By James Cornwell

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.


The Pharisees (a religious party) and the Herodians (a political faction) pose a question to Jesus to entrap him. They wish to alienate him from some of his followers by forcing him to take a side on a major political issue of the day. Do followers of Christ have an obligation to pay taxes to the state which, while providing security, also engages in oppression? Or do they have the obligation to withhold tribute from Caesar in defiance of the Roman state?

Jesus takes neither route, nor does he remain silent before the question. Instead, he contextualizes it. Caesar gets what is his, but God jealously guards what is his.

This leads us to a response to the state that is not clear-cut. On the one hand, we should absolutely withhold that which does not belong to the state: Caesar has no authority to own or unjustly divest any human being of God-given dignity, because all humans, in their beautiful diversity, body and soul, belong to God. On the other hand, we need to be wary that we do not look to the state or to politics for salvation from our spiritual ills, or that we do not pledge a final obedience that only belongs to God. Though we may serve the civitas, we must not submit ourselves to any secular entity for spiritual or moral reeducation, or participate in ritual affirmations that would deny Christ’s ultimate sovereignty.

There is much that can be done with that which we render unto Caesar. Caesar only ought to receive what he deserves, and it may be, at times, that he deserves nothing!  But we must ensure that, even as we act politically in this world, that we jealously guard our souls and bodies sealed with God’s image — and those of our fellow citizens — because those belong only and always to Almighty God.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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