What Belongs to God?

Jesus' famous 'render unto Caesar' saying flummoxed his opponents and leaves today's Christians scratching their heads

BY: Marcus Borg

 

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The coin bearing Caesar's image set up Jesus' second move, the famous saying itself: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

In context, the saying is thoroughly ambiguous. The word "render" means "give back." The first half of the saying could thus mean, "It's Caesar's coin--go ahead and give it back to him." We can imagine Jesus saying this with a dismissive shrug. Rather than a pronouncement about the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule or political authority in general, his words might very well have been a brilliant way of evading the trap.

When its second half is added, the phrase remains equally ambiguous. What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? The possible answers range from "Pay your tribute tax to Caesar, and your temple tax to God" to "Everything belongs to God." If the latter, what is owed to Caesar? Nothing. But the text itself provides no clue as to what was meant.

Jesus responded in a deliberately enigmatic way in order to avoid the trap set by his opponents. His response was never meant to be figured out. Rather, in this passage as in several others, we see his deft debating skill.

Thus this text offers little or no guidance for tax season. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse.

But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?

 

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