Loyal Dissenters: Reading Matthew 22:21 Together


They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” —Matthew 22:21

When English Baptists in the seventeenth century read Matthew 22:21, they heard Jesus establishing a limit on the authority of civil power. Caesar did have legitimate concerns in this world—collecting taxes, for example—and, in those areas, he could exercise his power as he saw fit. Not everything, however, was subject to Caesar’s coercive rule. Some things belonged to God alone, and over them, civil power could claim no rightful authority. While Baptist writers cited numerous verses of Scripture in support of their faith conviction that civil power had no authority over religion, Matthew 22:21 was a frequent and favorite citation. In other words, when early English Baptists wanted to argue that spiritual matters were beyond the scope of legitimate human authority, they often turned to the words of Jesus as recorded in this verse for support. So, as fellow readers of Scripture, let’s take a closer look at this verse from Matthew that helped our Baptist ancestors articulate what they believed to be true about the proper relationship between civil power and religion.

In order for us to get a better understanding of the specific verse in question, we need to realize that it is but one small part of a long-simmering controversy between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in Matthew’s Gospel, an already heated situation well on its way to boiling by the time we get to chapter 22. According to Matthew’s timeline, the day after Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders question his authority at the temple (Matt 21:23-27). Jesus responds to their challenge with three very pointed parables (21:28–22:14), all of them casting the Jewish leaders in a decidedly negative light. After Jesus’ third parable, Matthew tells us that “then went the Pharisees and took counsel how they might entangle him in talk” (22:15). They have finally heard enough from Jesus and are ready to take the necessary measures to shut him up. In fact, the conversation about taxes that begins at Matthew 22:1 is the first of three attempts by religious authorities (a tit-for-tat response to Jesus’ three parables?) to embarrass Jesus with a controversial question. Demonstrating that, even in biblical times, politics makes for strange bedfellows, the Pharisees, who were zealous keepers of the Mosaic law and wary of Rome’s influence, form a convenient alliance here with the Herodians, a Jewish party known for being cozy with the pagan Roman government. And what is the glue holding this unlikely coalition together? A shared contempt for Jesus.

So the Pharisees send their disciples, along with their new Herodian friends, to see Jesus. The emissaries begin their mission with a burst of flattery that is more revealing than they intend. Every bit of praise thrown at Jesus—“Master,” they call him, praising his integrity and his skill as a true teacher of God’s way (Matt 22:16)—boomerangs on these smooth talkers, who have repeatedly shown themselves to be insincere teachers of a distorted view of God’s truth, adept primarily at demanding deference and delivering judgment. Their flattering description of Jesus, ironically, spells out exactly what these pharisaical ambassadors are not.

Their flattery having quickly run its course, these agents provocateurs get to the point. “Tell us, therefore, how thinkest thou,” they demand, maneuvering Jesus into an uncomfortable corner. “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” (Matt 22:17) The law to which they are referring here is not that of Rome but rather the commandments of God as found in the Torah, meaning that their question is about the religious propriety of paying tax to Rome, specifically the annual property tax that the Romans collected from those living under their imperial rule. (The New Testament Greek word translated here as “tribute” is khnsoz, or kensos, from which the English word census comes. In order to tax property, the Romans first had to account for it.) Taxes are rarely popular in any time or place, but for Jews (Herodians possibly excepted) chafing under the rule of Rome, this yearly tribute to Caesar aroused particular resentment. The tax not only supported the Roman army that occupied Jerusalem but also had to be paid in Roman currency—that is, with coins bearing an image of the pagan emperor, Tiberius, underneath the grandiose (and, to the Jews, blasphemous) title, “Son of the Divine Augustus.” Cleverly presented to Jesus as a referendum on the religious implications of paying tribute to Caesar with profane currency, the question puts Jesus in an awkward position: he must either condemn the tax as inconsistent with Jewish law and, in doing so, attract the potentially dangerous attention of Rome—or he must endorse the unpopular tax and earn the contempt of the crowd. That, at least, is how his interrogators have planned it.

Instead, Jesus avoids the trap set before him by choosing neither option. Aware both of the malicious game afoot and its potentially-high stakes (Matthew 22:18), Jesus asks to see a Roman coin, which his inquisitors quickly produce (Matthew 22:19). This detail, by the way, suggests that, while Jesus didn’t carry any Roman money, his holier-than-thou opponents—disciples of the Pharisees, no less—did. No wonder Jesus calls them hypocrites! After having first established that the emperor’s head and the emperor’s title are indeed on the coin (Matt 22:20-21a), Jesus delivers to the gathered crowd his artful response: “Give therefore to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and give unto God, those which are God’s” (22:21b). Matthew tells us that Jesus’ answer stuns his opponents, who wander off amazed (22:22).

Like many of Jesus’ difficult teachings, this one challenges much more than it comforts. Indeed, anyone relying on Matthew 22:21 to systematize the messy process of sorting out the competing claims of God and Caesar will find it a frustrating formula, to say the least. Jesus never actually tells us what rightfully belongs to whom, nor does he set down any guidelines to help us make these distinctions for ourselves. Had he done so, it is doubtful that the crowd would have walked away marveling at his answer. They would have called him either a traitor (for endorsing the Roman tax) or a fool (for opposing it in public). Rather, the genius—and the uncomfortable challenge—of Jesus’ answer lies with the fact that it stirs up more questions than it settles. We want a neat, paint-by-numbers approach to negotiating our priorities: this belongs to Caesar, that belongs to God, and so forth. By this point in Matthew’s Gospel, however, we should know better than to expect such a thing from Jesus. He doesn’t negotiate priorities. Instead, he sets them.

In Matthew 6:24, for example, Jesus speaks about conflicted loyalties—in this instance, the conflict between our desire to serve God and our desire to make money—in very straightforward terms. “No man can serve two masters,” he says. “For either he shall hate the one and love the other, or else he shall lean to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches.” Jesus does not pretend that there is a golden mean between the two, or a way somehow to divide our lives in such a way that allows us to serve both masters faithfully at the same time, but in different ways. The same goes for family ties and all the other close relationships we enjoy in this world. “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” Jesus teaches his disciples in Matthew 10:37. “And he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus is not dispensing advice here about finding balance. He’s instructing his disciples to put him first in their lives. He must be their priority.

So, by the time we get to Matthew 22, Jesus has established a precedent. His disciples will have to make choices in this world. To whom will they be loyal? Who (or what) will they serve? To what end will they devote their lives? Will they serve God, follow Jesus, and pursue the kingdom of heaven above all else? These are not rhetorical questions. As followers of Jesus in every time and place have discovered, there are always plenty of other options, and no shortage of other, lesser gods to stake claims on our devotion. In chapter 6, Jesus calls attention to the power of money as a potential master. In chapter 10, he acknowledges the power of family as a potential rival. Now, in chapter 22, in response to the apprentice Pharisees and their Herodian allies, Jesus considers yet another potential source of conflict, this time in connection with the power of Caesar and the demands he makes on the lives of those under his rule.

While his nimble response to the question posed in Matthew 22:17 is, by necessity, more of an ad lib answer than a carefully crafted opinion, Jesus’ position in chapter 22 is consistent with what he said in chapters 6 and 10. At first hearing, Jesus’ admonition to give “Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and give unto God, those which are God’s” sounds an awful lot like he’s endorsing the very kind of divided loyalty he has previously rejected: you can’t serve both God and money, and there isn’t a happy medium between your love for family and your love for me—but it is, in fact, possible to work out a compromise between your loyalties to God and Caesar. A closer listen, however, suggests that he is actually doing just the opposite. The belief that all creation—everything in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth—belongs to God was a fundamental article of faith for Jesus and his fellow Jews. As Psalm 24:1 puts it, “The earth is the LORD’s, and all that therein is; the world and they that dwell therein.”

With this in mind, then, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ disciples and the Herodians takes on a much more confrontational tone, posing a challenge to anyone tempted to compromise their convictions at Caesar’s convenience: What, in all of creation, could there possibly be that doesn’t already rightfully belong to God? The answer, of course, is “Nothing.” It all belongs to God, to be used in accordance with God’s will. Just as money and family are both capable of serving noble purposes and, as such, do have their respective places in the lives of Jesus’ disciples, the same is true for the power of Caesar. At no point, though, can Caesar (or the king, or the government, or any other civil power in this world) lay an exclusive claim on anything—our bodies, our souls, our resources, or our allegiance—to do with as he pleases, because none of it truly belongs to him. This doesn’t mean, however, that Caesar won’t try. The powers of this world—money and family included—will always try. And when that happens, when what Caesar asks of us conflicts with what God expects from us, then Christians must be prepared to choose accordingly and live with the consequences of those choices.

This reading of Matthew 22:21, however, seems to put us at odds with our early English Baptist ancestors. They understood these words of Jesus as establishing a boundary between the legitimate, worldly concerns of Caesar (such as, for example, taxes, armies, and the necessity of establishing and maintaining public order) and the spiritual domain where God alone exercised sovereignty. The king, these Baptists argued, had no right to interfere with religion because the human soul and its affections were beyond his jurisdiction. Spiritual matters, in other words, fell into the Christ-given category of “those [things] which are God’s” and, therefore, were none of the king’s business. Our reading of Matthew 22:21 rejects this compartmentalized understanding of the world—with God and Caesar each enjoying the right to do what they will on their own turf—in favor of the view that all creation (including the powers of this world) belongs to God and is subject to his divine command. There is no such thing as Caesar’s turf and God’s turf, with a fence neatly separating the two. Rather, any claims that Caesar makes on the lives and loyalties of Jesus’ disciples are legitimate only insofar as they are consistent with what God has revealed to us of his will through the written record of Scripture and the living example of Jesus.

The apparent tension here between these two interpretations of Matthew 22:21 could reflect more of a difference in degree than a true difference in kind. In reading, and then proclaiming, these words of Jesus as they did, our Baptist ancestors in the seventeenth century discovered in Scripture the sliver of daylight they needed in order to advance the radical argument that there were some things—or, rather, there was at least one thing—in England over which the king had no authority. The king could tax his subjects, force them to fight his wars, and throw them in prison for disturbing the peace, but he could not dictate to them either what they should believe about God or how they should put those beliefs into practice. With Matthew 22:21 as a guide, Baptists reasoned that, if anything rightly belonged to God, it was a person’s soul. As such, religious opinion was a matter of individual conscience and beyond the king’s authority to control. Royal power, in other words, did have its limits.

It was a bold argument to make in seventeenth-century England, bold enough to put many Baptists on the wrong side of the law and in the king’s jails. It was also a necessary first step in the direction of bolder, even more radical arguments that Baptists would later make for religious liberty and the institutional separation of church and state. We can read Matthew 22:21 today as a declaration of God’s sovereignty over all creation (including the pretensions of Caesar’s descendants) precisely because the early English Baptists understood Jesus to be saying that there was, in fact, a limit to Caesar’s authority in the first place. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested, “a tradition is an argument extended through time.” When Baptists today speak about our traditional conviction that civil power has no authority over religion, we are simply extending an argument that began, in part, with Matthew 22:21. Therein lies the gift of reading Scripture together, even across the centuries.

loyal_dissenters_cvr_xxl-1This post originally appeared in a chapter of Loyal Dissenters: Reading Scripture and Talking Freedom with 17th-century English Baptists by Lee Canipe.

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