WHAT IS CAESAR’S AND WHAT IS GOD’S?
A Sermon by Rev. Eric H. CarswellPreached in Glenview, Illinois November 1, 1992
“Render … to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).
How would you explain these words spoken by the Lord? Was He establishing a separation of church and state or was He speaking of an ideal unity of both? Beyond this philosophic issue a more important question is, How do our minds look at the world of our daily experience? Do we tend to employ one set of criteria and principles in personal spiritual matters and a different one in reference to civil law and in business or the operation of our local, state and national government? For example, in an election what spiritual principles affect your choice of whom to vote for, or is it primarily a matter of natural concern, as it were “one of Caesar’s things”?
In reality the focus of this story is not on a conflict of spiritual life versus civil law. It is on an attempted trap. We may face similar traps in our interactions with others, but whether we do or not in the natural arena of life, we certainly will face them in our own thinking and decision-making. Nothing would delight the forces of destruction in our lives more than to get us stuck between two unworkable alternatives. They would love to get us stuck between being mushily nice and being harshly righteous. They would love to get us stuck between short-term pragmatism and an abstract idealism. No matter which course we take, given these alternatives, our words and deeds will cause harm or at best will do little good. No matter which course we take our internal tormentors will stand in judgment against us.
The Lord spoke these words in response to a plan to discredit Him. Ever more directly He had been pointing out the hypocrisy of the leading religious leaders, the chief priests and the Pharisees. Immediately before the incident spoken of in this story, the gospel of Matthew records two parables that the Lord had spoken directly against these religious leaders. These parables stated in only slightly veiled language that the religious elite had rejected God and would be rejected themselves. Their place would be given to others.
The chief priests and the Pharisees knew that much of what the Lord said was correct. They could not directly challenge Him. Instead they decided to entangle Him in a politically volatile issue, one in which He would be in trouble no matter which of the two obvious answers He gave. The Pharisees sent their followers along with some followers of the Roman ruler Herod to ask the Lord His opinion on the lawfulness of paying taxes. If in His answer the Lord had said, “Yes, it is lawful,” the Pharisees would perhaps have called Him a dupe of the Romans, and would have spread rumors about His supporting the pagan worship through His freely given tax money. If the Lord had said that it was not lawful, perhaps the Herodians would have branded Him a dangerous revolutionary, one likely to bring harm to the Jews. Perhaps they would have sought His arrest for advocating tax evasion.
To their surprise the Lord gave neither of their expected answers. Instead He again publicly branded them as hypocrites and then asked to see the tax money. In response to His next question they answered that the tax money was from the Roman ruler, Caesar. His response: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
What do these words mean? At times deeply committed religious people have felt themselves to be following a dictate higher than civil law, and that this higher dictate allows them to ignore the demands of civil law with impunity. From this perspective only the laws of the country that directly fit with Divine law are to be followed. Is this what the Lord expects us to do?
Consider the famous historical example of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. He was accused and convicted of the highly questionable charge of corrupting the youth with his teaching. The penalty was death by a self-administered drink of hemlock poison. After his conviction his friends arranged the possibility of his escape from Athens and his death sentence. One record of this event has Socrates telling his friends that he could not leave. His perspective was that escape would undermine the health of the city-state of Athens. Its health and consequent ability to care for the whole community of people who lived there was far more important than his own single life. Although he believed he was innocent, he was willing to accept the unjust punishment given him because he saw that the welfare of his country was more important. Isn’t this an expression of love of the neighbor, with the country being a higher or more important neighbor to be served than any individual or immediate community?
To what degree would we support a similar perspective today? How willing are we to vote for a politician whose policies serve the broader welfare of the country but are personally disadvantageous to ourselves? The future of our country is not very bright if everyone hopes to get more than he gives. And rather like a marriage, it probably isn’t very bright if everyone begrudgingly does what he or she perceives to be just their share and no more.
A fundamental question is posed by this story. Do you believe that if a person truly understands what is meant by loving his neighbor, the principles supporting this understanding will apply in all situations? Do you believe that if he truly understands what is going to be useful in the long run for individuals, for his community, for his country, that the principles supporting this understanding will apply in all situations?
In common usage today, if someone is said to be acting politically, many will hear a clear negative connotation. Being political can carry the implication of being willing to do what it takes to accomplish one’s goals even when the course is far from ideal. It carries the implication of being untrustworthy because what a political person says in one situation may not be what he believes in his heart. But consider the example that the Lord has given us. He has been willing to adapt His words to the state of mind of those listening to Him. The Writings carry a clear criticism of those who are not willing to apply or adapt themselves to others and study to bend their minds (see AC 1949:9). Consider this description of the Lord’s work: “It is a heavenly secret that the Lord uses those things that are a person’s own both his illusions of the senses and his natural desires to lead and direct him toward things that are good and true” (AC 24:3).
We are told that the Lord “bends all evil into good” (AC 1079), and that “the principles a person adopts from infancy the Lord never breaks but bends” (AC 1255). “The Lord leads everyone through his affections, and thus bends through a silent Providence” (AC 4364:2). These words mean that some of the directions that the Lord heads us toward are not at all what He hopes we will continue in forever, but rather the change, though still far from ideal, is a step better than where we are now. There are times that the Lord knows we will hear things from Him that aren’t really genuinely true, but He allows and even provides that this happen because it is what we need to hear at the time. He is present with infinite love and wisdom in each moment of our lives, working to adapt His presentation of truth and good to best bend us from where we are to a better state of life. At times, if we become aware of someone acting or speaking in this very way, our perspective sees that person as being two-faced and political. But if we really care about what is most useful in the long run, we also will apply or adapt ourselves to others and study to bend their minds. We might say the acknowledging and adapting ourselves to where someone’s heart and mind is now are the things of Caesar, and the goals we seek are the things of God. If we are going to be useful we must serve both.
Similarly, we must attend to many matters that are here and now, short-term, natural and simultaneously consider the eternal perspective. Life doesn’t work very well if a person ignores the present for an aimless and shapeless eternity, or an idealized spirituality. The Lord is very clear that the true life of charity toward the neighbor is not a life of remote piety, but rather it is to “do what is just and right in every work and in every job” that is our responsibility (HH 360:2). The husband and wife who devote so much of their time to “saving the world” but severely neglect their children are missing what the Lord calls us to. But big issues, the health of the community, can seem so much more important than playing a game of Candyland with a five-year-old. Yet if we forget the things of this world that build the higher goals that we seek, will they truly get built? The here and now, the short-term necessities and needs can be called the things of Caesar, and the big picture or broader goals can be called the things of God. If we are going to be useful we must serve both.
Again, the Lord tells us we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We need to take care of ourselves and our own needs if we are to be useful to others. But we are not to make these more important than the needs of others, so much so that we trample on their rights, opportunities and needs. We have our needs and others have theirs. Our community has its needs and others have theirs. Our country has its needs and others have theirs. Protecting our own interests by trampling on those of others is not what we are called to do. Do we really care about what is useful for all? Can we balance our own needs, the things of Caesar, with the welfare of all, the things of God? If we are going to be useful, we must serve both.
Balancing the difficult issues in our lives of what to say and when, and what to do and when, can sometimes seem like a difficult load. We might wish that the Lord could have given us a simple rule that was easily applied in all situations. Instead He has given us hearts, minds and freedom. He gives us the opportunity to work at a balance that expresses our understanding, our dedication to the goals that we pursue in life. But He reminds us to watch out for the traps that come from going too far to one extreme or another. He calls us to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Amen.
Lessons: Matt. 22:15-22, NJHD 84-86, 91-93
New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine
84. It shall first be shown what the neighbor is, for it is the neighbor who is to be loved, and toward whom charity is to be exercised. For unless it be known who the neighbor is, charity may be exercised in a similar manner, without distinction, toward the evil as well as toward the good, whence charity ceases to be charity: for the evil, from benefactions, do evil to the neighbor, but the good do good.
85. It is a common opinion at this day that every person is equally the neighbor, and that benefits are to be conferred on everyone who needs assistance; but it is in the interest of Christian prudence to examine well the quality of a person’s life, and to exercise charity to him accordingly. The person of the internal church exercises charity with discrimination, consequently with intelligence; but the person of the external church, because he is not able thus to discern things, does it indiscriminately.
86. The distinctions of neighbor, which the person of the church ought altogether to know, are according to the good which is with everyone; and because all good proceeds from the Lord, therefore the Lord is the neighbor in the highest sense and in a supereminent degree, and the origin is from Him. Hence it follows that so far as anyone has the Lord with himself, so far he is the neighbor; and because no one receives the Lord, that is, good from Him, in the same manner as another, therefore no one is the neighbor in the same manner as another. For all who are in the heavens, and all the good who are on the earths, differ in good; no two ever receive a good that is altogether one and the same; it must be various that each may subsist by itself. But all these varieties, thus all the distinctions of the neighbor, which are according to the reception of the Lord, that is, according to the reception of good from Him, can never be known by any person, nor indeed by any angel, except in general, thus their genera and species; neither does the Lord require any more of the man of the church than to live according to what he knows.
91. But the neighbor is not only man singly, but also man collectively, as a less or greater society, our country, the church, the Lord’s kingdom, and, above all, the Lord Himself; these are the neighbor to whom good is to be done from love. These are also the ascending degrees of neighbor, for a society of many is neighbor in a higher degree than a single person is; in a still higher degree is our country; in a still higher degree is the church; and in a still higher degree is the Lord’s kingdom; but in the highest degree is the Lord. These ascending degrees are like the steps of a ladder, at the top of which is the Lord.
92. A society is the neighbor more than a single person because it consists of many. Charity is to be exercised toward it in a like manner as toward a person singly, namely, according to the quality of the good that is with it, thus in a manner totally different toward a society of the upright than toward a society of those not upright. The society is loved when its good is regarded from the love of good.
93. Our country is the neighbor more than a society because it is like a parent; for a person is born therein, and it nourishes and protects him from injuries. Good is to be done to our country from love according to its necessities, which principally regard its sustenance, and the civil and spiritual life of those therein. He who loves his country, and does good to it from good will, in the other life loves the Lord’s kingdom, for there the Lord’s kingdom is his country, and he who loves the Lord’s kingdom loves the Lord, because the Lord is the all in all things of His kingdom.