Shortly after President Trump announced his plan to overturn DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), many Christians voiced their support by saying “Jesus says we have to follow the laws of the land.” They pointed to Jesus’ words, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” It became the trump card in the discussion, if you will.
Unfortunately, they misunderstand the point of the story.
Jesus was not giving a lesson on civic responsibility. He wasn’t saying that his followers owe equal allegiance to Caesar and to God. This verse doesn’t say what some Christians want it to say.
The passage is a setup. Some religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus with a seemingly innocent question about paying taxes to Rome. If he said, “No, don’t pay taxes,” they could charge him with insurrection. If he said, “Yes, pay taxes,” they could label him a supporter of Rome, the foreign government occupying their land. It was a trick question and he knew it.
Instead, he turned the tables on them. He had a coin brought to them, noted it had Caesar’s likeness on it, and said, “So give this to Caesar. It’s his, anyway. Then give to God what is God’s.”
Pay attention: Jesus isn’t saying these two lines, “give to Caesar … give to God,” as if they are of equal import. He’s not saying, “Here are two things you should do.” The first part, “Give to Caesar,” is the setup and the second, “But give to God,” is the trap swinging shut.
He knew they were already giving Caesar his due, but they weren’t giving God his due. They were playing the game by Caesar’s rules, collaborating with Rome to maintain their authority. However, they were neglecting God.
These religious leaders were so intent on partnering with the Roman government that they were neglecting God’s higher law, a law that included things like caring for the poor and the outcast, protecting the alien in their midst, and providing for widows, orphans and the lame. In giving Caesar his due, they were withholding from God their humble servant leadership that lifted the downtrodden and made room for all who came seeking to follow their Lord.
“Give to Caesar” is a rhetorical device that essentially says, “Look, friends, since you’re so concerned about giving to Caesar his due, why don’t you stop this nonsense and start giving God his due?”
When Christians use Jesus’ words to defend unjust laws, they cast themselves in the role of the religious leaders who tried to trap Jesus. When people use “Give to Caesar” as a justification for supporting government at all costs, they fall into the same trap Jesus used to condemn his adversaries. To that end, the story is doing the opposite of what many people think it does: It condemns them, rather than supports their cause.
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