There was only one Son of God and Prince of Peace in the Roman Empire. Who else could even make a claim? After all, the armies operating under Augustus Caesar brought the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome) to the ancient world. No wonder the world turned upside down when an itinerant peasant preacher named Jesus of Nazareth, a man without an army or cultural authority, started using those titles as well.
While a broken Christianity typically focuses on how the Jewish leadership responds to those supposedly exclusive titles, a rich Christian faith reveals itself when we explore the sonship claims made by Caesar and Jesus. Nowhere is this more clear than the oft-misunderstood line, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
Give Unto Caesar
According to Mark, Jesus speaks these words on Tuesday of Holy Week in a confrontation with the Jewish leaders. Two days earlier, Roman soldiers marched into Jerusalem. The display of force came days before the Passover Feast, a reminder to the Jewish people that their pending celebration of Israel’s liberation from Egypt would only take place because Rome allowed it. Caesar, the Prince of Peace, would maintain peace by crushing any attempted uprising.
As Rome came through one gate Jesus entered another. The crowd celebrating his arrival with praise and palm branches echoed the arrival of Simon Maccabaeus, the last successful Jewish liberator, two hundred years earlier. The next day Jesus continued to pattern himself after Simon by driving the money changers from the Temple. In these two bold moves, Jesus declared his opposition to both Rome and the Jewish religious structure. That sets the stage for, “give unto Caesar.”
The Jewish leaders start by sucking up to Jesus a bit and then ask if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Mark makes it clear the question is a trap, something that makes little sense without some cultural background. The tax to Caesar is a tribute every occupied territory paid to Rome. It marked submission and allegiance. So if Jesus says yes, it means abandoning Sunday’s anti-imperial declaration. If he says no, he gives Rome a reason to kill him.
Instead of giving a straight answer, Jesus responds with a trick of his own by asking for a denarius, a Roman coin equal to a day’s wage, Again, a bit of cultural background is necessary. Because of the commandment forbidding graven images, Jews typically used an alternative currency. After all, the Roman denarius not only bore the image of Augustus but declared him a son of god. So the moment the Jewish leaders produce a denarius, they lose the encounter. They carry coins with a graven image, thus revealing the hypocrisy behind their public displays of piety. They have given themselves unto Caesar and they are Caesar’s.
Which Son of God Do You Follow
But what exactly does it mean to give yourself to the son of god named Caesar? It means to embrace the ways of this world, or as I call it, the way of power. That includes not only individual and corporate manifestations of the military might that marched into Jerusalem on Sunday, but the exploitive economic practices embraced by the temple money changers Jesus drove out on Monday. In other words, what is Caesar’s is any practice designed to enhance your standing before others, especially when it comes at the expense of someone else.
Following the Son of God named Jesus means embracing, the way of love, or what the Bible calls the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the way of humility, vulnerability, and service to others … especially the marginalized.
Christianity fails when it read Jesus’ words as an invitation to compartmentalize our faith (often from our politics). This allows us to embrace the ways of this world, to follow Caesar in our homes, our workplaces, and our communities, and pretend it has nothing to do with our faith. This take on Christianity has given itself unto Caesar.
Discovering a healthy abundance in the Jesus tradition involves embracing the way of Jesus, not just the person of Jesus.
Video: The Kingdom of God
Often the church mistakes the Kingdom of God as Jesus way of talking about heaven. But that misses the point. The Kingdom of Heaven stands in contrast to the Kingdom of Caesar. It’s about the way of love over power. Watch this short video for more.
Essay: “The Challenge To Love” in Henri Nouwen’s book, Intimacy (affiliate)
Caesar or Jesus? Darkness or light? Power or love? These are the guiding energies that can shape how we approach life, love, and others. In this essay, Henri Nouwen explores why power is ubiquitous and what it takes to step into love.
Video: Living By Spirit
Not quite ready to buy Nouwen’s book? Here is me offering my thoughts on what it means to live by spirit, be it the spirit of power or love. Make sure you like, subscribe, and share while you’re there.
Book: The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus Final Days in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (affiliate)
Odds are good that Jesus is more revolutionary than you realize. In this book Borg and Crossan explore the last week of Jesus’ life, unpacking the significance of the often fast-paced Gospel According to Mark detailing each day’s events.
Christian faith doesn’t have to be broken. But living into it demands that we reimagine how we conduct our lives. Where do you want to start learning to live the way of love? Reply to this email and let me know. Feel free to share your thoughts on what love might look like.
Reading this post can easily stir up guilt and shame. After all, if we are honest, most of us follow the son of god named Caesar. But before it becomes too overwhelming, take a deep breath and believe that God isn’t offended. That is the topic of the next post.
This post is the second in a five-part series on rescuing Christian faith from Christianity. To receive the full series, sign up for our weekly email for spiritual misfits who realize that Christianity is broken but Christian faith doesn’t have to be.
All Bible quotes come from Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.