Jesus said to them: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Our Lord’s statement shows that everything has its proper sphere and place. That is how the Lord God has designed it to be. He is the One who places us in relation to one another, who gives us our stations in life. And as He has so willed it, the Lord God vests fallible human beings, even unbelievers, with His authority when He places them in positions of oversight.
This is why Jesus can rightly answer the Pharisees’ question: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar, or not?” Can the people of God pay a tax which indicates that they are subject to a pagan ruler and belong to a pagan empire? Yes, it is lawful, it is even right so to do. That is what we learn from the statement of Jesus which answers this question.
You heard how Jesus answered the question. He asks for the coin which pays the census tax. And He points out what is on that coin: “Whose likeness and inscription it this?” When the Pharisees answer: “It is Caesar’s,” then Jesus says to give Caesar’s property back to him. He says: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” In his sphere of influence, Caesar has legitimately stated that the coin has value and he has put his image and signature on it. So if he demands it back, you have no right to hold it from him.
Key to understanding this answer is the knowledge about vocation or the stations in life. The emperor has this authority because he occupies an office where the Lord God has placed His own authority. The Lord God establishes governmental authority to help keep order in His world. Paying the census tax recognizes that divine authority behind the emperor’s office, as well as facilitates the fulfillment of the emperor’s responsibilities as an earthly ruler. So it is that even the pagan Caesar, like the pagan Cyrus centuries before him, is vested with divine authority in his office, authority to be used to keep order in the Lord God’s creation.
But the teaching of Jesus in response to the Pharisees’ question is more than a civics lesson. Jesus does not limit His answer to “Be a good citizen and pay your taxes.” Rather, His answer is much more comprehensive. Jesus says: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and [render] to God the things that are God’s.” There are two renderings to take place, a giving back of things to both man and God.
So what are “the things that are God’s” which you are to render to Him? Jesus’ words about the coin can help answer that. What are the things which bear God’s “image and inscription” on them? What things have been given a value because the Lord God has placed His image and signature on them? Answer those questions, and you will know what Jesus says should be “[rendered] to God.”
A writing from an ancient teacher of the Church can help to give answer to those questions. Hilary of Poitiers commented in the 4th Century: “We are also to render to God things that are God’s: that is, body and soul and will. The coin of Caesar is in gold, on which his image is stamped. But man is God’s coin, on which is the image of God. Therefore, give your money to Caesar; keep for God a blameless conscience.” It is an interesting observation from this venerable teacher: you are God’s coins, God’s things which are to be rendered back to Him.
Such language is full of baptismal allusion. Before your baptisms, there was little value in you. But as the Lord God has inscribed His Name on you and created the New Person (New Adam) in you that shares His image, you have been made His own. You have been given value by the Lord God and you are subject to Him. As you are subject to the Lord God and are His possession, you can be called back by Him, giving a required rendering through faith.
Jesus says: “[Render] to God the things that are God’s.” This is done through faith, as you live the new life given to you in Holy Baptism. It is the new obedience that is to be seen in you. In a matter of hours after Jesus said to give back to God God’s things, He would illustrate how this can be done. He says there is the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” And He says there is a second commandment like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The fulfillment of these commands is how you “[render] to God the things that are God’s.” They are actions done in faithful worship of the Lord God, what only those who have His “likeness and inscription” on them can do.
Such rendering which was done by the Thessalonian Christians was commended by
What the Thessalonians had received was the “likeness and inscription” of the Lord God on them. As they believed, the righteousness of Christ was given to them, marking them as His own valuable people. And their lives took on that divine character as witnessed in their true belief—“lov[ing] the Lord [their] God with all [their] heart, soul, and mind”—and in their behavior of Christian charity—“lov[ing their] neighbor as [themselves].”
The Thessalonian Christians provide an example of what it means to “[render] to God the things that are God’s.” And what happened among them does not differ in quality from what happens among you. Like them, you have been taught the Gospel, so that you know that your sins and transgressions have been atoned for by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Like them, you have received the Holy Spirit, so that you have been transformed and stamped with the divine seal and inscription. And like them, you have been given a new way of obedient life in which you can both “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and [render] to God the things that are God’s.”
In doing so, you give back to God what is truly His. Obedience to earthly authorities shows recognition that they do have an office of oversight that the Lord God has established and sanctioned. Even that seemingly simple and insignificant act of being a good citizen involves giving back to God as, in faith, you fulfill the Fourth Commandment. Using earthly possessions in their proper role to fulfill the responsibilities of your vocations: that also is a giving back to Caesar and God. It recognizes that your life exists in an earthly sphere in which the Lord God has placed you. But you do not make Mammon your idol, your false God. Rather, you know that there is a greater reality to which you belong, a reason why you use the earthly things in good order, but do not make them the purpose of your life.
By participating in the greater reality, in the spiritual realm, you specifically “[render] to God the things that are God’s.” For there are aspects of the Christian life that are limited only to those who bear the “image and likeness” of God. Only those people, the Lord God’s people like yourselves, can do such things. Turning to God in repentance of your actions and receiving the forgiveness of sins. Receiving His sacraments. Worshiping Him in “spirit and truth.” Making known the salvation which has been given to you by the Lord God’s actions. Calling upon in Him in every trouble and using His name in prayer, especially the Our Father. Building up one another by speaking the wisdom and counsel of God. “Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Giving charitably to impoverished parishes or to support missionaries. Aiding Christ by aiding “the least of [His] brothers.”
The list could go on. But each of these is an action that is truly limited to those who have a baptismal identity, by those who have been given the Lord God’s “image and likeness” and have been incorporated into the
This is your baptismal identity and discipleship calling. This is what you have been made and what you have been given to do. This is your life, as you have been given the Lord God’s “image and likeness.” And it all stems from what Christ rendered to His Father, that is, His atoning sacrifice that purchased salvation for His people, the salvation that is given to you through your birth from above, the washing of rebirth and regeneration. Therefore, you can “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” as you live your earthly lives in new obedience, even fulfilling the Fourth Commandment. But what is unique to you and to all bear God’s holy name, those who have been made Christ’s disciples by baptism and teaching is that you can “[render] to God the things that are God’s.” That is your calling: so may you live it.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.