Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
“Render unto Caesar”, it’s one of those phrases which has passed from the Bible in common speech. We use it when we sigh and fill in our tax returns. At least this year we know it’s doing good, supporting our wonderful, but woefully overstretched, NHS. And it’s good (both for giver and receiver) to give some of our cash to benefit others.
The trouble is, Jesus wasn’t talking about giving. That word ‘render’ is not very helpful. The Greek is apodidomi, meaning to give, pay or (and here’s the relevant one) pay back.
In many ancient cultures, and in our own not so very long ago, the monarch owned everything. Really, everything. That’s why Queen Elizabeth I could go on a grand tour and stay at any noble’s home she chose, eating, drinking and moving on without any thought of payment. Everything was hers anyway. The nobles were only looking after it on her behalf. Anything they ‘gave’ her was just giving her back her own stuff.
Mind you, I don’t suppose it felt like that when they’d been used to spending their groats and sovereigns however they liked and then the actual sovereign comes by and demands a reckoning. (Didn’t Jesus tell a parable about that?)
And so it was with the Roman tax money. It was all Caesar’s anyway, said Jesus, it had his picture and inscription, so paying taxes was just giving him back his own stuff.
And what about rendering unto God? When I ‘give’ to God, do I think of it as giving, or giving back? The time that I have is from God. The money I have is from God. The job I have, the family I have, the house I have, the health I have, the opportunities I have, all are from God. But it’s easy to forget. It is all God’s anyway and I’m just giving him back his own stuff.
Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. For all that is in the heaven and on the earth is yours. All things come from you, and of your own have we given you. Amen.
(from 2 Chronicles 29)
Fay Rowland, author and graduate student of Wesley House, Cambridge, worshipping with Christ the King, Kettering.