A New Look At “Rendering To Caesar”December 11, 2007
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).
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?