Sermon: We Are Not Our Own—We Belong to God

Gracious triune God, speak that we may hear, give that we may receive, be that we may become. For it is in the name of the Word who became flesh that we pray. Amen.

Scripture: Mark 12.13-17
Then [the chief priests] sent to [Jesus] 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 Caesar, 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 image is this, and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Caesar and God. God and Caesar. I have to confess at the start that this topic frightens me. I have to walk a very tight line. The dualism between these two authorities has been used historically to endorse the idea of two kingdoms or two regiments, and nowadays, in our modern democratic society, this passage (and its parallels) is often appealed to in support of the separation between church and state. Thus, the twin notions of Caesar and God are at the center of our modern understanding of the church, and that makes it hard to look at this text with truly fresh eyes.

And to be perfectly honest, the statement has always puzzled me. The notion of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s seems like a rather odd thing for Jesus to say. For example, Jesus did not say, give to Mammon the things that are Mammon’s. No, he said you cannot serve two masters. Nor did Jesus say, give to your family the things that are your family’s. No, he says let the dead bury their own dead (Matt. 8:22). Nor did Jesus even say, give to yourself the things that belong to yourself. No, he said that you must hate even life itself and carry your cross in order to be his disciple (Lk. 14:26-27). So why, then, does he allow us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, or to cautiously use contemporary idiom, give to the President what is the President’s? What happened to the Jesus who claims everything, even our very life?

It seems to me that there are three possible ways of reading this passage: (1) his statement was meant only for the people who lived in his particular historical context under Roman rule; or (2) Jesus’ statement means that parts of our lives belong to the government and other parts belong to God, and that Jesus’ call to discipleship only concerns the latter, which is something spiritual and heavenly over against what is material and earthly; or (3) his statement has meaning for us today but it’s quite different from how this passage is usually read.

The first interpretation is tempting but unhelpful, for if we feel free to limit the teaching of Jesus in this passage to his context alone, then any of Jesus’ teachings are potentially open to such radical contextualization. If we wish to retain the validity of his teachings for us today, this first option is not open to us.

The problems with the second interpretation are manifold and much more complex. The problems have become more pronounced in recent years, now that we have seen what can happen when this passage is abused. Just take the German Church’s incapacity to challenge Hitler as only the most prominent example of this problem. As the German situation shows us, the strict division between religion and politics, between church and state, ends up rather ironically in supporting the convergence, even the conflation, of the two. The stricter and cleaner we make the separation between church and state, the less conflict there is between the two. And with less conflict, the easier it is to bring the two together in some kind of harmonious relation. Caesar and God are compatible authorities; their respective realms of influence should not overlap, on this reading.

More recently, the problems with this rendering of the relation between church and state have become even more apparent. Several decades after Hitler, Chile came under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Theologian William Cavanaugh wrote extensively on this situation in order to explore exactly how and why the church offered no resistance to the mass torture and execution of civilians. His conclusion is that, in Chile, the church had bought into the notion that “the soul is the province of the church, and the state has charge of the body.” The clean separation between body and soul, between a spiritual sphere and a physical sphere, all too easily leads to complacency—and thus, eventually, complicity—in crimes against humanity.

Or take the prominent example of pastor and author, Gregory Boyd, who recently received a lot of press for his outspoken stance against the conflation of religion and politics. According to a New York Times article from last year: “[Rev. Boyd] said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing ‘God Bless America and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.”

My own struggle with this passage began in the church in which I grew up. There I watched as recent high school grads heading off to the military would receive what could only be called a divine commission. The pastor would have the person in question come forward and tell the congregation where he would be going. Then there would be a laying on of hands as the pastor prayed for his safety. Moreover, it was during this time that I came across the statement (I don’t know where) that to pray for the safety of a soldier is to pray for the death of his or her enemies. So the whole ceremony became exponentially more uncomfortable for me every time it happened. And when I sought to investigate the rationale for such ceremonies, invariably one of the passages brought up was Mark 12:17.

So if Jesus is saying something else, how else might we understand the passage? Does Mark 12 invite a different reading? The axiom Jesus offers—Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s—begs the obvious question: What things belong to Caesar and what things belong to God? Most people skip this question and simply jump to the application, assuming that we enlightened moderns already know how to divide up our lives into “church” and “state.” We are all children of John Locke, and this passage is thus already self-evident—or so it seems. When we actually look at the text, though, we see that Jesus does not presuppose a division between Caesar and God. In fact, just the opposite, for the challenge posed by the chief priests only makes sense if some conflict between God and Caesar is presupposed. The felt tension over Roman taxation presupposes conflict. In order to answer the problem, Jesus asks for a coin. He then asks his hearers, “Whose image is on this?” The answer, “Caesar’s,” determines the outcome. Because the image of Caesar is on the coin—thus denoting ownership of the coin—Caesar can decide what should happen with that coin, including the paying of taxes.

The question for us, then, is simply this: Whose image are we? Whose image do we bear? According to Gen. 1:27, it is the image of God. Not the image of Caesar; not the image of our President; not the image of Hollywood; not the image of John Calvin or Karl Barth; not the image of Princeton Seminary. No, we bear the image of God, and that image—as with the coin—denotes ownership. If the image inscribed on the coin determines the life of that coin, then the image of God inscribed on those who exist in relation to the triune God determines the life of those persons. Moreover, these are not just impersonal images of some abstract authority. The image on the coin would have been the image of Emperor Tiberius, and the image on those of us claimed by God is, according to Romans 8:29, the “image of God’s Son.” We bear the image of Christ, and thus we bear the image of one who suffered and died at the hands of imperial power on our behalf. We bear the image of one who was tortured that we might live in peace and freedom. We bear the image of one who offered no resistance, who put up no fight, who lived as he taught others to live, by praying for those who persecuted him (Matt. 5:44).

In light of the confession of the Crucified One, Paul writes, “For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). The death of Christ nullifies any notion of self-possession or any lessening of the claim of God upon our lives. If our dependence upon God for our very creation was not enough, we are doubly dependent upon God for our redemption. As the famous first answer to the Heidelberg Catechism makes clear, our sole source of comfort is “that I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” The reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ determines that humanity belongs wholly to God. Here there is no division between body and soul, between physical and spiritual. We cannot say that the soul belongs to God but the body belongs to the nation-state. Rather, we must confess that we are not our own, as John Calvin writes:
We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. (Institutes 3.7.1)
If we are not our own, what does this mean for us who live in a society in which we are bombarded with numerous claims upon our existence—the claim of a parent upon a child, the claim of a boss upon an employee, the claim of a pastor upon a parishioner, the claim of a professor upon a student, the claim of an advertisement upon a consumer? As God tells Moses when the Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:6, “Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God’s claim does not stand alongside other claims. God is not one claim among others. On the contrary, God’s claim places all other claims in crisis. Indeed, the whole earth belongs to God, including the realms claimed by the emperor or the prime minister or the president. All this belongs to God. Within this space, God calls us to be a people set apart. The passage from Exodus mixes political and sacerdotal terms. There is no division between body and soul. In fact, the whole point of the church, according to Cavanaugh, is to “create spaces of resistance where bodies belong to God, not the state.”

In closing, what does Jesus’ statement mean? What exactly belongs to the President and what belongs to God? If there is anything we should learn from Mark 12 and passages like Romans 13, it is that the President belongs to God. Caesar and God are not two equally valid authorities. As God declares, “Indeed, the whole earth is mine.” But within this space, we are called to live set apart lives. To be set apart means to bear witness to the God of grace—a witness which includes paying taxes and obeying the laws, but which also calls us to testify against dehumanization, militarism, and a narcissistic culture of death. We bear the image of Jesus Christ—the Crucified One, the Son who came to live and die “for us and for our salvation.” We bear the image of the one who turned the other cheek, who spoke truth to power, and who gave up his spirit that we might receive the Spirit of God. As those who bear his Name and his image, let us go forward as a priestly kingdom of peace and holy nation of love. In the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.


eric said…
You do a good job causing a tension in my mind and then resolving it intelligently. The funny thing is, I have the same opinion on the matter now as before I read your article. But I see a much better justification for it now.
Mikhail said…
You explained this passage beautifully. I have been trying to explain this passage and you did a much better job than me. Would it be OK if I distribute this to my friends (with a reference to you)? Shalom.
D.W. Congdon said…
Mikhail: By all means, feel free to pass this along to others. I am glad my words can, by God's grace, be used for the benefit of others. Feel free to direct them to this blog, particularly if they have any questions or comments.