with the evil character of Roman emperors. Caligula (who lived a sordid lifestyle at the edge of madness), Claudius (a scholarly administrator also given to quick anger and vengeance) and Nero (the chief executioner of Christians) ruled during Paul’s lifetime. That’s why he could write to Ephesian believers, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12 NRSV)
When their witness is combined, these passages speak to me in this way: “Those of you who voluntarily or involuntarily accept the authority of tyrants—in Jesus’ time, the Herodians, in Paul’s day, the citizens of Rome—go ahead and give to your ruler what you think belongs to him. The rest of us are going to struggle against their power.” **That’s how I’m thinking of my older adult citizenship right now.
How about you…?
*A side note from my days as a meat-worker: In that business, “rendering” meant to melt down offal—fat, trimmings and organs from butchered animals—into lard.
**Yes, I pay taxes because we, the people, levy them on each other for the benefit of the entire country. Much different than the Romans’ forcible extraction of tribute money from Jewish society!
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