When I was about 19 years old, maybe, my friend Scott very solemnly gave me a book; I can’t for the life of me remember the title, but the cover had a picture of soldiers fighting in the desert, presumably Desert Storm, with words of warning along the bottom about the coming Apocalypse. I read about 25 words past the heading of each chapter, each of which consisted of its own conspiracy theory about how the New World Order had lined up against God, mostly through the Disney corporation, the Federal Reserve, and UPC codes bearing the mark of the beast. While the banality of evil has been well-discussed, evil has nothing on the banality of misled Christians looking for evil.
I imagine Jesus being at least as bored by His questioners today as I was with that book. “When Jesus takes the Caesar’s coin into his hand and holds it up in front of his bewildered questioners, you can almost see him shrug his shoulders, furrow his brow, and just generally convey the idea, “What are you talking about? THIS is all you have to ask me about? Who cares? This means nothing! Get a life!”1
Not that I blame the Pharisees completely. The life they were living was only partly of their choosing; theirs was not a difficult life, certainly, but it was a life lived under distress. Being occupied by Rome was no joke; Rome was, for all intents and purposes, all powerful, and they weren’t shy about reminding their occupied lands of that fact. This would have been relatively palatable, if you consider the Pax Romana and the economic advantages of being under Rome, except for the fact that Roman society was incredibly religious.
Remember that about the same time the Pharisees sent their guys to argue with Jesus about taxes, the Romans were up in Lebanon building the largest temple they ever built. “Baalbek, also called Heliopolis, is a spectacular (ancient city) northeastern Lebanon. From the 1st century BC and over a period of two centuries, the Romans built three temples there: Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. Created to be the largest temple in the Roman empire, the temple of Jupiter was lined by 54 massive granite columns each each of which were 70 feet tall… After the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BC to AD 14), the emperor was also considered to be a god and he was worshipped on special occasions. Each god had a special festival day which was usually a public holiday.”2
“Some scholars believe that the denarius in question likely bore the image of Tiberius with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and an image of the “high priest” Livia on the coin’s obverse. Indeed, most scholars believe that the inscription on the coin to which Jesus refers in verse 20 was likely some blasphemous designation.”3
This wasn’t the War on Christmas or the Ten Commandments coming off a courtroom wall or Prayer in Schools. To live under Caesar was to live under a pagan god and then have to pay that pagan god taxes. So was it lawful to do that? “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
But let’s not forget the end of that sentence: “and to God the things that are God’s.” We have the honor and pleasure of living in the United States of America, but being us brings its own challenges. The Church, if she is to remain faithful, must absorb the threats from within and from without while never forgetting the render to God the things that are God’s.”
But while there are real threats – the devil is alive and maybe not-so-well but very active – most of the threats we see are mere distractions. The overall threat is that if we’re not careful, we might pay attention to the bright lights over here but forget our neighbor who might be down here; if we’re not mindful, we spend so much time rendering unto Caesar that we’re too busy to render unto God.
In the end, “When you know that the whole world belongs to God and when you know that above all the human heart is what belongs to the…God who fashioned us in his image, (then all the supposed threats become, well, boring)…they do not ultimately touch God. They do not finally threaten God.” If they cannot threaten the God who made all things then they cannot threaten us, His prized creation, who Christ Himself will render unto His Father on the last day. Nothing boring about that.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week