How a misinterpretation of the Bible gets Jesus’s most dangerous teaching backwards
Defending Donald Trump’s border wall, Jerry Falwell tweeted:
You nuts attacking @realDonaldTrump for securing the border need to show me where Jesus told Caesar how to run Rome. Jesus taught personal charity but went out of His way to say render unto Caesar that which is his. Jesus never told Caesar to let barbarians illegally enter Rome.
This is a very common misinterpretation of the "render unto Caesar" episode, by people who demand obedience to the government and want biblical justification. It’s been used to justify slavery, imperialism, and many evils.
So what does the “tender unto Caesar” passage actually mean?
In context, Jesus is being set up by government officials trying to nail him for sedition.
But Jesus sees the trap, and instead says, somewhat cryptically, that Caesar should get what’s Caesar’s, and God should get what’s God’s.
Note that rhetorically, this leaves open just how much or how little truly belongs to each of them.
Jesus could have just said "obey Caesar" or "obey the government", but he doesn’t. That’s not his message. His message is that Caesar should be denied everything that isn’t rightfully Caesar’s.
The context that a trap is being set is important to explain why Jesus is being cryptic. He’s threading the needle — he’d be arrested if he said to disobey the government, so instead he draws on his followers' familiarity with his preaching on the wide reach of the kingdom of God to make clear just how little authority Rome really has on their lives and souls.
Anyone actually listening to Jesus will recognize that his priors — the background understanding he starts with — are that God’s kingdom is not only the narrow practice of the church.
God’s kingdom, in Jesus’s teaching, is in how you treat people everyday, wherever you are. It’s in whether you cast the first stone. It’s in helping the sick. It’s in visiting prisoners in jail.
And it’s in the crucifixion itself, of course, which is truly in God’s domain, and completely not in Caesar’s — despite the illusion of control over Jesus’s life that the government is trying to assert by elaborately and publicly killing him.
You might say the clearest point to Jesus’s teaching is that God’s domain stretches far beyond the complacent place of narrow ceremony and surface piety, and into all aspects of everyday life.
As Paul puts it, according to Jesus’s teaching, your adherence to a ceremonial tradition like circumcision matters little compared to what’s in your heart. This is a radically broad expansion of the understanding of the reach of the spiritual domain — and a radical shrinking of the understanding of the reach of written law.
The threat here is clear, both to the state and the church that accommodates and colludes with it (with tax collection in church, for example). You can see why cops wanted to get Jesus on the record saying not to obey the government.
So Jesus does communicate not to obey the government — when they step beyond their rightful, natural domain, and into God’s.
Say, when the government wants to use guns to tell women how and when to bear children, or when the government uses guns to seize babies and jail them, or when the government wants to build symbols of human exclusion and division.
If you believe that childbirth has no place in God’s kingdom, or that God has nothing to say about human inclusion, well, go ahead and render these unto Caesar. But if you are at all moved by Jesus’s teachings, recogmize that there are narrow limits on how government may impinge on natural law — limits that Jesus’s “render unto Caesar” lesson reminds us of.