Magazine article The Christian Century

The Things That Are God's

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Things That Are God's

Article excerpt

Though I grew up during the civil unrest and cultural change that marked the '60s and '70s, my middle-American, middle-class, mainstream-Christian upbringing still led me to assume that patriotism and Christian discipleship were highly compatible, mutually reinforcing commitments. They seemed two sides of the same coin--the coin that represented the most important values I was assimilating in middle school and high school.

Last summer I celebrated the Fourth of July on Saturday, teaching my children, nieces and nephews to stand for the flag when it went by in the annual parade. The next day, I preached at a Baptist church. I was an enthusiastic patriot one day, a committed disciple the next. Nothing, it seemed, had changed.

My background and weekend experiences may seem so common as to be unworthy of further reflection. But over the centuries, people have rarely been able to be both patriots and committed Christians. Early Christians were persecuted, we recall. They could be asked to swear an oath of loyalty to the Roman emperor and punished if they refused to do so. To express allegiance to an emperor who claimed to be divine, however, betrayed their monotheistic beliefs. They had to choose between patriotism and discipleship.

The persecution of Christians, often by other Christians, was all too common in the following centuries. Indeed, many early American colonists came seeking refuge from it. In an effort to ensure that our new nation would remain a safe haven for people of faith, Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need for a "wall of separation" between church and state. Unfortunately, this very good idea that the two institutions be kept separate has been taken to mean that our Christian discipleship and our patriotism are also to be lived out separately. We tend to view our civil and religious obligations and commitments as coexisting in separate spheres or, worse yet, in tidy boxes.

Theologians, biblical scholars and preachers have reinforced this view by the way they interpret the "Render to Caesar" passage in the synoptic Gospels (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-27; Luke 20:20-26). Jesus' snappy rejoinder to the question about paying taxes--"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's"--is often taken to mean that patriotism and discipleship have separate claims on our lives, and that there is no relationship between the two. This interpretation is mistaken. The key to a proper understanding of the passage lies in Jesus' use of the coin in the verses that intervene between the initial question posed to him and his eventual reply.

Jesus' questioners ask, "Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?" Jesus does not answer right away. Instead, he counters with the question, "Why are you putting me to the test?" He then requests, "Bring me a denarius and let me see it." When Jesus receives the coin he asks a second counterquestion: "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" The questioners answer, "Caesar's." Now Jesus responds to the original question, but more in the form of a rejoinder: "Bender to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

What, then, are the "things that are God's," in light of Jesus' reference to the denarius? If coins are "things that are Caesar's" because they bear Caesar's "likeness and inscription," we must ask, What bears God's likeness and inscription? …

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