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.