State vs. God: Reflections on Matthew 22:15-22

New Testament scholar Douglas Hare suggests that we should imagine Jesus pausing in the middle of the sentence, after "render unto Caesar" and before "render unto God," to emphasize the superior importance of the second clause to the first. Jesus is not saying there are two realms, one secular and one religious, and equal respect must be paid to each. He is saying something more like, "You already pay tribute to Caesar. What kind of tribute are you paying to God?"

This is, after all, not a different Jesus from the teacher who said in Matthew 6:24, "You cannot serve God and mammon." Give God what is God's. And if doing so—when Caesar demands too much—means resisting the power of the state, then so be it.

Jesus' Wisdom Comes at a Price
The trouble is that we want blueprints and prescriptions. We want someone to tell us what to do and think. To know that Jesus is still available, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, to guide us in evaluating our own and others' motives and making decisions about our allegiances and priorities may not be specific enough for our tastes.

Christians today may be annoyed that Jesus' saying doesn't provide a clear blueprint for church- state relations or a more detailed prescription for individual action and resistance. But such prescription is not the intent of Jesus' wisdom teaching here. He is not setting forth a detailed theory of church and state. He is offering a proverbial nugget of wisdom, an open ended statement to be interpreted by listeners in specific situations in their lives.

Jesus unmasks the malice of his opponents and evades their trap while speaking the truth (Meier, 156). They beat a hasty retreat, no doubt humiliated at having been impaled on the horns of their own dilemma. This round goes to Jesus, but it seems as if he paid a price for his subtlety here. Later in the story, when the crowd is offered two nominees for pardon, their vote goes to Barabbas, a hero in the ongoing resistance against Roman domination (27:15-23) (Hare, 254).

The enemies of Jesus finally see that there is no chance of defeating him by debate. The only way left is judicial murder. And so the ministry ends and the passion begins.

Sources Consulted
Janice Capel Anderson, Matthew's Narrative Web: Over, and Over, and Over Again (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1994)

Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching

10/9/2011 4:00:00 AM
Alyce McKenzie
About Alyce McKenzie
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.