The example of Christ’s “rendering unto Caesar” is a topic that I have studied but have never written about. As it inevitably comes with any discussion concerning the philosophy of liberty and scripture, I have recently seen the benefit of writing on the subject. Whereas this passage of scripture is typically spoken of in discussions concerning government’s legitimate/illegitimate ability to lay taxes, I believe that there is a more profound and typically ignored message that often answers the taxation argument implicitly. The taxation argument is as old as government itself, and, quite frankly, I am bored with it – so, hopefully I can present a coherent message concerning this scripture without getting bogged down in the never-ending discussion of taxation.
“Choose ye this Day…”
Throughout the scriptures, the Lord has always asked his people – even his children – to choose a side. In all instances, God always allows man’s moral and free agency to choose his own will – whether to captivity and death or to liberty and life (2 Ne 2:27). The Lord always forewarns the natural consequences of choice, “but God will force no man to heaven.” Our Father mourns the loss of his children when they – to the great irony of eternity – use their agency to fight against their agency (3 Ne 10:5), but yet he always allows for that agency.
As it always was, Christ’s response to the trap laid by the Pharisees and Herodians to catch him in his words was more than a political response concerning taxation. Christ echoed the age-old call for his children to serve him, and the Pharisees and Herodians having eyes saw not and having ears heard not (Jeremiah 5:21) – for “they marveled at him” (Mark 12:17).
Sovereignty has, in my view, become a very dirty little word that means everything and nothing. When a word becomes so convoluted as to take on so many meanings, it has become nearly meaningless to really utilize it in any coherent and consistent way. We often hear of individual sovereignty, popular sovereignty, state sovereignty, etc., thrown around loosely in political conversation, as if people really understand why they are using it. That said, however, attempting to tackle the concept of sovereignty is a worthwhile endeavor, especially if we are to understand Caesar’s role in ancient Rome and Christ’s command to render unto Caesar the things that are supposedly his. I will write more on the subject later, but, for this paper, I will touch on this issue lightly.
As an Apostle, Elder Howard W. Hunter once observed in April General Conference, 1968, concerning Christ’s run-in with the Pharisees and Herodians that
His adversaries intended that Jesus would be gored on whichever horn of dilemma he might choose. The interesting thing about his answer is that he did not evade the question, but he answered it clearly and positively without being caught on either horn. He said, “why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought him a penny” (Matt 22:18-19). What is referred to as a penny was no doubt the current Roman denarius with the image of Caesar and the inscription that gave his name and titles. There was a common maxim that the one who causes his image and titles to be stamped on the coin is the owner of the coin and acknowledged as the sovereign. “And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s” (Matt 22:20-21). They had acknowledged that the coin belonged to the Roman Emperor, and it being the current coin for the payment of tax, it showed the country to be under the rule of Rome. “…Then saith he unto them, render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21)… (“We Owe Allegiance to Sovereignty,” Conference Report, April 1968, pp. 63-66; emphasis added).
There are many things to unpack from this short quote from Elder Hunter, but there are two things that are very important to address in advance. First, we must understand the political understanding of who Caesar was – especially after Augustus – not just as a political ruler, but as the political and religious sovereign. Second, we must look at how God has, in other situations, tried to reclaim his people, as His people have sought to identify with an earthly master.
Caesar Augustus: Pontifex Maximus
Starting from roughly the 700’s B.C., a relatively well documented line of religious priests – or Pontifs – existed in Rome. The pontifex maximus was the highest religious position in all of Rome, and was the high priest to the College of Pontiffs – even the bishop to the citizens of the whole Roman Empire.
Until the time of Augustus, the pontifex maximus was held separately from Caesar. Augustus, however, in a move that would not be rivaled until Constantine, in order to form more political unity across an ever reaching and heterogeneous Empire, was the first Caesar to don the title of pontifex maximus. Writes historian Will Durant that
In 12 B.C., Augustus, having waited patiently for the tepid Lepidus to die, succeeded him as pontifex maximus, “such a multitude from all Italy assembled for my election,” the Emperor tells us, “as is never recorded to have been in Rome before.” He both led and followed the revival of religion, hoping that his political and moral reconstruction would win readier acceptance if he could entwine it with the gods. He raised the four priestly colleges to unprecedented dignity and wealth, chose himself to each of them, took upon himself the appointment of new members, attended their meetings faithfully, and took part in their solemn pageantry… He lavished gifts upon the temples and renewed old religious ceremonies, processions, and festivals…
Augustus himself became one of the chief competitors of his gods. His great-uncle had set the example: two years after being murdered, Caesar had been recognized by the Senate as a deity, and his worship spread throughout the Empire. As early as 36 B.C. some Italian cities had given Octavian a place in their pantheon; by 27 B.C. his name was added to those of the gods in official hymns at Rome; his birthday became a holy day as well as a holiday; and after his death the Senate decreed that his genius, or soul, was thereafter to be worshiped as one of the official deities…
When Augustus visited Greek Asia in 21 B.C. he found that his cult had made rapid headway there. Dedications and orations hailed him as “Savior,” “Bringer of Glad Tidings,” “God the Son of God”; some men argued that in him the long-awaited Messiah had come, bringing peace and happiness to mankind. The great provincial councils made his worship the center of their ceremonies; a new priesthood, the Augustales, was appointed by provinces and municipalities for the service of the new divinity (The Story of Civilization III, Caesar and Christ, pp 225-26).
From various records we know that Augustus was never really entirely comfortable with the adulation of divinity placed upon him (or, rather, placed upon himself by himself and his propagators), but he accepted it as a necessary tool for the continued unification of Rome. Whether this is true or not is really beside the point – Augustus was the pontifex maximus, and he had deified Rome’s political head as the divine sovereign of his people.
There are several points in Durant’s post that are important to detail. As Augustus became the pontifex maximus, he (1) sacked the old pontiffs in the College of Pontiffs and installed his own priests, (2) raised the level and importance of the priests to an unprecedented level of wealth and influence never known before, (3) associated and intertwined the duties of the priests and their rites with his own political motives, (4) built and furnished the temples, (5) set himself up as a god among his people and as a righteous ruler to whom his people would look to him for temporal and eternal guidance of moral conduct, and (6) established a cult-like following of the people’s religious leader(s). These few points are very interesting, especially when we find Augustus’ monarchical counterpart in scripture just a century before and half-way around the globe. The Book of Mormon gives us yet another example that can help us understand the power-grab between man and God, as we can more clearly understand what is going on during Christ’s day – in order to help us better understand Christ’s meaning.
King Noah: The Power-Play Between Man and God
The story of King Noah is a message of the ages. Abinadi’s discourse on divine reclamation is one of the most eloquent given in scripture. The comparison between the wicked King Noah and Augustus is uncanny, as both rulers “did cause [their] people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord” (Mosiah 11:2).
Going point-for-point from Durant’s exposition of Augustus’ religio-political transformation into pontifex maximus, we can see how the same political method had already been used by King Noah. Just a few short verses into Mosiah 11 we learn that Noah had “changed the affairs of the kingdom” (Mosiah 11:4) as he put “down all of the priests that had been consecrated by his father, and consecrated new ones in their stead” (Mosiah 11:5). These priests were “supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people” (Mosiah 11:6). The priests were made politically relevant, as Noah had “seats which were set apart for the high priests, which were above all the other seats” and Noah did “ornament [these seats] with pure gold; and he caused the breastwork to be built before them, that they might rest their bodies and their arms upon them while they should speak lying and vain words to his people” (Mosiah 11:11). Concerning temple building, “Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings… And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the temple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass” (Mosiah 11:8,10). Noah and his Priests were viewed as righteous by the people, as they would flatter the people and set themselves up as a light (Mosiah 11:11; 12:12-14).
It is under these conditions that Abinadi, like Christ to the Jews, comes into the scene. While volumes can be written on the topic of Noah and Abinadi, suffice it to say that Abinadi’s message is concerning the reclamation of God’s people. For Abinadi’s message, as perfectly similar to Christ’s, is clear.
And it came to pass that there was a man among them whose name was Abinadi; and he went forth among them and began to prophesy saying: Behold, thus saith the Lord, and thus hath he commanded me, saying, Go forth, and say unto this people, thus saith the Lord – Wo be unto this people, for I have seen their abominations, and their wickedness, and their whoredoms; and except they repent I will visit them in mine anger.
And except they repent and turn to the Lord their God, behold, I will deliver them into the hands of their enemies; yea, and they shall be brought into bondage; and they shall be afflicted by the hand of their enemies.
And it shall come to pass that they shall know that I am the Lord their God, and am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of my people (Mosiah 11:20-22).
Here we see the reclamation of God’s children – the same call of God to “choose ye this day.” God is calling upon his people. Here we see, as Alma the younger declared in mentioning Abinadi, the timeless question “can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenance?” (Alma 5:19). God will always seek to reclaim his people, for they must have His image engraven upon their countenance. Yet the natural man fights back, as Noah will not concede his de facto control over the people, for he responds,
Who is Abinadi, that I and my people should be judged of him, or who is the Lord, that shall bring upon my people such great affliction?
I command you to bring Abinadi hither, that I may slay him, for he has said these things that he might stir up my people to anger one with another, and to raise contentions among my people; therefore I will slay him (Mosiah 11:27-28; emphasis added).
The time of truth thus arises for the people under Noah’s control. Who do they identify with? Will they turn to their God? Will they be reclaimed? Will they be gathered? Whose image will they yoke themselves under? These people are at liberty and have their agency to choose – who will they run to for their support, their sustenance, and their guidance?
Now the eyes of the people were blinded; therefore they hardened their hearts against the words Abinadi, and they sought from that time forward to take him… (Mosiah 11:29)
And it came to pass that [the people] were angry with [Abinadi]; and they took him and carried him bound before the king, and said unto the king: Behold, we have brought a man before thee who has prophesied evil concerning thy people, and saith that God will destroy them…
And now, O king, what great evil hast thou done, or what great sins have thy people committed, that we should be condemned of God or judged of this man?
And now, O king, behold we are guiltless, and thou, O king, hast not sinned; therefore, this man has lied concerning you and he has prophesied in vain (Mosiah 12:9,13-14; emphasis added).
In such a moment as this, I cannot help but feel Abinadi’s eternal sorrow – not for himself, but for God’s people. It is speculation, but perhaps Abinadi knew of the prophet Samuel, in the Old Testament, who was also seemingly rejected by the people as the Children of Israel wanted and identified more with a king than with their God. In such a moment, I like to think that Abinadi would repeat to himself the scripture found in 1 Samuel 8:7-9.
And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee; for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them out up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
Now therefore hearken unto their voice…
It was the voice of the people that rejected Samuel, burned Abinadi, and ultimately sacrificed the Savior and Creator of this world. It is the voice of God that allows man his agency to act in liberty or captivity – for He allows his children their desires, whatever they may be. Yet He continues to call them and plead with them to have His image engraven upon their countenance.
The people under Noah, like the Jews of Christ’s time, labored under similar political heads – small men who claimed to be more than they could be, yet enforced their delirium with the sword. In both instances, the merciful hand of the Lord as He allows His children their agency to act as they will.
“Whose is this Image?”
Christ’s question to the image of the “penny” (most likely the Roman denarius) is far more reaching than a seemingly ignorant quandary. Christ’s mission was to reclaim His people – even and especially His own oppressors. I believe Christ would have agreed with Goethe when he stated in various ways “No one is more of a slave than he who thinks himself free without being so” – and this applies quite appropriately to the Pharisees and Herodians.
Brilliantly [Christ] had destroyed the ploy of his oppressors, but that was never his true mission or desire. These, too, were sons of God. These, too, were among those he came to save. He feared for them and loved them even in their malice. As they turned away he added a plea: “..and [render] unto God the things that are God’s.” As the coin bore the image of Caesar, so these and all men bore the image of God, their Heavenly Father. They had been created by him in the likeness of his image, and Jesus was to provide a way for them to return to him. Yet, “when they heard these words, they marveled, and left him, and went their way” (Matt 22:21-22) (Howard, W. Hunter, “His Final Hours,” April General Conference, 1974).
Whose image is upon our countenances? Who do we look to for our daily bread, our protection, our security, and our support? Will we be yoked by Christ, or by Caesar? Who do we give our alms? Truly, “for where our treasure is, there will our heart be also” (Matt 6:21).
“Render unto Caesar…”
More than a matter of mere taxation, Christ is asking His people to choose whom they will have for their king. While Joshua was resolute in serving the Lord (Joshua 24:15), the people of Samuel’s day rejected their God in the desire to have an earthly king “to judge [them] like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5).
The Pharisees and Herodians presented Christ with a token of mammon and asked Christ who it belonged to, yet Christ’s response was to ask them who their hearts belonged to. “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve…” (Joshua 24:15), but “ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24).
Who is Caesar? Caesar of Christ’s day, not just of Augustus who died in 14 A.D. but every succeeding emperor, was the people’s god. While Augustus had given the Jews great religious autonomy, the Jews were not above looking to Rome for their protection, support, and guidance. As Durant noted, Augustus (and succeeding emperors) established themselves as a “Savior,” “Bringer of Glad Tidings,” “God the Son of God,” and even, to many, the “Messiah.” Who was like unto Caesar, the religious and political sovereign – even the pontifex maximus?
“We have no king but Caesar…”
Under this discussion of Caesar, perhaps no more chilling and heartbreaking words were ever spoken in the Christ’s presence than those of His own people sentencing Him to death. Christ had asked them to choose: give homage to an earthly messiah, or render your heart unto God.
… And [Pilate] saith unto the Jews, Behold your King.
But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, cruficy him. Pilate saith unto them, shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar (John 19:14-15; emphasis added).
In a passage of scripture that hearkens back to the death of Abinadi, Christ too was sacrificed by the voice of the people, and by those “priests” who falsely claimed to officiate in his name. In all three cases of Samuel, Abinadi, and Christ – the people did choose… They had no king but Caesar.
Christ’s statement to “render unto Caesar” that which is Caesar’s is more a call to “choose ye this day whom ye will serve” than it ever was a statement on positive financial obedience to political systems.
It was commonly known in Christ’s day of the popular deification of Augustus and succeeding emperors. Caesar was more than the political sovereign – he was also the religious and divine sovereign, even the pontifex maximus. Augustus was the earthly king – having unknowingly copied the wicked designs of King Noah and his court of priests. In each kingdom, a prophet came seeking to reclaim God’s people – imploring them to choose. Christ came to free the captive, but the captive who falsely believes he is free is the greatest slave of all.
Whose image is in our countenance – Christ’s or Caesar’s? Who do we, as Children of God, identify with – who is our Caesar? As Elder Christofferson recently explained concerning an immoral people incapable of self-government, “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.” It might do us all well to check ourselves and question who we really look to for our maintenance, safety, guidance, and protection – God or Caesar?