Acton Institute Powerblog

What Would Jesus Cut? Who’s Asking, the Pharisees?

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The next skirmish over the country’s financial direction will come in September as Congress tries to prepare for the federal government’s new fiscal year, which starts October 1st. The Christian Left has quoted the Bible quite freely during the budget battle, throwing around especially the “red letter” words of Christ in its campaign to protect all of the federal government’s poverty programs (even those so riddled with fraud that the White House wants to cut them). It seems bizarre, then, that they never make reference to the most obviously political passage of the Gospels—Christ’s dictate to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: “Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it?” Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: “Why tempt you me? Bring me a penny that I may see it.” And they brought it him. And he saith to them: “Whose is this image and inscription?” They say to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answering, said to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)

On its face, of course, Christ’s reply doesn’t play well for Circle of Protection types in a sound bite war, since it seems to suggest that one’s moral responsibilities go much beyond the paying of taxes. A thorough examination of the passage would require that we understand Roman money and taxation, synagogue finances, and Hebrew politics at the time, and from the Church fathers to John Courntey Murray, various interpretations have been offered to satisfy almost everyone.

What does jump out of the text, though, is the question asked of Christ: it bears a great resemblance to Jim Wallis’s “What Would Jesus Cut?” The Pharisees come to Christ with the allies of Herod, having invented a question that entangles politics and religion—they would like Him to wade into the Jewish-Roman debate, where he might be caught serving two masters. Christ will have none of it—he quickly parries the question and leaves his questioners, as always, “marveling.”

2000 years later, attempts to frame taxation as a doctrinal issue should be given no more attention than the Pharisees’ received. It seems that in focusing to closely on the red letters of the gospel, certain Christians have missed the words of Christ’s interlocutors.

Kenneth Spence


  • TZ

    I thouht St Paul settled the issue of circumcision

  • Nilsinchina

    On an unchristian thing – interest-lending (which the entire financial system is “based” on)

    If you are trying, here, to construct the story into an allegorical appeal to “proper taxpaying”, you are actually arguing quite contrary to what the quoted famous social revolutionary had preached and practiced: A thorough questioning of monetary authority. Just look at the story: “Cesar wants us to pay taxes? Oh well, let’s see then whose mug is on this stuff? Cesar’s! Then here, have it all, return to sender, we don’t need (t)his money, the meek will inherit the earth and so on!” (Any questions why he ended up on a cross – the contemporary version of the electrical chair?) No interest-charging money-lending on the temple stairs! Wow! Jesus did not argue in favor of compliance to but defiance from monetary authority! Maybe someone can do me the favor and look up when (it was quite recently) the catholic ban on usury was finally abandoned? Ok, I did, the Wikipedia article on the topic is rather comprehensive. 
    The first time usury prohibition entered into “official policy” of the catholic church was as early as 325 when
    “Medieval Christian interest payment theology began with the First Council of Nicaea (325), which forbade clergy from engaging in usury.[3] Laterecumenical councils applied this regulation to the laity.[3][4]”

    and it was abandoned by the time the Code Napoleon was widely implemented across Europe, which was as late as the early nineteenth century until around 1860 the lift of christian (catholic) ban of interest-charging is, as we can see, very recent. Before that, the church itself had become involved in monetary operations of all sorts: 

    “Papal historian John Pollard argues that the encyclical’s prohibition on usury contributed to the dependence of the Holy See upon Jewish bankers like James de Rothschild.[12]”
    [By the way, how can Pollard get away with this view? Is not everyone who states facts about this particular family a conspiracy theorist and is not everyone who uses “banker” and “Jewish” in one sentence necessarily a Nazi?] The article goes on about the end of this particular doctrine:

    “The text of the encyclical was destroyed* in several countries.[13] In France, the ban on usury persisted until the French Revolution of 1789 (…) In 1830, following the widespread acceptance of the Napoleonic code, which allowed interest, throughout Europe[11]— with the approval of Pope Pius VIII, the Inquisition of Rome, distinguished the doctrine of usury from the practice of usury, decreeing that confessors should no longer disturb the latter.[10][*How and why is open to speculation and anyone who raises doubts is a conspiracy theorist.]
    “Miller, a specialist in Catholic social doctrine, argues, circa 1994, that: “the words ‘bank’ and ‘banking’ are almost nonexistent in the documents of modern Catholic social teaching. Perhaps because the medieval teaching was never formally retracted that money was unproductive and therefore money lending at interest was therefore immoral, yet the church itself became an active investor […] Or perhaps it was because the church was deeply involved in financial matters at the highest levels that it was in no position to criticise.”[20]”Christ might have been a social revolutionary, and the policies of the church might have been inspired by his position on monetary lending and profits through interests, but today’s followers, having embraced the financial systems that be, seem to contend themselves in advocating “good taxpayer behavior”. Jesus Christ! If he ever returned to earth, he’d see a nation, or rather a bunch of nations, of interest-slaves waving the very thing he was killed on as their symbol of allegiance.