“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:2)
Most of us will recognise this line from the Gospel of Matthew. Indeed, ‘Render unto Caesar’ has become something of an aphorism for many Christians and is regularly used to defend the ‘Two Kingdoms’ doctrine in Christian thinking.
The ‘two kingdoms’ idea is that God rules the world in two ways – one secular and one spiritual. Each realm has its own leadership structure, and each realm demands a level of obedience from its citizens. We have responsibilities both towards both ‘Caesar’ (i.e., our government) and towards God. Our responsibilities to God do trump those to our secular government but they don’t dissolve them.
Martin Luther was the best-known advocate of ‘Two Kingdoms’ thinking:
“God has therefore ordained two regiments: the spiritual which by the Holy Spirit produces Christians and pious folk under Christ, and the secular which restrains un-Christian and evil folk, so that they are obliged to keep outward peace, albeit by no merit of their own.” (from Luther’s “Temporal Authority”, published in 1523).
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this ‘Two Kingdoms’ thinking played into the hands of the Nazis in Germany during the 1930’s. Hitler could claim complete authority in the secular realm while leaving the spiritual realm untouched. It was on the basis of this sort of understanding that the vast majority of German Christians remained loyal to the Führer throughout World War II.
Going back to the text of Matthew 22, I’m not convinced there is any basis for the ‘Two Kingdoms’ theory in this text. What we see is Jesus making a clever response to a trick question that was designed to damage His reputation. I’m not sure how much more we should read into it.
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. So, they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:15-17)
It’s a trick question. Jesus’ enemies don’t care what He thinks about paying taxes, but they know that however He answers this question, Jesus is likely to get Himself into trouble. If Jesus openly opposes Roman taxation, he’s skirting trouble with the law and is likely to be arrested. If, on the other hand, Jesus supports the Roman taxation system, He is bound to lose support from his fellow Jews, all of whom hate the Romans. Jesus was in a dilemma.
I feel I’m in a similar dilemma when people ask me, “Do you stand with Israel after the October 7 attack by Hamas?” I’m not a supporter of Hamas and, if I’m correct in thinking that this attack targeted civilians, of course I cannot support it. At the same time, I am aware of the history of violence that has been inflicted on the people of Gaza by the state of Israel, and I’m horrified by the level of violence that is being enacted on them now. Does condemning the Hamas attack mean I’m endorsing Israel’s acts of vengeance? God forbid!
Jesus’ answer to His opponents is clever:
“Aware of their malice, Jesus said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:18-21)
It’s a brilliant response as it avoids both sides of the dilemma that Jesus’ opponents had created. Even so, is Jesus saying that we should pay taxes to Caesar or not? The answer is not obvious.
I have a feeling that if the context had been different, and if the question about taxes had been coming from Jesus’ disciples in a closed-door session, Jesus’ response may have been very different. Jesus would not have supported the Roman occupation which was violent and oppressive. At the same time, He clearly did not endorse a violent overthrow of the system. Would He have encouraged His team to pay their taxes without complaining? I’m not sure.
As ever, I fall back on my own favourite aphorism – that ‘every complex problem has a simple answer, and it’s always the wrong answer’. That’s as relevant to the situation in Israel and Palestine today as it was in the first century. There are no simple answers. Even so, I believe there are answers. We just need to be willing to do the hard work necessary to reach them.
Our Sunday Eucharist
It was great to be back on the panel for the Sunday Eucharist last weekend. We had a bit of a shake-up with both Sam and Father Ola being unavailable. The good news though was that Joy was able to join Karyn and myself on the panel. You can watch the edited version of the video below.
It was great to be back, and it was good to have the chance to debrief a little. We grieved both my failure to see our brother, Julian Assange, while in London, and the distressing situation in Israel/Palestine. In our Epistle reading we heard Saint Paul urge us to rejoice in all circumstances. His words seemed to be very well-timed.
This coming Sunday I’ll be broadcasting from the bush. I’m not sure who I’ll have with me there but I’m expecting both Doug and Andrew Logan to join me online. Andrew Madry may join us as well but he’s on his way back from Canberra after making submissions there about the excess deaths in this country. I do hope he can join us and give us an update.
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Yes, Father Dave’s Old School Boxing Academy begins a new chapter this coming week with the move to Balmain PCYC. I am very excited about the opportunities there and consider it a great privilege to have been asked to take the helm of their boxing program. There is a great team in place at Balmain already and I am confident that we’ll be able to enhance their work in community outreach.
You’ll notice that I’ve gone back to Tuesday and Thursday nights training for the moment. These days seemed to have worked better for our team in the past. We will have the opportunity to adjust both the days and times though over the coming months. I do hope that as many of your as possible can make it this coming Tuesday. I’ll be there from 5pm when there’s a class for juniors.
Please pray for us as we start this new work. I do see the hand of God in it. Our eviction from the Tempe gym has left me with much pain but I now see it in the light of Genesis 50:20 (“what you intended against me for evil, God intended for good”). We have great opportunities and a great team starting with us. I’m particularly excited to have my old coach, Tony O’Loughlin, coming along on Tuesday, along with fighting legend (and long-time friend) Mel Ristevski. Please come if you can.
While I’m excited about boxing at Balmain PCYC, it’s impossible to truly celebrate anything while the carnage in Gaza continues. I recorded a discussion I had with Father Mark during the week. It was right after the terrible attack on the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, which is run by the Anglican Church in Gaza. You’ll find that below, or you can watch the video with a full transcript on israelandpalestine.org.
This morning I was watching a recording of some survivors of the attack on Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza – Gaza’s oldest church. You can see that recording here if you’re up to it. Apparently, one child is dying every 15 minutes in Gaza at the moment as a result of these attacks. It is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying.
I’m attaching below both a letter and a statement recently sent to me by my friend, Brother Peter Bray, who is Vice-Chancellor of Bethlehem University. Peter is a New Zealander who has been working in Bethlehem for as long as I have known him. I think you’ll find his words helpful.
Peter has also agreed to do an online interview with me some time over the next week. If others would like to be involved, let me know. We can make it an online seminar with live interaction, as we do with the Sunday Eucharist.
May the Lord bless and strengthen you for the work to which you have been called.