A New Look At “Rendering To Caesar”

December 11, 2007

by BiV

The typical Mormon interpretation of the phrase “Render Unto Caesar” aligns with that of the majority of the Christian world. The scripture is found in Matthew 22:15-22  where the Pharisees attempt to set a trap for Jesus. They ask him whether or not Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. Jesus is wise enough to realize that if his answer is yes, it would go against the Jewish law and destroy his credibility as the Messiah. If he advocates nonpayment, he will be found in opposition to the Roman law and subject to their punishment. Either way, he would find himself in mortal danger. Instead of answering in the negative or affirmative, Jesus asks for a Roman coin, calling attention to the inscription of Caesar. He then directs, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” This has become a catch phrase for the idea that Christians should yield submission to political authority.

The above exegesis fits well with the LDS article of faith that “we believe in being subject to kings, presidents, ruler, and magistrates; in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” But I find that Mormons sometimes fudge this directive when the laws of God are found in opposition to the laws of the State. A discussion on a recent thread brought up the practice of missionary disobedience to immigration policies.  Another example can be seen in the country where I am presently living.  Church meetings here are strictly forbidden. The Church has no official presence in this place, no membership lists in Salt Lake, no payment of tithing, etc. Nevertheless, local Church authorities are surreptitiously called, and meetings are held clandestinely. Members are told that “we have good relations with the government here,” but are strongly counselled against any mention of the Church in conversation, phone calls and messages, emails and communication by computer. They know that subject to the laws of this place, members could be deported or even beaten and jailed for their activities.

So how does this fit with “Render Unto Caesar?”

Unbeknownst to the Mormons, there is an alternate explanation of Matthew 22 which fits better in the cases when we are found to be practicing civil disobedience. This interpretation of scripture can be found in detail in a treatise by Professor Timothy Patton. The professor explains that Jesus was aware of the scriptural directives to place God’s laws above those of man. Jesus didn’t affirm that the penny with Caesar’s image was to be given to the Roman government. Instead, he was saying that the Pharisees should administer to Caesar, a heathen who did not know or obey God’s law, what was due any heathen or Israelite found in opposition to the Law, namely death (Num 15:15-16; Deut 27:26). Since the Pharisees were neglecting their duty of carrying out the sentence of the law, they were under the same condemnation (Deut 17:11-12).
Says Patton:

This is obviously why the Pharisees marveled at Him. They were not about to tell “Caesar” that God’s Law required him to be put to death, because “Caesar” would have then come after the Pharisees. In addition, Jesus had just rebuked both “Caesar” and the Pharisees by stating publicly that both “Caesar” and the Pharisees should be put to death, and the Pharisees who hated Jesus knew it but couldn’t go tell “Caesar” in order to get Jesus in trouble. Also, “Caesar” and his agents didn’t know enough about God’s Law to realize that Jesus said that “Caesar” should be put to death, and “Caesar” thinks to this very day that Jesus was saying to pay tribute. Checkmate.

How do you think the average member of the Church would react to this interpretation of “Render unto Caesar?” Do you think it is a viable addition to LDS thought? Or is our lip service to the twelfth Article of Faith strong enough to support a traditional understanding of this scriptural passage?


  1. I think Patton’s interpretation is a little strained (and somewhat disingenuous because he equivocates the meaning of the word ‘render’) because of the questions that are raised.

    1. Why ask for the penny with Caesar’s inscription on it?

    2. If ‘render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ means ‘kill Caesar’, what does “render unto God the things that are God’s” mean?

    3. Why use the word ‘render’ which means: “To submit or present, as for consideration, approval, or payment”? The root word literally means ‘give back’.

    As far as obeying the law of a given country is concerned, I think that a jurisprudential distinction needs to be made between things that are inherently bad (malum in se) versus things that are only wrong because they are prohibited by government fiat (malum prohibitum). An example of the first would be murder, an example of the second would be driving your car after you license expired because you forgot to renew it. Both are illegal, but I doubt that you could properly classify the second as immoral. If you do the latter are you really failing to be subject to kings, presidents, etc.?

  2. This is actually one of my favorite stories of the Savior and his infinite wisdom. This example shows that even when the pharisees had crafted a marvelous trap for him (which would have sunk most, if not all, of us) he gave them a wonderful response that sprung the trap on the pharisees themelves.
    In regard to your statement by professor Patton, I have a hard time believing that the Savior meant that Caesar should have been put to death. Had he in fact meant that, the pharisees would have loved to turn him in to the Romans for wanting Caesar killed, even if it was intended to support the Jewish law. The pharisees could have explained that it was not their interpretation of the law, but rather one that Jesus offered, and thereby they could have claimed innocence. They wanted any reason to get rid of him, and this would have been an opportunity to do just that.
    But this is just speculation on my part, as is the point made by professor Patton.

  3. I think I may have to agree with Patton. After reading John Dominic Crosson’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography I am much more inclined to believe that Jesus was much more of a revolutionary figure against the Roman rule of Jerusalem than we are usually willing to admit.

  4. On looking into the website further, I question the legitimacy of Professor Timothy Patton and his treatise. The website on which it was posted suggests ways to ‘strategically withdraw’ from American society and stop paying social security and income taxes. I also found it interesting that the Professor is never identified (or his credentials).

    The document is rife with errors. An example would be the first paragraph of his treatise which states:

    “There are several new testament verses that are quoted out of context by alleged government authorities and false churches in order to deceive people into believing that they should support their man-made governments and obey their man-made law. This, however, is not the case, as God has never given His people authority to make their own law or to walk in the statutes of men.”

    I suppose that he is referring to Romans 13:1 and Titus 3:1, which specifically state that one should be subject to the statutes of man.

    Rather than discourse on Patton’s analysis (if it can be called that), which is incoherent and logically flawed, I would chalk it down as a misguided attempt to persuade others that Jesus was against income taxes and secular government.

  5. Narrator, the reason we aren’t as eager to claim Jesus was a revolutionist against Roman rule is because that was not the mission that the Father gave him. In fact, that is one of the biggest reasons that the Jews did not accept him as their savior. He was not the deliverer that they had anticipated. They thought the savior was going to be someone to free them from Roman rule. That was never his mission, if so, he failed miserably at delivering them.
    His mission was to teach them how to return to the Father and to overcome death and sin. He accomplished all of these wonderfully through his example, his teachings, the atonement, the resurrection and the establishment of His Church.
    His second coming is a different story though. That is the time that his mission will include political revolution and rule, and the reason so many Christians look forward with hope to that day.

  6. Two words that will help you come to the correct conclusion on whether or not Jesus was the incendiary revolutionist as some like to infer…Hakim’s razor.

  7. dpc–i’m just kind of idly wondering–what category do you think polygamy falls under, malum in se or malum prohibitum? I don’t really want to debate whether the Church should or should not have followed governmental restrictions on this, I’m just asking for an opinion…

  8. I’m not that impressed by Patton’s arguments, either. My purpose here is to apply this scriptural interpretation to Mormon practice. When the civil law conflicts with the practice of our religion, we tend to quietly disobey. Are our attempts to vote certain political parties out of power, overturn certain amendments, or overthrow certain governments our way of putting Caesar to death?

  9. Santa, the people who aren’t satisfied with the simplest explanation are the ones who change the world!

  10. travis,

    I’m not claiming that Jesus was a violent revolutionary. I think you could read Patton’s interpretation (as I did), not as support for violent revolution, but to show the Pharisees that they did not really support the violent revolution that they secretly sought after. Crosson’s depiction of Jesus is that of a messiah seeking both a political and social revolution through non-violent means. His work on John’s baptisms is a great case of how Jesus was not simply espousing a ‘spiritual’ revolution.

  11. Narrator, I would like to clarify that I never used the word violent to describe the revolution. My point, again, is that his mission was not to overthrow the Roman rule, peaceful or violent. Do you really think that he would have had a mission that he didn’t achieve? The idea that He was sent to begin a political revolution is completely unfounded in the scriptures and is pure speculation. On the other hand, his mission to teach and set an example on how to return to the Father and overcome death and sin, is supported by multiple scriptures and statements from the Savior himself.
    BiV, you ask some dificult questions. I agree that there seems to be a disconnect between the 12th article of faith and current practices of the Church. I know that some mission presidents honor the law by not baptizing illegal immigrants in the USA, but there are some that go ahead anyway.
    The only answer that I can think of is that sometimes these actions are not illegal as much as shunned. Is it really illegal to baptize someone if they aren’t a citizen? As for your country, is it an explicit breach of the law to have members of the church gather? Or is it more of an issue that is strongly frowned upon by the government? I don’t really know the answers to these questions.
    I have seen in the church though that when push comes to shove, they honor the government wishes, so I tend to believe that they follow the 12 article of faith. These are interesting thoughts you bring up.

  12. Biv:

    Whether polygamy is a malum in se or a malum prohibitum is a difficult question because it falls into a gray area. Part of the difficulty is because my own personal feelings towards polygamy combined with a long history of monogamy in the West make me lean towards labeling it a malum in se offense. But in numerous other places in the world, it is not forbidden. And the idea that marriage is a social construct makes a determination even harder.

    I guess that an easier test would be whether a given action causes harm regardless of its legality. If participants in polygamy are harmed, I believe that would make it malum in se.

    Travis said:

    “I know that some mission presidents honor the law by not baptizing illegal immigrants in the USA, but there are some that go ahead anyway.”

    I didn’t know that potential converts had to produce proof of their legal status in the United States to be baptized. How would any missionary know the immigration status of a person they were teaching? As an attorney who has some experience in immigration law, I know that status is a very fluid thing. You can be completely legal one day, illegal the next and legal again several days later. And determining status calls for a legal opinion, which I believe most missionaries (and mission presidents) are not qualified to give.

  13. Thank you dpc for that clarification on immigration status. I always wondered about that and felt more inclined toward your explanation than the hardline answer I was initially given. I couldn’t understand why someone’s citizenship would determine their membership in a church. After reading your comment, I am of the opinion that the “policy” I had been told was not actually policy after all. I will look more into it to see what the official policy is. I won’t turn this thread into an immigration topic, but those are some great points you brought up.

  14. Biv,
    You can tell yourself that to make yourself feel better, but the truth of history tells us that the ones who change the world are the ones who have the motivation and fortitude to work hard at doing it. Those who are the MOST successful at changing the world are the ones that put that effort towards dreams that are not inhibited by convoluted, hoop jumping ideas. Like viruses, the ones that spread the fastest go the farthest!

  15. Do you really think that he would have had a mission that he didn’t achieve?

    I never said it was his mission to achieve or succeed in a total revolution. He was constantly teaching that we should care for the poor. I don’t think he succeeded in ending poverty.

    The idea that He was sent to begin a political revolution is completely unfounded in the scriptures and is pure speculation.

    I strongly disagree. I don’t want to go into a scriptural battle. Read Crosson’s book. He goes much into the scriptural and historical evidence that Jesus was much more than a miracle worker helping others get some post-mortem salvation.

    On the other hand, his mission to teach and set an example on how to return to the Father and overcome death and sin, is supported by multiple scriptures and statements from the Savior himself.

    Again I strongly disagree. The scriptures clearly teach that Jesus was more than just a tool for some eschatological salvation. He was more than trying to get people to return to the Father. He was establishing the kingdom of god.

  16. malum prohibitum — that’s an easy one.

  17. Travis,

    there is an article in today’s SLTribune about a new book by Crosson looking at the nativity narrative. You can read it here.

  18. Does anyone know how to contact Tim Patton

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