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At a time when so many different ideas about Jesus are being circulated, what more authentic source for learning about him than the Gospels? And what better way of studying the New Testament than with an expert who has spent his life pondering and teaching it? Scripture scholar Father Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is our guide.

Jesus: A Historical Portrait

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Rendering to Caesar—and to God

by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.

In recent U.S. political campaigns, religion and politics have played a major role. Some candidates have tried to outdo their rivals in professing religious piety, while others have promised to do everything possible to maintain the historic wall of separation between Church and state. Behind these debates we hear the echoes of Jesus’ words of caution about rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and rendering to God what belongs to God (see Mk 12:17).

In Jesus’ time, religion, politics and economics were mixed together, much more so than they are in modern Western democracies. Jesus was a preacher of God’s Kingdom and a teacher of wisdom rather than a political scientist, a politician or an economist. Nevertheless, his teachings had political and economic implications that got him into trouble with the Jewish political and religious leaders as well as the Roman imperial officials. His teachings about the Kingdom of God and justice were surely factors in his arrest, condemnation and execution.

Jewish judges and kings

Throughout Israel’s long history, its people lived under many different political systems. The Hebrew people first took shape as slaves in Egypt under the all-powerful Pharaoh and found freedom under Moses’s leadership by fleeing from Pharaoh’s army. On entering the promised land of Canaan around 1200 B.C., the Israelites developed a loose confederacy. It was bound together by a covenant and dependent upon judges, charismatic leaders who arose in times of crisis and rescued their people.

Recognizing the need for greater unity and stability, Israel, around 1000 B.C., opted for the model of kingship, which was common in surrounding nations. All authority was in the hands of powerful kings like David and Solomon. After a promising start, the monarchy soon divided into a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah). Neither kingdom produced many good leaders. Israel fell to the Assyrians in the late eighth century B.C., and Judah fell to the Babylonians in the early sixth century B.C.


Foreign rule

With the end of the monarchy in 587 B.C., the Judeans (from the southern kingdom) experienced life under various foreign empires: Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman. Some of these, like the Persians, were less intrusive than others and were satisfied as long as the peace was maintained and taxes were paid. Others, like the Seleucid Greeks under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), were eager to fully integrate the Jews into their empire even in matters of religion and culture.

In their efforts to defend themselves against the Seleucids, Jewish leaders known as the Maccabees appealed to the Romans to become their ally and protector in the mid-second century B.C. By the time of Jesus, Judea was under the direct political control of the Roman governor, or prefect, named Pontius Pilate. Galilee in the north was ruled by Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great and a political tool of the Romans.

The Romans were primarily concerned with exploiting the resources of their subject peoples, keeping the peace and collecting taxes from them. Their policy was to react swiftly and brutally to any threat to their power. Most Jews were able and willing to deal with different political systems as long as their rights to worship the God of Israel and observe their ancestral laws were respected. What they could not accept was any attempt to replace their God with another god or with the emperor, or being forced to act against their religious traditions.

Hope in God’s Kingdom

There were varying degrees of dissatisfaction with Roman imperial rule in the Jewish society of Jesus’ day. The hope was strong that God would soon intervene to liberate his people and fulfill his promises to them. In this context, Jesus’ teachings about the coming Kingdom could sound revolutionary and politically dangerous. But there is no firm evidence that he was in sympathy with the violent Jewish revolutionary group known as the Zealots.

Jesus was a popular teacher who drew crowds of Jews, many of whom were looking forward to the coming Kingdom. Even though the thrust of Jesus’ teaching was against violence, his popularity among members of a subject people made him suspect to the Roman officials and to some Jewish leaders who wished to preserve the status quo. To them, the religious movement that centered on Jesus looked like a political—and perhaps even a military—movement. To them, Jesus’ message that God alone is king and that his Kingdom will soon be made manifest sounded like a call for revolution.

‘Render to Caesar’

In the Gospels, the closest Jesus comes to commenting on the Roman Empire is the famous “render to Caesar” passages in Mark 12:13-17, Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26. This text springs from a series of debates or controversies between Jesus and various groups of opponents in Jerusalem. His questioners are identified as Pharisees and Herodians. The Pharisees, a Jewish religious fraternity, had a long history of involvement in Jewish politics, and here their role is most likely to represent religious Jews opposed to the Romans. The Herodians supported the Herod family and were therefore aligned with the Romans.

A taxing trap

The question both groups put to Jesus is: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Mk 12:14). The query was intended to trap Jesus. If he said no, then he was in trouble with the Herodians and the Romans. If he said yes, he would lose the support of the local Jewish population—especially the religiously observant—who wanted the Romans to leave and to have their own people in charge.

Sensing a trap and recognizing its possible consequences, Jesus gives an indirect answer by responding with another question. He asks for a coin and inquires whose image and inscription are on it. (They would have been those of the emperor Tiberius who ruled from 14 to 37 A.D.) The entire story is really an introduction leading to Jesus’ pronouncement: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (12:17).

No objections

Since Jews in Palestine were using the emperor’s coins and participating in his political and economic system, they had already taken upon themselves the duty of paying taxes to the emperor. Thus the Herodians could have no objection to Jesus’ answer. By challenging his questioners to be as diligent in observing their obligations to God as they were to the emperor and his officials, Jesus diffused any complaints the religiously observant Pharisees could have had. All the while, Jesus remained true to his own principles that God is the real king over all creation and deserves more respect and service than any earthly ruler does.

This passage illustrates Jesus’ cautious acceptance of Roman rule. Some early Christians, like Paul (in Romans 13:1-7), were eager to show that they could be good citizens of the Roman Empire at its best. Others, like John (in Revelation), urged nonviolent resistance to local efforts at forcing Christians to worship the emperor and the goddess Roma as the personification of the empire. The crucial issue was always the extent to which the ruler was to be regarded as divine; the risk was that the imperial officials might force Christians to acknowledge him as superior to “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Concern for the poor

As an observant Jew, Jesus stood in the great biblical tradition of social justice and social concern for the poor. He took over and adapted many of the Old Testament teachings on these matters, and in some cases he challenged his followers to go beyond them. While not an economist or a social planner, Jesus offered wise and provocative teachings that had economic and social implications for those who took them seriously.

There are several different attitudes toward poverty and the poor in the Old Testament. On the one hand, God is regarded as the protector of the poor, the poor depended on God, people ought to be kind to the poor, and in the age to come the roles of rich and poor will be reversed. On the other hand, the wealthy oppress the poor and cause poverty, poverty is thought to be the result of foolish decisions that people make, and the presence of the poor is seen as a sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness to its covenant with God. Of course in some circumstances all of these statements are true, and no one of them exhausts the topic.

While the right to possess property is assumed in the Old Testament, it is also assumed that God is the ultimate owner of the land and that the people are hereditary tenants on God’s property. Many elements of the biblical laws were intended to protect poor people: creating provisions for freeing slaves, observing sabbatical and jubilee years when debts were forgiven, leaving crops in the field at harvest time, challenging the rich to share their goods with the poor and criticizing greed and avarice.

Wealth and poverty

There are three major strands in Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty.

1) According to the first strand, poverty can be a positive personal good. This attitude is expressed in the beatitude: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” The “poor” are in a position of unique openness to God because they have correctly recognized that we as humans are totally dependent on God. Those whose life is focused on the service of God without excessive concern for earthly goods will share in the fullness of God’s Kingdom.

2) The second strand appears mainly in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sends them out on their missions: “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic” (Lk 9:3; see also Mt 10:5-15, Mk 6:6-13). Jesus insists on simplicity of lifestyle from his followers—not for its own sake but in the context of their mission of proclaiming God’s Kingdom and bringing healing to those in need.

There is also here a strong conviction that riches and possessions can be obstacles to serving and attaining God’s Kingdom. This attitude is clearly expressed in Jesus’ saying about not trying to serve two masters: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Mt 6:24). Contrary to the assumptions of many of his Jewish contemporaries, including his apostles, Jesus contends that it can be very hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom of heaven. When a man comes to him seeking to know how to inherit eternal life, Jesus advises him to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Then, speaking to his disciples, Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk 10:21, 23).

3) The third strand emphasizes the need for the rich to share their material possessions with the poor in this world. This teaching is most memorably illustrated by Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Lazarus, the poor beggar, lies outside the gate of the rich man’s house, while inside the rich man is splendidly dressed and enjoys the best of food and drink in total ignorance of Lazarus’s existence.

When both men die, their positions are reversed, with the rich man being in Hades (hell) and the poor man in Abraham’s bosom (heaven). Then it is too late for the rich man to share his material possessions and to rest in Abraham’s bosom as a reward for doing so. The point of the parable is that the appropriate time to share one’s goods with the poor and to combat the evils of economic poverty is now—before it is too late.


• How much do your faith and religious convictions enter into your political and economic choices? How much do you think they should?

• What do you believe Jesus’ position would be on some of the controversial political issues facing your government today? Are your judgments based on your values, gospel values or both?

• How do Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty challenge your attitudes about the poor? Your material concerns and choices? Your actions on behalf of the poor? Choose one attitude or behavior that you will work on this week to make it better reflect that of Christ.



Next: The Death of Jesus: Then and Now


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